JONAS MEKAS. IMAGES ARE REAL

Jonas Mekas 100! - November 9, 2022 - February 26, 2023

Jonas Mekas 100! - the international programme of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lithuanian-born filmmaker's birth - lands in Italy with Images Are Real, an exhibition curated by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, a curatorial duo that has accompanied Mekas in multiple art projects from Venice to New York to Seoul to Reykjavík.
 

Promoted by Roma Culture and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo in partnership with the Lithuanian Culture Institute and the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in Rome, the exhibition takes a retrospective look at Jonas Mekas's 70-year activity within and beyond the history of avant-garde cinema. Featuring a wide selection of works from the 1950s to the late 2010s, the exhibition presents the practice of the Lithuanian-born artist as a Dantesque journey that, from the infernos of history, leads to happiness through a daily exercise in filmmaking. The catalogue published by CURA will expand this path by delving into the intertwining of art and reality in Mekas' work. 

The exhibition title is a quote from the film Out-takes From the Life of a Happy Man, in which the artist’s voice off screen reflects to himself that: «Memory is gone, but my images are here, and images are real!»

Jonas Mekas’s work is an ode to life as it unfolds. In his films the camera becomes a diary in which he daily records the fragments of intensity of his own existence: his encounters with his friends Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and Yoko Ono, or spring in Central Park, the flowers and the trees. Each instant is captured in a non-narrative and non-linear montage that parallels the language of poetry. Leafing through the pages of this 70-year diary, the exhibition aims to map out crucial stages in the life of its author, in a heady mosaic of images that come back to merge and to form new meanings.

Raised in the village of Semeniškiai, Jonas Mekas experienced the hell of World War II in his early twenties. In 1944 he and his brother Adolfas were confined by the Nazis to the Elmshorn prison camp, only to be transferred to the refugee camps of Wiesbaden and Kassel in the four years after the end of the war.

This experience of subjugation resonates in The Brig (1964), a film version of a celebrated performance by the Living Theatre that earned the artist the Gran Premio Leone di San Marco at the Venice Film Festival. In the exhibition, the work is associated in a novel fashion with the series of photographs entitled Purgatorio documenting the early years after the war, and Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten, a video made by Mekas during the collapse of the Twin Towers following the 09/11 terrorist attacks.

The diary-like cinema that Mekas championed is the culmination of a stoic exercise in attention to happy moments in life. The manifesto of this relentless search for paradise is Walden (1968), the artist’s first diary film, exceptionally presented here in the form of a two-screen installation.

Having emigrated to the United States in 1949 thanks to the United Nations’ International Refugee Organization, after a few months Mekas bought his first Bolex, a handheld camera that was to accompany him for most of his life.

Shortly thereafter, the artist began a prolific career as a film critic, founding Film Culture magazine and writing the Movie Journal column in the Village Voice. At the same time he made his first films, very soon becoming the catalyst for a generation of filmmakers whom he brought together under the name New American Cinema Group and organised around the Filmmakers Cooperative (1961) and the Anthology Film Archives (1970) which is still one of the largest archives devoted to independent filmmaking to this day.

In a parade of portraits excerpted from the film Birth of a Nation (1997), the result of research undertaken by the artist and continued by the curators, the exhibition testifies to the substantial network of friendships that Mekas was able to weave around an idea of cinema pitted against the gigantism of Hollywood. What emerges is a picture of a tireless traveller able to transform his uprooting from the homeland into a cosmopolitan drive well before the advent of globalisation. This shines through quite clearly in the film Travel Song (1981), screened on four channels in the form of a “quartet.”

Imbued with a spirit of perpetual avant-garde, Mekas’s work cannot be confined to a single era, but evolves as the medium of the cinema evolved. In 2006, a few months after YouTube was first launched, the artist transferred his diary onto the Internet, grasping the future of moving images before many others. In 2007 he made 365 Day Project, a titanic film performance during which he produced and shared a video in his on-line diary for every day of the year.

In a nutshell, the yardstick of Jonas Mekas’s work is life itself, which flows to the rhythm of the cinecamera. Life becomes image on the thirty-two glass windows of In an Instant It All Came Back to Me (2015), a monumental work consisting of 768 stills taken from the artist’s vast archive. Image after image, day after day, an entire existence unfolds before our eyes: the existence of a Lithuanian refugee who changed the history of the cinema in the United States and throughout the world.