Smallness and bigness of the avant-garde godfather

  • 2006-02-01
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - "Check out John Lennon play basketball at the Lithuanian Pavilion." So read a text message beeped around last year at the Venice Biennale, where Lithuania was represented by the godfather of avant-garde film Jonas Mekas.

Mekas' career retrospective was considered one of the best installations at the 51st Venice Biennale, which for over a century has been one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the world, promoting new artistic trends in contemporary art.

Mekas' popular installation at the Venice show has been brought to Vilnius' Contemporary Art Center.

Born on Christmas Eve in 1922 in Semeniskiai, Lithuania, Mekas had a difficult time in his homeland. In 1944, Mekas and his brother were taken by the Nazis and imprisoned in a forced labor camp in Nazi Germany. After the war, he emigrated to the U.S. and pursued avant-garde filmmaking.

Now 83, Mekas has become one of the great masters of American independent film. He is the founder and director of the New York Anthology Film Archive and lives in New York.

A mature suite of home movies and other films made over a period of half a century 's the length of Mekas' career 's makes up the centerpiece of the show. Its lyrical title, "Celebration of the Small and Personal in the Time of Bigness" says everything about him.

No one does "smallness" quite as big as Mekas. His films frequently run over three hours and catalogue hundreds of moments of transcendent beauty as well as track candid moments of celebrities, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Elvis Presley and Andy Warhol.

Mekas makes these towering figures small through his personal strategy. Every subject is captured in an impressionistic way, rendered as fleeting poetic images caught briefly in Mekas' memory until his eye moves on to its next visual encounter with the world.

"In this exhibition, as in my work in general, I am concerned with the discovery and celebration of small, insignificant, personal moments of our life," Mekas says. "My life, the life of my family, my close friends; joys, celebrations, being together, small daily events, feelings, emotions, friendships." 

He has spent years, video camera in hand, casually recording the lives of himself and everyone around him, including his family and children.

"I don't really make films," he says. "I only keep filming. I am a filmer and not a film-maker. And I am not a film 'director' because I direct nothing. I just keep filming."

Mekas has even stated that his artistic output should not be regarded as distinct films, but one continuous life's work of the process of "filming."

Especially in longer films viewers are encouraged to enter and leave the films at any point thanks to their fragmentation into sketches that Mekas employs in opposition to linear narrative development.

One room at Contemporary Art Center hosts projections of his major feature-length films beginning with Walden (1969) to his latest A Letter from Greenpoint (2004). A Letter from Greenpoint is about a journey of displacement, from Soho 's where Mekas lived for 30 years 's to Brooklyn. This warm and funny piece puts Mekas in the center. He comes out from behind the camera, drinks and sings with his friend Ben and even unsuccessfully proposes marriage to his cat.

Mekas comes closest to narrative in what is both his shortest feature and arguably the most private piece documenting the exile's return to his lost home, his career masterpiece Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972).

Another room of eight monitor video installations roll personal material of Mekas' family and friends. The installations, taken together, provide no real narrative. "Make your own movie out of this material by moving from one monitor to another and still another," Mekas says. "Have a good time!" o

Jonas Mekas: Celebration of the Small and Personal

in the Time of Bigness

Contemporary Art Center

Vokieciu 2, Vilnius

Until March 19