Chris Marker: A Grin without a Cat

By Perry, Colin | Art Monthly, June 2014 | Go to article overview

Chris Marker: A Grin without a Cat


Perry, Colin, Art Monthly


Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat

Whitechapel Gallery London 16 April to 22 June

Solo shows are almost inherently canonical: they make momentary saints of ordinary mortals. Filmmaker and artist Chris Marker (19212012), who had posthumous shows at the Pompidou in Paris and the Carpenter Center at Harvard University in 2013, seems destined for such a fate. As his legacy becomes established within the art world, and as artists and filmmakers continue to borrow his style and themes, it is important to try to locate his obscure magnetism and see what lies beneath. At the root of this is a seeming paradox: Marker is famous for shying away from self-publicity and refracting his own subjectivity through numerous interlocutors and avatars. At the Whitechapel, for example, we are invited into the exhibition by a large, friendly, animated cat called Guillaume-en-Egypte that Marker had created as an avatar for the virtual world Second Life and that appears in the video Ouvroir. The Movie, 2010. It all seems innocuous enough--but is it?

Marker's oscillation between authorial presence and absence has proved almost irresistible to cineastes, academics and curators. One of the few to demur is the academic Catherine Russell, who has pointed out that Marker's work often presents an unreconstituted ethnographic look at 'the other'. Marker is famed for capturing images of passers-by looking back at the camera, supposedly challenging its gaze; but for Russell, this returned glance gives no agency to the subject, who is almost always female. The walls of the Whitechapel are dotted with images of women--plus a few men and more cats--from the 'Staring Back Series', 1952-2006. They appear like little icons carved from a mindset both romantic and implicitly sexist. This aspect of Marker is maddening, not least because his work is in many other respects inventive, politically intelligent and stirring.

The curators of 'A Grin Without a Cat' appear to have done their best to sidestep the hagiographic drive of solo exhibitions, but they can do little to escape the logic of Marker's work. This is a bricolage-like show orchestrated into sections that map out trajectories of concern in Marker's oeuvre, including ideas about museums, travel, memory, war and revolution, and explorations of diverse media, from 16mm film in the 1950s to interventions in cyberspace in the 2010s. It is especially good to encounter works designed for gallery exhibition that are rarely shown --for example, Silent Movie, 1999, a 5-channel video that evokes the spirit of early cinema. His more famous films are mostly available on DVD, or online via YouTube or torrents; other more obscure ones are also showing in an excellent package of screenings during this exhibition in the Whitechapel's auditorium.

Entering the first ground-floor gallery, the effect is redolent of stepping back in time to a presentation of media art in the early 1990s. Videos are projected onto translucent projection screens so they become muddy and hard to see, and sound is often inaudible or bleeds across from neighbouring works. Although this can feel irritating if you actually want to watch a work for any length of time, it has some charm and mostly feels in keeping with Marker's own ethos of remixing and recontextualising earlier works in digital form. …

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