Serpentine Gallery: Jonas Mekas

by Georgia Korossi


Jonas Mekas
Mekas with his Bolex in Lithuania 1971
© Jonas Mekas

The Serpentine Gallery is a remarkably suitable setting to host Jonas Mekas’s work. Its location stretches inside Kensington Gardens where trees and ornamental flowerbeds surround the gallery’s building from the South to its North rooms. All his life Jonas Mekas celebrated the small forms of cinema. Its lyrical forms, the poetry of what it is to live, notice and sing. The diary impulse of Mekas’s new feature-length film, Outtakes from the life of a happy man (2012), is idyllic in this architecture and pastoral setting.

The introduction to the Jonas Mekas exhibition is written by Mekas himself:  “In putting together this exhibition I faced one of the hardest challenges of my ‘artistic’ life. The reason for this was that the Fates had endowed me not only with a long healthy life, but they also saw that it was extensively productive. So here I was at a crucial ripe age, with all my work scattered all around me, spreading across a wide range of directions, and me, facing a challenge: what should I show, what should I share with others?”


Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), 1969
© Jonas Mekas

Mekas has a strong online presence with his brilliantly designed website where one can see and read selected works and more recently a new DVD boxset of his films has been released in France. So, his work is accessible, but as a leading figure in avant-garde and independent cinema with works spanning a 60-year career, the majority of it is made on film.

In 2011 his film Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) and co-directorial work with JL Guerin, Correspondences (2011), screened at the 55th BFI London Film Festival. A year later he is back in London to mark his remarkable activities as filmmaker, poet and independent cinema producer since he arrived in New York in the late 1940s, following a long and difficult journey from Second World War stricken Lithuania.

Mekas’s long journey would be unimaginable to capture in the gallery space, limited as it is to just a small number of rooms. Or could Mekas’s body of work make sense of the gallery space? As I walked through the exhibition, I realized these boundaries were in constant flux. The more I looked through this survey of Mekas’s work with moving images, poetry and photographs dating from the 1950s to the present day, the more I discovered about his manifestos for promoting avant-garde cinema and its filmmakers alongside his support for independent cinema from abroad.

Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man 2012Installation view, Jonas MekasSerpentine Gallery, London

Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man 2012
Installation view, Jonas Mekas
Serpentine Gallery, London
© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

Selected especially for the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, To London with Love (2012) is a portrait of the London-based avant-garde filmmakers in a set of 25 photographic prints from 16mm frames. These are images Mekas recorded with his Bolex camera during his visit to two landmark events that took place in London’s National Film Theatre (NFT): the International Underground Film Festival in September 1970, and the International Independent Avant-Garde Film Festival in September 1973.

But Mekas’s support for the international avant-garde film community is not just a part of his life. It’s his family and more importantly his life diaries in moving images and words. A series of 80 prints that are on display, My two families (2012), are all extracted from his captivating new film featuring in the Serpentine Gallery exhibition, Outtakes from the life of a happy man.  The 43.2×27.9 cm wall display not only gives the viewer an insight into Mekas’s film but, also a rich glimpse into the lives of his family, friends and colleagues. It includes Anthology Film Archives’ patron Jerome Hill alongside filmmakers and artists such as Harry SmithKenneth AngerPier Paolo PasoliniHollis FramptonAndy Warhol and Salvador Dali.


Award Presentation to Andy Warhol, 1964
© Jonas Mekas

Nevertheless the material included in the exhibition, are fragments of the monumental experiences in the artist’s life. Mekas himself wants to be called a ‘filmer’ instead of filmmaker and he tells me: “My greatest challenge is to get to the essence of the situation and not to destroy it”. With his 16mm Bolex camera, also on display in the exhibition, he recorded a tremendous amount of diary footage. During an interview with Scott MacDonald in the early 1980s, Mekas said: “I really live only in my editing room. Or when I film.”

An admirer of the American avant-garde filmmaker and painter Marie Menken, Mekas’s sensibility in the editing room followed Menken’s style leaving much of the original material just as it was filmed. Both Lavender (2012), a selection of films presented in a block of 16 monitors, and Dumpling Party Installation (1971) are essential to understanding Mekas’s editing style reconstructing his experiences at the viewer’s will. His sensitivity to the moment, as shown both in these works and his Outtakes is that of, as Polish poet of Lithuanian origin Czesław Miłosz puts it, “a poet and a poet of things observed and preserved on the film reel.”


As I was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty, 2000
© Jonas Mekas

Together with Peter Kubelka, P. Adams Sitney and Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas founded the Anthology Film Archives in 1969. To this day Anthology largely showcases avant-garde cinema alongside many other activities promoting and caring for the work of independent filmmakers. Its original fabric banner designed by Jerome Hill, is among the objects in the exhibition and laced next to Laboratorium Anthology (2011), a record 101 min long film celebrating the work undertaken by Anthology Film Archives.

Mekas’s Serpentine exhibition is a celebration of his recorded life-memories. Written in the dust of time, they are glimpses of beauty in the adventures of his long journey, unfolded and experienced in the present. Quite rightly Czesław Miłosz’s text sits next to Mekas’s mixed media installation of the 29 poems cycle (a series of poems Mekas wrote in 1946 while in a Displaced Persons’ camp), Idylls of Semeniskiai, and reads: ‘How many Europeans have lost their homelands in this turbulent twentieth century? Millions, and there seems to be no end…Those who become exiles lose not only their possessions. Trees, meadows, fields as seen in their childhood are taken from them. And yet if they write about their lost countries, they are, in a way, privileged, and I am going to explain why, upon the example of Jonas Mekas’ poems.’


Walden (Diaries, Notes, and Sketches), 1969
© Jonas Mekas

The Jonas Mekas exhibition of film, video and photographic works at the Serpentine Gallery runs from 5 December 2012 to 27 January 2013.

Brief Glimpses of Beauty: The Films of Jonas Mekas season curated by Mark Webber runs at BFI Southbank from 6 December 2012 to 28 January 2013.

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