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Review: Chris Marker, A Grin Without a Cat at The Whitechapel

Sunday 20 April 2014
Words Darren Skene

Just in time for Easter, The Whitechapel Gallery presents the first UK retrospective of visionary filmmaker, photographer, writer and multimedia artist Chris Marker (1921 – 2012). Best known as the director of over 60 films (including Sans Soleil, 1983 and A Grin Without a Cat, 1977), his film-essays combine science fiction with reality, politics and poetry.

Somewhat of an enigma, Marker rarely gave interviews and refused to be photographed throughout his life, so this exhibition is a real insight into his working methods and inspirations. Travel was one of his lifelong passions, which is clearly evident as you wander around; his footage and photography spans from Japan to Africa to Siberia as well as his homeland of France. He even turned his hand to design, creating a beautiful series of travel books – Petite Planète (1954 – 58) – featuring texts, illustrations, graphics and photographs of countries which inspired his first ‘photo-essays’.

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Examples of Petite Planète (1954 – 58)

As we are guided through the exhibition by his online avatar, a cat called Guillame-en-Eqypte (he was great lover of cats after all), it becomes clear that memory is also a recurring theme in his work. His photographic series Staring Back (1952 – 2006) feels like a snapshot of other people’s lives he has encountered, almost moments stolen from them that he has forever stored on film. They leave us to wondering about how these people have carried out their lives before and after these moments. Inter-spliced with powerful images of social movements and revolution, it is a haunting commentary on world-wide cultures.

Watch the tree: “Within these few inches, forty years of my life”.

One of his most critically revered works (and my first encounter with the work of Marker), La Jetée (1962) is featured with a rare, alternative opening sequence. The basis of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995) and an influence on James Cameron’s Terminator (1984), La Jetée is a Sci-fi wonder, imagining Paris devastated by a WWIII nuclear catastrophe, time travel, and a perpetual memory of a lone female. Composed almost entirely of black-and-white still photographs, you are drawn into each scene, moved or shocked by an expression captured.

Marker has had a prolific career and influenced many contemporary British art and artists. This is an essential exhibition taking you on a journey through the themes that absorbed him.

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat at The Whitechapel Gallery runs until 22nd June.

Featured Image: Still from La Jetée