PRINT Summer 2005


Chris Marker

AS HE CLOSES the preface to his Philosophy of Right, Hegel tells us, “When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.” For Hegel, this was a statement of the limitations of philosophy. For the Situationists and for leftist intellectuals of postwar France, it became a favored point of reference—though neither acquiesced to the submission of the individual to the state or to the ineluctable force of history that Hegel coded into it.

Chris Marker, one of the most incisive critical voices of postwar French cinema, has brought the owl of Minerva into the glare of noon in service to a project he likens to Benjamin’s encyclopedic and unfinished Passagenwerk. In this project, called OWLS AT NOON, Marker adopts Benjamin’s method of modestly applying himself “to details, to tiny things scorned by historians and sociologists.” Marker has begun this potentially overwhelming endeavor with Prelude: The Hollow Men, an installation created expressly for the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery at the Museum of Modern Art. In it, he brings “the petty cash of history” into the realm of digital video, where he attempts “to extract a subjective journey through the 20th century,” as he describes it in a statement accompanying the show. Using painstakingly textured, high-contrast black-and-white still images and a textual dialogue in the form of moving titles that engage with T. S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” he delineates the contours of the psychic limbo between the two world wars:


OWLS AT NOON is a personal memoir articulated in terms of public history, a lingering caress of the shapes of Marker’s time as they pass under his fingers on keyboard and mouse. In this world of stark monochrome, the glowing faces of beautiful women coexist with muddy trenches disgorging corpses; the mutilated faces of combat veterans join the blasted radiance of the Shroud of Turin. These images are digitally layered with other elements—stone, wood, peeling pigment—to give a tactile sense of memory as palimpsest. Text appears and reappears in many sizes and scales, sometimes undergoing a process of magnification that reveals the textures of the shaded Cartesian grid from which it is generated.

The installation consists of a long horizontal row of eight video monitors like a flickering film strip suspended in blackness, its proportions recalling the Monet Water Lilies that hangs in the adjacent space. Two synchronized video sources are distributed across the monitors in an alternating AB pattern; low benches facing the wall define a point of observation about fifteen feet distant.

Normally, if one fixes one’s attention on a single image at this scale for more than a second or two, one begins to stare and disengage, entering the familiar altered state of “watching TV” so treasured by advertisers. But Marker’s installation invokes a strong scanning response through its wide horizontal angle and narrow vertical angle in the field of vision. The response here is even stronger than the one typically induced when we watch something on “the big screen.”

The rhythmic regularity of this row of alternating images creates a mental space in which our eyes dance back and forth as across the pages of a book, narratizing the things and words we see. We examine them from many angles—taking them in rather than being taken in by them. In parallel fashion, Marker’s texts repeat and mutate in various forms and at various scales to reveal the multidimensionality of his thought, unlike simple fragmentation, which brings about the loss of conscious meaning through shock effect. Though the installation is a closed loop, we enter an open-ended meditation, a private experience in a public space.

The effect of engagement created by the installation is intense enough to withstand the loud, defensive laughter of teenagers familiar to midweek museumgoers. This resilience is due as well to the sound track, dominated by Toru Takemitsu’s Corona, 1962. Takemitsu’s powerful modernist piano work, which recalls, by turns, Conlon Nancarrow and Henry Cowell, is given extraordinary spatial presence by Roger Woodward’s passionate performance and by the strategic acoustic design that transforms the space of the gallery into a vast sounding chamber.

The very private Marker is an enigmatic public secret. Though his enormous body of work in film, video, and digital media has generated a minor intellectual industry, little of it is in distribution. Since 1951, when Isidore Isou decreed the reign of the cinéma discrepant, French intellectuals have attacked the tyranny of the talkie and sought to rearticulate the relation between language and image. Marker has investigated the interplay between the two with imagination and depth. Only the work of Debord bears comparison for its daring and achievement. Using both footage he shoots and footage he excavates from the scrap heap of history, Marker creates a dialectical cinema of ideas whose influence is so pervasive it’s nearly invisible. The stark articulations of OWLS AT NOON should not pass into the gathering shades of night unseen.

Keith Sanborn is a lecturer in the visual arts program at Princeton University.