JONAS MEKAS Reminiscences of a Displaced Personby Joseph Klarl
JAMES FUENTES LLC | OCTOBER 5 – 28, 2012
Between 1945 and 1949 directly following World War II, thousands of Eastern Europeans were held in camps within the German city of Wiesbaden and the town of Mattenberg, a suburb of Kassel. Lithuanian-born artist Jonas Mekas was one of these displaced persons. The Lower East Side’s James Fuentes Gallery—whose walls previously hosted Mekas’s loving 2010 ode, To New York With Love—is now made bleak with the vigilant snapshots of a young émigré. The artist returns to the beginning of his evolution, prior to his settling in New York City.
The exhibition is a companion to 1991’s partial autobiography I Had Nowhere to Go, in which Mekas details his trying time under Nazi rule and the melancholy following liberation. A rebel-poet, Mekas was rooted out from Lithuania by fear of the German secret police in 1944. With his brother Adolfas (a future pioneer of New American Cinema), he headed to Vienna on a trip that quickly turned sour. Alongside P.O.W.s, the two were made to work in a German factory under barks of Für den Sieg, or “For the Victory,” until the Allies triumphed and the brothers landed in Wiesbaden and then Mattenberg. Conditions were dire.
The exhibition begins with scenes of respite. A family sits on its possessions waiting to move from one camp to the next; Mekas and friends pose by barbed wire; men stand casually in the fields. One photo early in the exhibition shows a group of less than a dozen gathered outside the perimeter of the Mattenberg camp. Some slump, busying themselves with books and thought. One man stands impatiently with hand on hip. Like several of these black-and-white prints, the gray sky and barracks dissolve into a single, distant nothingness. On life in the camp at this time Mekas wrote, “I read a lot. I listen a lot. I think a lot. But so little remains.” Quickly, these images become haunted by an oppressive sameness.
Fittingly, the uniform arrangement of photographs around the small gallery resists chronology. There is no finality to the plain and bitter images, mirroring the uncertainty and apathy therein. Their painful, often beautiful whole lacks the movement that is so vital to Mekas’s later oeuvre—the liveliness of his renowned home movies absent among the homeless. Subjects stare at the camera, grinning in polite boredom.
A portrait of Mekas starkly contrasts with the aforementioned smiles. Though well-dressed and carefully groomed, he is haggard. He looks like a jaded troublemaker, and his paranoid eyes reflect a growing disillusionment with the haughtiness of academia at the University of Mainz and unending social exclusion in Wiesbaden.
There were 1,600 Lithuanians in the camps, yet his camera focuses on pockets of the displaced. Both the desolation of the surroundings and isolation of the artist are revealed. A splendid, head-on shot of the Mekas brothers shows them walking alongside one another in the foreground, with only a haze in their trail and a slanted, naked tree emerging from barren ground to their right. Mutual confidantes and artistic outcasts, this photograph proves perfectly foreboding—the brothers alone, born wildly to renown from the dead and destitute.
Perhaps the most moving image here is a solo shot of Adolfas—who died last year at 85 and whose memory must have loomed over the assembly of this show—resting against a pole and looking over the Mattenberg camp in the distance, his back to the camera and the cold sun on his face. The subject appears to to be in a prison yard, where the inevitability of reconfinement hangs heavily. Mekas demonstrates the coexistence of brutality and peace in a reserved and ephemeral way. This is not cool social documentary or prying appeal to emotion; the relationship here between man and devastated environment is alien and rivals Luc Delahaye in its strangeness. Poetically, some six years later the city of Kassel, so near this scene, would emerge from the shadow of war with its first dOCUMENTA exhibition, focused on entartete Kunst, Nazi-deemed “degenerate art,” and the Mekas brothers would realize their own fearlessness as members of the New York avant-garde. The serenity and acumen of Adolfas on the Mattenberg hill would again have a moment to flourish.
The final prints are gorgeous and pristine. Still, “no art,” he insisted at the show’s reception. “Real life.” Indeed it was only after his move to New York City in 1949 that he would purchase the first of five Bolex cameras, and begin shoestring preservation work that eventually led to the mammoth Anthology Film Archives. In New York “I felt strongly my childhood coming back to me,” he writes at the closing of Nowhere. “I almost cried.” These sterile images show the lull before rebirth, purgatory the way Robert Frank depicts life—staid and doubtful. It is no wonder Mekas soon devoted himself to the constant movement and quick cuts of his gleeful films. Reminiscences, simply, is the artist’s last bout with real life before arriving home.
JOE KLARL is an Associate Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He has written for the Rail on art, books, music, and film, and contributes to Interview Magazine. He currently writes and resides in The Bronx.