Jonas Mekas, Lost Lost Lost: Rabbit Shit Haikus and Fool’s Haikus, 1976, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 180 minutes.

Jonas Mekas, Lost Lost Lost: Rabbit Shit Haikus and Fool’s Haikus, 1976, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 180 minutes.

Jonas Mekas

“Now, after I already / Crossed / The shores of death and sadness / Let me / Dream / Utopias”—undated, typewritten on a modest yellowish page, this short poem (in Lithuanian) was one of 129 that were included in the exhibition “Jonas Mekas: let me dream utopias.” The poet/filmmaker himself selected these previously unpublished poems, all in his native language. After Mekas passed away earlier this year, leaving behind an enormous void, the show’s curators—Justė Jonutytė, Kotryna Markevičiūtė, and Yates Norton—had to find a way to stage the exhibition without his input. Rather than mount a conventional show, they built a space for contemplation and discussion. They invited the Lithuanian architects Ona Lozuraitytė and Petras Išora to create a setting for the selection of poems and organized a series of events contextualizing the poetry and some of its main themes. They also transformed the gallery into a large camera obscura: Sunlight entering through tiny holes cast upside-down images of the outdoor space. A river, lush trees, cloudy skies, and the sun: All of these elements—flickering dreamlike on the ceiling and on some of the walls—were also present in most of the poems.

Mekas’s early poetry, written while he was still living in the Lithuanian countryside, is impregnated with lyricism, filled with images of fields, sunsets, and singing. Later, especially after his move to New York in 1949, the poems gain more irony, along with references to urban life and culture. Whether early or late, themes of longing and time predominate. Time is like a cloud of moths that eat up everything in their path. Even as a young man, Mekas is already longing for the present, which will soon become past. In many of his films and poetry, this longing is mostly for things that are no longer there: bygone people, places, and cultures. Thus, the poet’s melancholy: typewriter and camera freeze fragments of the momentary beauty in an attempt to save it from all-devouring time. Such instruments are crucial for displaced people such as Mekas—people who have nowhere to return to, nowhere to stay, and no-where to go.

At Rupert, the exhibition’s design beautifully expressed this displaced sense of temporality. The Minimalist display recalled a makeshift reading room. Print-outs of the poems sat on a long, plain, jerrybuilt wooden table; the pages were illuminated either by custom lamps (made from an LED strip set into an extruded aluminum bar) or by the light from a video projector. Together, these elements evoked impermanence, displacement, readiness to leave at any moment. Reality becomes a dream; time stops and expands to infinity. In the show, such sensations, as articulated in Mekas’s poems, became spatial experiences. Two films, Mekas’s Lost, Lost, Lost: Rabbit Shit Haikus and Fool’s Haikus (1976) and Letters from Nowhere (1997), further evoked the interchangeability of reality and fiction, melancholy and joy. Created more than twenty years apart, they show Mekas as someone in constant internal transit, endlessly searching. In the earlier work, Mekas poetically explores his and his brother’s adaptation to living in the dynamic, foreign yet alluring city of New York, while in the later one, the aged Mekas feels at home there, radiating joie de vivre even while reflecting on the rapid passing of time.

The events program proposed multiple critical and analytical perspectives on Mekas’s personality and legacy, including some discussions animated by inquiries about Mekas’s activities during the early period of Nazi occupation in Lithuania. The complexity of such topics only made this show even more interesting. “After passing half of my life, I again do not know what is truth, freedom and what is a lie,” writes Mekas in one of the displayed poems. Whatever the truth was or is, the artist did not look for paradise and beauty beyond the limits of this life, but in the ruins of this world. He knew (as Lost, Lost, Lost reminds us) that “at the end of the road there is nothing but a small pile of rabbit shit.”