last week i took my first ever stroll through hyde park, on one of the really icy days towards the back-end of the week before the ‘snow event’ hit the uk. it was really lovely, seeing all the birds casting around on the serpentine and breathing in the fresh air of a large london park. i think these are the things which more and more are going to join up the dots of my london exploration. nice park to walk around – check; really impressive art gallery nearby – check; mission accomplished.
so, on this occasion i was in the park so as to head towards the serpentine gallery. i will admit that up until this point the gallery existed in my head as a name that i head read before, and as a point on a hand drawn map from a friend which recommended the bookshop there as the best repository of art books in the city. (they weren’t wrong about this, but i only had five minutes and no money to spend in there, so will have to return on another occasion to take full advantage of this terrific shop!)
on display until the end of this week (sunday 27 january) is an exhibition of work by the lithuanian film-maker, artist and poet jonas mekas. i hadn’t been aware of quite how much a part of the new york avant-gard mekas had been, which i presume is why one of the first films you reach in the display is documenting a night in with john lennon, yoko ono, andy warhol and more eating dumplings. here is mekas as artist within a circle. yet i feel that if anything this piece was at odds with the rest of the exhibition, which casts the artist’s process and approach as based on something quite different to this somewhat showboating, namedropping video. perhaps that is just my reading of it.
in the time i spent in the gallery three pieces really stood out to me as capturing the essence of jonas mekas’ work, combining poetic-film-making with filmic-poetry. as a film-maker he is best known for his style of ‘film diaries’ which sensitively record the day-to-day, focusing mainly on his family and the arts community of new york. it is this foregrounding of the everyday which i found so captivating. idylls of semeniskiai sees a combination of a 29 poem cycle studying nature and the acts of life in the artist’s native lithuania in the 1940s, coupled with image which he recorded on a return in 1971. the two elements are combined with a lightness of touch which allows both to exist, whilst their combination brings a sense of place to both. this piece shows well the static method of display moving images which runs throughout this exhibition, taking three or four frames of a film, and printing them as a split second glimpse of life. with the poems describing the acts of life, and the images capturing an essence of activity, both media lend differing methods of ‘animation’ to a shared subject with real impact.
further down the same park facing room lavender piece resumes this theme of capturing and displaying life, with no interjection to guide thoughts in a certain direction. sixteen screen display different 16mm films, capturing fragments of activity from across mekas’ life. a view out of a snowy window counterbalances a self-portrait of the artist dancing around his office, alongside images of family trips out with children. my notes for this piece boil down to five words, which i think do it about as much justice as i can. “life. noise. snow. movement. travel.”
these notions of recording life, interspersed with the rhythm of life, come together perfectly in outtakes from the life of a happy man, which is being premiered as part of this exhibition. here mekas has taken an assortment of offcuts of film, the pieces of life which he hasn’t used in artworks before, and brings them together into a feature-length piece. these are outtakes of homelife, the city, nature, lithuania, family and more. this assemblage of life is pieced together in a non-linear random order, meaning that there is no consistent ‘story arc’ to be following, with the artist instead placing the viewer in a position where they are to observe life, rather than seek a narrative within it. i feel that this is what i will take away about mekas’ approach, the observing is more important than the story, the singularity of activity alone is of huge importance. displaying this film in the domed central room of the serpentine gallery is a master stroke, as the viewer cannot be anything but immersed within the installation. as an onlooker you almost become part of the process, your being there observing these observations is almost an intertextual layer of interpretation.
simply put, this is a wonderful exhibition. if you are in or around london this week i fully endorse getting yourself to the serpentine and spending at least a couple of hours absorbing this.