Chris Marker and the path less travelled

Few details are known about the life of Chris Marker, a notorious recluse who rarely gives interviews. Yet he has emerged as an enormously influential figure for Middle Eastern artists.

The current exhibition of Chris Marker’s work at the Beirut Art Center includes more than 200 photographs from his 2007 Staring Back series.
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For the first time in its brief existence, the Beirut Art Centrer has organised a solo exhibition for an artist who failed to show up for the opening.

In a long hallway cutting through the centre of the space, more than 200 black-and-white photographs are painstakingly arranged to the artist's specifications. To the left, an armchair is placed before a screen displaying an interactive CD-Rom filled with layers of texts, images, sounds and film fragments, a delicate digital archive of six decades in the artist's life and work. Behind that is a six-screen installation for which lines from a poem by TS Eliot are interspersed with grainy images from the First World War. To the right of this, an arrangement of 13 television monitors and 13 chairs curls around a room adorned with quotations from poets, philosophers, and the artist himself, whose contribution reads: "Gods and heroes will seek asylum in art collections like political refugees in foreign embassies."

The public turned out in droves for the opening. The artist was nowhere to be seen. Not that anyone was surprised - Chris Marker is a known recluse.

For a generation of artists, writers, filmmakers and photographers, Marker is hugely influential, but he is known almost exclusively through his work. He has collaborated with everyone from the veteran filmmakers Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Costa Gavras and Jean-Luc Godard to the young collectives M Chat and the Otolith Group. He is the subject of several shelves' worth of books, magazines and journals. He is an enthusiastic inhabitant of Second Life, with an avatar, a museum and a graphic representation of his beloved cat and occasional alter ego Guillaume-en-Egypt. But in terms of hard biographical facts, Marker remains virtually unknown.

Even the name is an alias, one of many tied to his work. Scholars generally agree that he was born Christian-François Bouche-Villeneuve in the summer of 1921 and raised in a Parisian suburb. But Marker has never corroborated the details, and everything else about his early life - that he studied at the Sorbonne, that he was active in the French Resistance, that he parachuted from US planes in the Second World War - remains a matter of rumour.

For all the mystery, Marker has emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary artistic and political thought. He has composed a consistent body of work across a range of media, with characteristic attributes concerning the rigours of language, the patience of argument and the complex interactions of text and image, narration and montage, testimony and commentary amid the machinations of memory, history, life, death and time.

Given the erudite tone of the voiceovers that run through his two most renowned films - the science fiction short La Jetée, about a man seized by an image from the past in the aftermath of a worldwide disaster, and the epistolary travelogue Sans Soleil, in which a woman's voice reads the letters of a freelance cameraman composing poetic visual despatches from the far corners of the globe - it should be no surprise that Marker's first creative endeavour was a novel, 1949's La Coeur Net.

Everything he has done since - the films and videos, documentaries and travelogues, installations and new media experiments - maintains a core commitment to the critical and imaginative capacities of literature. Whatever the substance of the piece, Marker's works can be read and unravelled like texts.

But the quality of Marker's work which accounts for his influence among artists in the Middle East is its penetrating approach to the documentary form. Sure, the passages from his books and films on Siberia, women in North Korea, trade unionists in France, revolutionaries in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, anti-Vietnam War protesters in the United States or time-travellers in post-apocalyptic Paris may seem far removed from the day-to-day realities of the Arab street. Moreover, while Marker is considered of equal importance to Godard, his only involvement in the region (aside from the thorny relationship between Algeria and France) is a film he made about Israel in 1960, whereas Godard is close to the idea of Palestine and produced a masterful critique of the resistance movement in Ici et Ailleurs.

But Marker's critical embrace of the left (its rise and fall as both a grass-roots and global movement for social justice), the weight he attaches to the power of images and the balance he strikes between intimate experience and distanced observation, have together made him a touchstone for artists across the region. His documentary style is personal, leavened with scepticism and humour. He is also rare in that he takes an optimistic view of the world. Wrecked as it may be, he still deems it possible to improve.

"When we first started developing our programme, the name that kept coming up was Chris Marker," says Sandra Dagher, who directs the Beirut Art Center with the artist Lamia Joreige. "His influence is both international and very local. We felt that this relationship he has between contemporary art and cinema, and all of his work on the image, was important to show in Beirut."

"He's engaged in finding new forms, creatively and artistically. He's experimenting with technology. He's someone who is always trying to renew himself," adds Joreige. "His vision of the world has a deep humanity. Marker's work remains complex and multilayered, but it's also quite accessible. It speaks of themes that are universal."

Those observations echo elsewhere in the region. Earlier this month the artist Oraib Toukan organised a film programme at Makan, an independent art space in Amman. It featured La Jetée in the context of exploring the relationship between photography and film. Last spring the curators November Paynter and Mari Spirito took over an empty Istanbul gallery to mount the exhibition Never Neutral, which presented works challenging the conventions of documentary. It included a wall-sized projection of Sans Soleil.

"I first saw La Jetée in art school and was completely overwhelmed," says Spirito. "Watching it made me dizzy and ill." Later, she noticed that the more interesting artists she met for studio visits cited Marker as a major influence. As she was preparing Never Neutral, she recalls, "I found that many artists were using documentary styles to get across the complex ideas of what is going on in their lives, politically, culturally and socially. At the time I was interested in exhibiting work that utilised this documentary style while also inserting a very personal perspective."

Among the artists she met in Istanbul, Marker's name came up often in conversation. "They know his work well," Spirito says. "Cultural displacement is something that everyone understands."

According to Paynter, it was also important to show an artist of Marker's stature. "We definitely wanted to present artists who have international reputations," she says. "This was in response to the fact that few institutions here showcase acclaimed artists and challenging works." And while there are many artists working with documentary practices in Istanbul, she explains, it isn't so common to find artists as willing as Marker to shoot footage and gather images that are then questioned and probed within the work itself.

The current exhibition at the Beirut Art Center, Par Quatre Chemins (meaning "by four paths" in French), includes more than 200 photographs from the series Staring Back (2007), alongside the installation Owls at Noon Prelude: The Hollow Men (2005), the CD-Rom Immemory (1997) and the Otolith Group's dazzling installation Inner Time of Television (2010), which reconfigures a rarely seen television series that Marker made in 1989, called L'Heritage de la Chouette (The Owl's Legacy). The latter explores the ways that ideas from ancient Greece are expressed in modern times (among its more trenchant observations is the remark from the political theorist Cornelius Castoriadis that contemporary democracy has nothing to do with ancient Greek democracy because the former is representative while the latter was direct and participatory).

In addition to the show, the Beirut Art Center organised a screening programme featuring such landmark films as La Jetée, Sans Soleil, Loin du Vietnam, Le Fond de l'Air est Rouge, Level 5, L'Ambassade and Les Statues Meurent Aussi. This last was a film that Marker made in 1953 in collaboration with Alain Resnais on the arrogance of French colonialism and its devastating effect on African culture.

To grasp the full depth and breadth of the show demands multiple visits and a major time commitment (more than sixteen hours of screen time). But the works reward the effort, as all of the films lead viewers back to the photographs for another look, like time suspended or memory at work.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports for The National from Beirut.