“These images are not the substitute for my memory,” Alexandra Stewart narrates in Chris Marker’s 1983 documentary Sans Soleil. “They are my memory.” July 29, 2021 marked what would have been the 100th birthday of the late French filmmaker, Chris Marker. Here in New York, the centenary passed with little recognition, with the exception of a brief film series at Metrograph on his birthday—the same day of his death in 2012. Thankfully, an expansive solo exhibition of his work, “Chris Marker: 100,” recently opened at Peter Blum Gallery. Comprising nearly 250 photographs, prints and film stills across seven decades of making, this survey commemorates the artist through that most Markerian of mnemonic tools: the image.
Peter Blum Gallery has been integral to the preservation and dissemination of Marker’s importance not only as a post-war filmmaker, but also as a photographer—a detail critical to an auteur made most famous by a film composed wholly of still images, La Jetée (1962). Blum was the first gallery to organize exhibitions of Marker’s photographs with “Staring Back” (2007) and “Coréennes” (2014), as well as released his final book of photography—and his first in color—Passengers (2011). “Chris Marker: 100” is largely drawn from these collections, in addition to film stills from more recent projects like “The Hollow Men,” “Silent Movie,” “Crush Art” and a series of chilling photogravures, “After Dürer.”
Mounted on aluminum or Sintra, precisely placed and sometimes framed, the arrangement of these mostly black-and-white images invites visitors to world travel, and time travel, unhindered. Walking around the gallery feels like flipping through a television—“zapping,” Marker would say—between place and time. We encounter director Andrei Tarkovsky, a Cuban escort girl, a mother in postwar North Korea, French actress Simone Signoret, participants in the French protest of May ’68, stray cats and caged lions, horsemen of the Apocalypse, Catherine Belkhodja’s lips. Everywhere the room is full of eyes glancing or staring, pensive or challenging. Marker—who never tolerated being photographed, preferring to interact with the public through his alter-ego Guillaume-en-Égypte, an orange cartoon cat—is tangentially reflected through such exchanges. More than one measured look leveled into his camera speaks volumes to the artist. “The stolen moment of a woman’s face tells something about Time,” he once wrote in the exhibition catalog for “Quelle heure est-elle?” (2009), also at Peter Blum, and these women often stare. Time is not fleeting or passing or lost in their gaze, but concentrated, collapsing tenses under the present, under a kinetic look: his, theirs, ours.
Diverse though they are, these images often share a digital filter, a Richter-esque gauze that blurs or smears the subject. This veneer recalls Marker’s “Zone,” a synthesizing technology he created to remove the temporality, identity or geography from an image. Marker was forever after some timeless utopia, that, as he scripted in the film Si j’avais quatre dromadaires (1966), “feeling of bringing the world together, of reconciling it, of making all the time zones the same … it must be part of the nostalgia for Eden.”
Such an Eden felt increasingly accessible to Marker as the digital era dawned. From the mid 1980s, he began to turn towards video and computer code—media that could more intimately approximate the experience of time and memory. He uploaded his memories and life’s work to CDs (Immemory, 2017) and his personality to avatars (Dialector, 1985–8); in the virtual world of Second Life, he created an entire Markerian world (L’Ouvroir, 2010) replete with film screenings, photo exhibitions, Lenin’s tomb, even a striking recreation of a favorite Tokyo bar named after his own film, La Jetée. In a rare interview held within Ouvroir, Marker mentions The Invention of Morel (1940), Adolfo Bioy Casares’s story of a man’s dying wish to use a machine to merge his soul with his image.
The most recent of Marker’s works on exhibition, Passengers (2009–11), is a series of color portraits Marker clandestinely shot while riding the Paris metro. It recalls the opening of Sans Soleil, the group of sleepy travelers riding a ferry from Hokkaido: “waiting, immobility, snatches of sleep … only banality still interests me,” the narrator declares. Released just a year before his death, Passengers finds Marker older, traveling less – though still moving, still chasing the moving image. Rummaging through the glances and empty stares common to urban life, he captures the hands of the Mona Lisa on a sleeping woman, the anguish of Delacroix’s Orphan Girl at the Cemetery (c. 1823) in a mother, pasting the references over each portrait. Among the images is a woman gazing listlessly at the floor, mouth agape in a half yawn; behind her, Marker’s reflection is just visible in the window, partly obscured by a passing train. It’s a rare self-portrait—indeed, I had to double check that it was in fact him—and startling to see. After seven decades of capturing other faces, working in the boundless media of time, geography and memory, why was he suddenly allowing a curiosity for his own visage?
It reminded me of holding a cat up to the mirror, their eyes landing everywhere but on themselves. In the end, something must have caught his eye. —Sadie Rebecca Starnes
Chris Marker, CRUSH-ART, Untitled #3, 2003–2008. Black and white photograph mounted on black Sintra, 15 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches.