[Editor's note: This launch of the website this review was supposed to run on has been delayed, so they have graciously allowed me to run the piece. The Chris Marker show closes at Peter Blum tomorrow, though I don't recommend going out of your way to see it.]
A few days ago I decided I'd get caught up on a couple Chris Marker films. Everyone has canonical culture they haven't seen or experienced, but I was embarrassed Marker was still on that list. More importantly, I'd just seen some two hundred snapshots of his at Peter Blum's Chelsea and Soho locations (open through June 4th), and was the definition of unimpressed. I figured the films might give me some additional insight into the work.
The movie proved enlightening, but before I get to that, a little about the show and why I didn't like it. Interchangeable work plagues this exhibition. Two stacked rows of photographs line three galleries in the Chelsea space, precisely reproducing the experience of regular commuting. Everyone looks the same, and when they don't you don't care. According to the press release some of his works were digitally altered (read: over-filtered) so as to appear more “eerie”, a gratuitous gesture if ever there was one. Photoshop isn't needed to make people on trains look more miserable than they already are.
A number of shots of women traveling alone and staring into space hang on one wall in the upstairs gallery. On another wall, groups of passengers on platforms await trains. Many of the shots have an ugly green hue, a color exaggerated by the stark white walls in the gallery. I felt as though I was inside a public servant's office.
In one picture, the vacant look of a pretty young woman with straight hair makes her appear deep in thought. If you've seen the 1983 Marker film Sans Soleil, a feature length montage about the inability to recall context, pictures such as this one will evoke the work. “He liked the fragility of those moments suspended in time” rang a smooth female voice in an early scene in the film. She spoke over shots of Japanese workers commuting by train and ferry. “Those memories whose only function had been to leave behind memories.”
As I heard these words I wondered if having seen the film in advance of the show would have made me more charitable towards the work. Does the show look like a bunch of Facebook snapshots because Marker wants to make us more aware of memories without a purpose? Of course, nowhere does Marker mention the movie, but essayist John Fitzgerald brings it up in accompanying essay, and given the subject matter it seems unlikely not to be related.
The traveler in Sans Soleil claims that as a result of his trips, banality was all that still interested him. Unspoken is the suggestion that there is something more honest about materials without personal attachment. Apply this to Marker's current exhibition, though, and the idea rings empty. Banality, it turns out, isn't intrinsically interesting. People's desires, frustrations, and experiences matter. The editing process that makes these feelings visible is important.
Marker's concepts reach a low point at the Soho location, where a series of photographs pair the expressions of female passengers with those of classical paintings such as DaVinci's Mona Lisa and Delacroix's Girl Seated in a Cemetery. I'd like to think that this has more to do with memory than the tired topic of finding art in the everyday but if it does, I can't figure out the connection.
These problems aren't going to be fixed, as mere existence of Passengers goes further than it should to underscore some of the bleaker themes of Sans Soliel. After all, if there were a physical equivalent to “memories whose only function is to leave behind other memories” this would be it. Marker's exhibition is merely an opportunity for collectors to purchase a physical object that represents the filmmaker's ideas in a work made more than 20 years ago.