Still from La Jetee (1962) by Chris Marker
Still from La Jetee (1962) by Chris Marker

Blending fiction and reality with a punch of politics and a twist of time travel, Chris Marker’s images, be they filmed, frozen, multiplied or computer-generated, are as rich and potent as they are disorientating.

A pioneer of the documentary essay and one of those rare visual artists revered as a poet, philosopher and filmmaker in equal measure, Marker was a figure synonymous with mystery and provocation. But even in the darkest, most obscure corner of his remarkable portfolio there lies clarity.

An extensive collection assembled from his kaleidoscopic body of work is currently on show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat offers a nourishing journey through the latter half of the twentieth century via the mind of a true multi-media visionary.

Before his death in 2012, aged 91, the wildly creative Jack-of-all-trades had turned his probing lens to a plethora of subjects, including war, revolution,travel, artefact and history. Here, all are laid bare and dissected with clinical precision behind Marker’s signature veil of ambiguity.

On entering through the gallery’s heavy double doors, the trail leads past a wall of introductory prints, down a thin corridor and into a dark room ablaze with a fizzing myriad of television screens – “memory boxes” as Marker once called them.

The surreal images vary from the mundane to the deeply unsettling, flickering below the noise of an intriguing interview in nightmarish fashion. It’s a captivating start.

Central to the exhibition is the selection of Marker’s classic films projected onto screens that hang from the ceilings, including: the beautiful Statues Also Die; a mesmerising sequence from San Soleil; Le Joli Mai; and, if you have the time, a stripped-back, 180-minute showing of the epic title feature, A Grin Without a Cat.

Of particular note is La Jetée, a spiralling sci-fi photo-roman addressing themes of time and memory,birth verses death, the mobile and immobile image,and the history of place and cinema. Just as complex as it sounds, it’s a quiet masterpiece that rocks to a gentle rhythm before descending gradually towards a turbulent finale.

That Terry Gilliam found inspiration for 12 Monkeys in the 27-minute gem, with Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder of no distant relation, speaks volumes of Marker’s sprawling influence.

Walking through the ground floor space, it’s hard to miss the overlapping quality of the work on show. It’s somehow appropriate that the sound of one installation momentarily eclipses that of another. The pieces feed off their neighbours, producing a shambolic harmony akin to Marker’s own fragmented style.

The deft arrangement evokes a loose line from one of his many seminal works of experimental cinema: “Don’t patch up a broken crystal,” someone – perhaps from the future – warns.

While the extended films are the highlight of the show, the clusters of still images that pepper the walls are of no small interest; they are complimented significantly by the words pasted beside them: “In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats. But you don’t choose your time.”

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat tears right through Marker’s time, driven by his will to locate and relocate the boundaries of artistic endeavour. The exhibition revolves around two ever-pressing questions: where have we come from and where are we going? It is, dare I say, a memorable experience.

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat is at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1 7QX until 22 June


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