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Chris Marker at the Whitechapel Gallery

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A new exhibition is a revelatory exploration into the world and work of a mysterious artist

Who? Chris Marker, the late filmmaker, artist, author and photographer, whose haunting essay-film La Jetée (The Pier, 1962) radically broke with the conventions of film and science fiction, is being celebrated with a major retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery. Marker was born Christian Hippolyte Francois Georges Bouche-Villeneuve in 1921 in bourgeois Neuilly-sur-Seine, though the famously elusive filmmaker would later claim to have been born in Mongolia. A member of the French resistance, he was a fervent defender of the oppressed, documenting rebellion around the world up until his death in 2012. In his celebrated essay films, notably La Jetée, a haunting meditation on time, memory and ruin told largely over a succession of still images, a thread of dissent runs parallel to the sequences of stark and startling imagery. Though he was fêted throughout his long career (a word he professed to hate) he preferred to hide behind his Anglophone sobriquet and the image of a grinning cat. Described by one critic as an “essential ghost”, his probing lens documented seismic political movements from within the melee, capturing the faces of exuberant soixante-huitards, students marching on the Pentagon in 1967 and the more recent anti-war demonstrations on his Paris doorstep. He takes his place among the pantheon of cinematic greats, from Godard and Resnais, with whom he worked, to the many he directly influenced.

"Described by one critic as an “essential ghost”, Marker's probing lens documented seismic political movements from within the melee"

What? This is the first UK retrospective of Marker’s extensive and far-reaching oeuvre, taking in films, installations, photography and books. Highlights include a print of La Jetée with an alternative opening sequence as well as a selection of beautiful workbooks that function as a kind of visual script for this lingering masterpiece, one that Marker curiously had little time for. Also screening is Les Statues Meurent Aussi, a discourse on African art and a critique of colonialism that was banned in France for fifteen years. Travel books, photographs, installations composed of televisions that are reminiscent of the work of video art pioneer Nam June Paik, and a CD-Rom cataloguing his life and work reveal a mind of immense reach, amassing countless images, yet with a keen instinct for the essential.

Why? Despite his influence on subsequent filmmakers, including Terry Gilliam and James Cameron, and his nurturing of contemporaries across the world, Marker is less well known than his peers, partly because he himself was so reluctant to give interviews or be photographed. Yet he leaves behind a vast trove of imagery, an archive covering some of the major upheavals of the latter half of the 20th century. Though often dreamlike in tone, his films are laced with deeply searching questions that seek to jolt us, like the mysterious woman in La Jetée, awake.

Chris Marker: A Grin Without A Cat is at the Whitechapel Gallery until June 22. The clip above is an extract from Chris Marker's La Jetée, (The Pier) 1962, © 1963 Argos Films.

Laura Allsop is the Deputy Editor of AnOther Magazine.

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