The images returned by the video camera recording six long minutes of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 welcome visitors to the retrospective dedicated to Jonas Mekas, pioneer of experimental cinema, visionary artist and author of the Manifesto of the New American Cinema.
The exhibition is conceived as a Dantean journey. Hell is at the front door, the horror of the images of the Towers slowly imploding into themselves are accompanied by the cries of a woman who leaves no room for attempts at sublimation. Opening and closing (in the circle of the loop) is the photographic portrait of the little Alice Liddell absorbed in listening that inspired Lewis Carroll for his Alice in Wonderland; the absurd is exorcised, projected in the image of a tale from a distant past.
The retrospective, curated by the Francesco Urbano Ragazzi duo who have worked alongside Mekas since 2015, reconstructs Mekas’ work from the 1950s to the 1910s, and is part of a series of events celebrating 100 years since his birth.
“Founding the idea of an experimental cinema with life can only be returned with life’s milestones”, this was the basic idea that guided the difficult task of establishing the pivotal points of the retrospective and thus of his biography, rich in events and encounters with personalities such as, Fellini, Andy Warhol, Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, but also Central Park and its flowers, such as the drawn ones that punctuate each page of his most recent video diary-blog.
For Mekas, the camera is diary, companion, confessor and therapist of a very hard life that has tested Mekas with the experience of the triple occupation of his home country in Lithuania, that of the escape and the stay in two refugee camps (Wiesbaden and then Kassel) and that of exile in New York. It was here that, upon his arrival in 1949, he purchased a portable Bolex video camera, a travelling companion and a detached eye that religiously recorded every step of his life, a video diary conceived as a life exercise aimed at capturing the most significant moments, collectively rendered as a true ‘hymn to life’.
We cross Purgatory with video diary montages from the 1950s-60s, the antechamber to his new life in film baptised with his first film video diary Walden. Based on the title of Herry David Thoreau’s novel Walden, Life in the Woods, which recounts two years of his life in the wilderness of Massachusetts, the two-channel (16mm) video installation collects, in sequence, diaries from 1964 to 1968.
Reality and fiction often mingle in a mutual contamination as in The Brig (1964) the title of a play by Kenneth Brown staged by Judith Malina’s company The Living Theatre in 1963 to describe a typical day in a military prison. Mekas films the play like a reporter. His footage and everything Mekas emotionally transposes from his past experience in a Japanese prison camp during the Korean War, hijacking the play’s vision into a slice of real life. The film is a success and received the Grand Prix Leone San Marco at the Venice Film Festival in the ‘documentary’ section.
Even the images that live off-screen are sequences extrapolated from videos, such as those from Birth of a Nation (1997), a film that recounts the birth of independent cinema through one hundred and sixty portraits of directors, performers, critics and activists. The sequence of images, extrapolated from film, fills two entire walls facing each other in the central area of the exhibition. One hundred and sixty frames of the same number of significant figures from Mekas’ life: 40 were selected by the artist as the most significant figures of independent cinema as well as of his career and are distinguished from the others by the frames that, in the overall effect, create the illusion of a zoom-in effect. The remaining 120 portraits were identified and extrapolated from the film by the two curators with meticulous archive work initiated with the artist and concluded on the occasion of the exhibition. The people portrayed are here shot in natural poses and at moments in their lives other than those that immortalised them into timeless ‘icons’. Needless to say, the only one who is recognisable and the same is Andy Warhol.
The portraits on the two walls frame a showcase, positioned in the centre of the room, which contains documents of an equally important cross-section of the activities of the critic and curator Mekas, founder, together with his brother Adolfas Mekas, of Film Archive magazine and co-founder of the Anthology Film Archive, an international centre based in New York for the preservation, study and exhibition of films and videos, with a particular focus on independent, experimental and avant-garde cinema.
I ritratti delle due pareti fanno da cornice ad una bacheca posizionata al centro della sala che contiene documenti di un altrettanto importante spaccato di attività del Mekas critico e curatore, fondatore, assieme al fratello Adolfas Mekas, della rivista Film Archive e co-fondatore dell’Anthology Film Archive, centro internazionale con sede a New York per la conservazione, lo studio e l’esposizione di film e video, con una attenzione particolare per il cinema indipendente, sperimentale e d’avanguardia.
We continue on Dante’s journey. Paradise is made of memories, archive work, reconstructions. 365 Day Project, a one year diary project he decided to publish on the site from 2006, the year of his 85th birthday, a few months after the launch of Youtube, is extrapolated from the internet and presented in the form of a video installation on twelve channels. Settle into your chairs, put on your headphones and you may find yourself vis-à-vis Mekas talking about his life and his approach to cinema, or watching experimental shows or performances through the artist’s eyes.
Everything is “reborn to the rhythm of cinema”, even the images of In an Instant it all Came Back to Me (2015), a monumental work composed of 766 stills taken from the archive, crowning a phase dictated by memories that passes through WTC Haikus, a 14′ single-channel video that draws from the archive all the moments that the twin towers entered the frame of his diaries in a poetic transposition close to Haiku. “Memories of the past become present again through cinema, which becomes an instrument of personal resistance to the traumas of human history”. Thus, the infernal images of the Twin Towers that accompany us as we leave the exhibition find an attempt at detachment in poetry, in this case that of the Tale of Other Times by the German poet Heinrich Heine that the title recalls.
Jonas Mekas. Images are Real, curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, Mattatoio, Palaexpo, Rome, until 26.02.2023
Jonas Mekas. Under the Shadow of the Tree, curated by Francesco Urbano RagazziPadiglione de l’Esprit Nouveau | Piazza della Costituzione 11, Bologna, 02.02 – 26.03.2023 (Promoted by MAMbo – Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna, Istituto di Cultura Lituano, Embassy of Lithuania in Italy In collaboration with Home Movies – National Archive of Family Film. As part of the Jonas Mekas 100!
images (all): Jonas Mekas. Images are Real, Mattatoio, Rome, installation view, ph. Monkeys Video Lab