Jonas Mekas: scenes from an extraordinary life

The films of Jonas Mekas are fragments of a life passing. His show at London’s Serpentine Gallery is filled with these moments from his long and interesting life; people he has met, events he witnessed and took part in, places he has been. And everywhere we keep coming across his voice, recalling the past, composing a love letter to his adopted New York, commenting, reading a poem, singing.

And always there are images. Images projected and playing on banks of monitors. Cacophanies, excerpts, new things and old footage, portraits, stills and blow-ups. You plunge in to this partial and personal selection of work, never quite knowing how long you’ll be detained. The filmmaker’s voice, engaged, insistent, and remembering, keeps me stilled.

Aged four or five in the Lithuanian countryside, he sang out the stories and details of his day to his father. “Every detail I sang to my father”, Mekas recalls, in a voiceover to his most recent film, Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man. “I have been trying to retain that kind of intensity all my life.”

With their shaky hand-held shots, their overexposed bleach-outs and dodgy sound, their silences and wavering focus and lingering attention on inconsequent detail, Mekas’s films are like home movies. But what home movies they are. Here’s John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Montreal Bed-In. Salvador Dalí hamming up his surrealist act on the New York streets. Carl Jung puffing his pipe and ruminating beside a Swiss lake. Danish film-maker Carl Theodore Dreyer querulous before the camera.

Mekas’s film portraits anticipate those by Tacita Dean, and indeed Andy Warhol, whose hundreds of film portraits of people who passed through the Factory Mekos regards as Warhol’s finest work. Mekas filmed Warhol too, at the Factory, on the beach at Montauk, amongst his silk-screen images and cow wallpaper at the Whitney museum. There are so many fascinating glimpses of other lives here: poets Frank O’Hara, Le Roi Jones and Allen Ginsberg onstage at a reading. Here’s Patti Smith, Jackie Onassis, Timothy Leary. Fluxus mastermind and fellow Lithuanian George Maciunas. in 1966 Mekas shot the earliest footage of Nico and the Velvet Underground, playing at a psychiatrists’ conference, with I’ll Be Your Mirror muffled and booming on the soundtrack. The song feels apt.

The list goes on. Mekas’s films are full of the living and the dead, cultural highpoints and period moments, intimacies and the everyday. A kind of diary, his films trace his life. The amateurishness of Mekas’s films is a deception. They are an attempt to capture the real. Their artlessness is artful. These are the films of a man who was displaced from his native Lithuania and spent several years in German labour camps during the second world war, and who found his way to New York in 1949, where he bought his first camera within months of arrival. New York, he insists, saved his sanity, and it is where he found himself at the centre of the last real avant garde.

New York itself has been a constant subject: the twin towers, snow falling between the downtown buildings, winter after winter, fleeting spring in Central Park. There are apartments, parties, social gatherings, endless cats, lives adrift from their moorings but captured on film. Mekas at home in his loft, dancing and fooling around, cutting and editing and patrolling the rows and stacks of film cans. He improvises a love letter to New York direct to camera, as he drinks wine on a hot night. He remembers, he plays his accordion, he seems a happy man. But often, here and there in his films, printed cards fill the screen, little typed statements that talk of someone’s suicide, sudden moments of emptiness, morbid days and gloom. There are memories Mekas would prefer to forget.

Mekas wants to show us that his life is not much different to anyone else’s. Except of course it is. He also objects when people say his films are his memories. “Who cares about memories! Every second of what you see is real, right there in front of your eyes,” he says, in Outtakes from the Life of a Happy Man.

Memory, however, provided the subject of the poems that made him famous in Lithuania long before he was recognised as a film-maker, let alone had a visual arts centre in Vilnius named after him. His 1947 poems Idylls of Semeniskaiai became popular in Lithuania during the Soviet years, while the subsequent poems, Reminiscences, were banned. The first, written in a displaced persons camp in Kassel, spoke of his homeland. The second, written in New York in 1950, were poems of exile.

A new film, Reminiscences from Germany, uses photographs taken by Mekas and his brother Adolfas during their years in forced labour camps, camps for displaced persons and in their post-war wanderings and studying in Germany. It also includes footage shot on visits to Germany in 1971 and 1993. He is always going back to old footage, splicing and cutting and editing. Mekas speaks of a loaf of bread he ate in Mainz in 1947, and the pleasures of reading, carrying suitcases full of books but no other belongings. He sings in a tree with spring-green leaves under a blue sky. Piano music drifts through an open window. He takes a walk down a street in modern Kassel. The last time he took this same walk it was through piles of rubble.

Mekas’s poems are of nature, a rural childhood, war and displacement and loss. Whatever he says, his films are filled with memories, life passing, the things you grab hold of even as you’re losing them. Watching, they become real presences. Later, they become your memories too.



By Adrian Searle