Walking over to Peter Blum Gallery in Chelsea to see the new Chris Marker exhibition, I happened to pass by a section of the newly completed High Line, a pedestrian greenspace retrofitted onto an old elevated train track on the West Side. I stopped to look at a curious feature of the renovation: a glass panel cut into the side of the wall overlooking Tenth Avenue. Behind the glass was tiered seating where people sat and watched the traffic beneath them and the pedestrians walking by. The whole image reminded me of a movie theater—tiered seating all facing a rectangular screen—except instead of a screen, there was glass, and instead of a film, there was The Street. Turning onto 29th Street to go to the gallery, I couldn’t think of a better prelude to Marker’s exhibition about watching people on the trains in Paris.
“Chris Marker: ‘Quelle heure est-elle?’” is a meditation on spectacle. Comprised of pieces selected from the early and latter periods of his career as an artist, filmmaker, and photographer, all are united by Marker’s fierce attention to the world around him, be they images of war or faces in the Métro, pictures in magazines or movie posters of imaginary films. The images that make up the exhibition’s title consist of a series of thirty-six black and white photographs of people riding the Métro in Paris between 2004 – 2008. In order to capture his subjects “truer to their inner selves,” he explains, he used a digital wristwatch camera—thereby coming a long way from the 16mm silent film camera that he boldly employed in the crowded trains of Tokyo for Sans Soleil in 1983. “Here I caught them innocent like animals, in the beauty of the jungle,” he notes.1 And while the people he captures—predominantly women—are certainly less aware of his gaze than in much of his previous work, some of the images, while very beautiful, still seem to fall short of being entirely natural. Perhaps the innocence that Marker has sought in images throughout his career is not necessarily more attainable merely with a new technology. As he acknowledges, in this age of the cellphone camera, we are more cognizant of being watched than ever before, and the subway, with its absence of anything interesting in the windows except mirror-like reflections, only heightens this sense. But Marker, for me, is a writer more than he is anything else, and while these photographs are ponderous to look at, I miss the breathless, evocative commentary that accompanies such images in his films. Commentary, in this instance, may be unnecessary though. Why articulate in prose something already so perfectly expressed by Ezra Pound in his poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet black bough”? This was to be Marker’s epigraph in his previous exhibition, “Staring Back,” in 2007. He dropped it at the time, but was struck by how a reviewer, seeing the photographs, began his review by quoting this poem. “So it was true, after all,” Marker writes, “there existed such a thing as poetry, whose ways are by nature different from the ways of the world, that makes one see what was kept hidden, and hear what was kept silent.”
The exhibition is also comprised of a series of other outstanding works including Coréennes (1957), photographs of North Koreans going about their largely agricultural daily lives, pictures of what essentially, to this day, remains a hidden society. Though at the time—and even today—they were inhabitants of one of the most isolated countries on the planet, Marker’s images of North Koreans have almost the same nonchalant intimacy of his femmes du Métro on the opposite wall. They are images seemingly suspended in time, and—except for the occasional intrusion of some pre-modern technological advancement like a bicycle—would have been as familiar to a traveler two centuries earlier as they were to Marker during the height of the Cold War. Considering how rare it is to be able to glimpse inside of North Korean society, the mere existence of these images merit their exhibition; that they are meditative on an artistic level as well is only to Marker’s credit. Invited by the country’s communist government in the wake of the Korean War, Marker enjoyed an almost unheard of amount of freedom in documenting the conditions beyond the thirty-eighth parallel. Where, in Sans Soleil, Marker trained his camera lens on a hyperactively open and “connected” Japanese society on the precipice of major economic expansion and found penetrating mysteries and rituals behind the veneer of everyday mundanity, in Coréennes he peers into a fanatically closed world and reveals how truly accessible it seems. We see the women of the countryside, pensive, the schoolgirls holding aloft their fans and preparing for a dance. There are no images of tanks or infinite crowds furiously saluting the Great Leader. Even before the sixties Marker was already post-political. His focus is the people, the daily life. Of the war he only wrote: “When a country is split in two by an artificial border and irreconcilable propaganda is exercised on each side, it’s naïve to ask where the war comes from: the border is the war.”2
The Hollow Men (2005), also on view, is a multi-screen installation depicting images of twentieth-century conflict—beginning with the First World War—against textual interstices of lines variously inspired by, or taken from, T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name. Here, too, we are spectators, and as in his other works the focus so often is on faces. One passage begins, “’I’LL BE SEEING YOU’ / WAS OUR SONG / LESS THAN 80 SEASONS LATER / FOR EVERY WAR HAS A SONG.”
I’ll be seeing you. The irony, of course, is that a man who has spent so much of his life pointing his camera lens at others should himself remain shrouded in obscurity. The gallery’s artist biography merely indicates that Marker was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1921 and that he “lives and works in Paris.” Though he was a member of the most luminary generation of French auteurs in the history of cinema, he is still sufficiently unknown for a popular New York magazine to confidently claim him as an “avant-garde American filmmaker.”3 Presumably, without this veil of mystery, he would never be able to get as close to his subjects as he does. And while he may not be American, his preoccupation with looking at The Street—in Paris, in Pyongyang, in Tokyo—is literally, in something as small as that viewing area on the High Line, gaining ground in this country. Somehow, I imagine Chris Marker wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon perched up there over Tenth Avenue looking at all the people passing below.