Chris Marker: Artist at Large in Life


Chris Marker? I drew a blank. As I became absorbed in the exhibition at the List Center on the MIT campus in Cambridge, the title of one of his experimental films  rang a dim bell. I think I saw it in either Bob Breer’s film class or perhaps in some other context in art school in the seventies. I was completely unfamiliar with the larger oeuvre of Chris Marker’s work.

The exhibition was largely comprised of photographs and videos playing on monitors. I watched one entire video and looked at some minutes of others. They were playful yet pointed explorations of the interface of politics and culture in people’s lives.  The photographs were printed on paper and mounted to flat surfaces that were held out about a half an inch from the wall. This presentation allowed for a maximum experience of the images and materiality of the photographs as there was no issue of framing, or borders , or any other sort of distracting element. The prints were mostly about 11″x14″ and many were black and white. The artist had taken photographs on several different major trips to locations around the world in order to document the life of people in these regions. His work  captures the “face” of humanity in a particularly astute and sensitive way.

At some point later in his artistic life, he went back to the photos he had taken on these trips and worked on them in Photoshop. Some of these efforts are at first upsettingly obvious to an audience used to seamless Photoshop work. Closeup areas of faces are often obviously burred, and there are fine lines in some images that seem to indicate areas that were selected in Photoshop to be run through a filter or similar adjustment tool. For example, the neck of a woman in one image is obviously vaguely outlined and the viewer then wonders, as they examine the photographs, what is real and what has been altered. Did he elongate that neck?   The heavy handedness is reminiscent of the cut and pasting of surrealist photo collages where the ease of the technique is largely what the work is about. I think also of the slap dash nature of Frank Gehry’s cardboard architectural models that convey the the conflagration of 3-D shapes accumulating to make a building in a way that more formalized and considered models would not. Though I w as at first puzzled by the Photoshop aspect of the work, I began to feel that it was Marker’s way of emphasizing his lens on the world so to speak. He took photos of people in their busy world, crowds and transport places. By revisiting the images in Photoshop, he crafted the images to convey more clearly what he saw in them.  He also used Photoshop to emphasize the experience of viewing and to remind us that these are all just images, just versions of reality.   Look closely at the b/w image of the young man’s face in front of the clearer young woman’s face. The entire image is disturbed by errant pixels that seem to be eating away at the image like a virus. His work is beautiful in its fascination with the human experience, but it’s insistence on not coming to quick conclusions.

The last room of photographs was comprised of pictures that Marker had taken on the French metro. He chose women to be the subjects a large amount of the time. I was curious about this, and then on the last wall, I found my answer. He had matched famous paintings of women (the Mona Lisa, a Virgin Mary, etc) with some of the subway riders. So the tired Parisian woman on the metro  mirrored to a large degree the expression posture, and even style of the painted subject who Marker has inserted into the image. Marker was necessarily latching onto female subjects for these photos as he undoubtedly had the long history of European painting in mind which was largely comprised of male artists celebrating female subjects. This last wall of images, that featured the insertion of a European painted subject in juxtaposition to a metro rider were interesting, but again slightly heavy handed. I had already thought of the Madonna while gazing at a different tired mother with an infant on the opposite wall. His “straight-up” photographs of metro riders so beautifully capture that intense humanity that we all experience when we are thrown into close physical proximity to all the other human cargo in a given subway ride. How many times I have found myself across from  an absolutely beautiful person, whether an older eastern looking woman dressed in mismatched patterns and carrying myriad colored plastic bags of shopping, or a young hispanic man on the cusp of adulthood, closing his eyes with exhaustion on a long ride. For me, these photographs allowed me to breath a sigh of relief. “Ah, good, someone has really captured the beauty of subway riders.”






Spotty In-depth Knowledge


Filling the aquaduct using buckets and big horned water buffalo


As I near the end of the “unschooling” years and my two youngest children are a little too old to “be read to” at night (though maybe no one should ever be too old for this pleasure), I recently decided to wake them up in the morning by reading to them. I have been trying to “stay on topic” by selecting things from a huge rather dry Earth Science textbook, and then a biography of Thomas Paine. It so happened however, that as I perused the library shelves a week ago, I came across “Taj Mahal” by Elzabeth Mann. It is one of a series of Mann’s “Wonders of the World” books. The illustrations are in the style of Persian miniature painting and they are fantastic. The story starts with the well known story of the erection of the Taj Mahal by Shah Jahan in the 17th century upon the death of his most beloved Mumtaz Mahal. (She died giving birth to their 14th child, a fact that seems somewhat glossed over in my previous experiences of the tale.) That synopsis is followed by a detailed account of the history that led up to the erection of the monument. It is a story of the conquest of the Hindus by the Muslims, tyranny, murder, ruthless plotting for power, and amassing of wealth. It is also the story of the design of the monument, the engineering of the monument; including how the water got elevated up out of the river so as to be a source for the reflecting pool,  how the walls and buildings were built, and how the entire complex was protected against flooding with an elaborate system of rubble filled wells.

This is the world history I would have liked to learn when I was young. I went to a “good” high school and took “World History” but it was so boring that I retained almost nothing. While our unschooling study of history is certainly spotty, a book like this is compelling and riveting . We poured over the floor plan in the middle of the book and discussed the adherence to the strict symmetry. When we were done, my daughter grabbed the book and proclaimed that we should read “The Empire  State Building” next but my son saw “Roman Coliseum” so w e will have to draw straws. Meanwhile, as I vaguely recall that I wrote down on our “Individual Home Instruction Plan” that my daughter is studying “Geography” and my son “Social Studies”, I will extract appropriate descriptions of the book’s substance so as to meet expectations implied or suggested by these categories. Imagine being restricted by one’s “course of study” all year. That would be terrible.