Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running
On ViewThe Jewish Museum
February 18–June 5, 2022
Since the 1950s, Jonas Mekas (1922–2019) carried a camera by his side. Almost like an extension of his body, it documented his experience as a refugee from Lithuania after WWII, his integration into New York City’s avant-garde art circles, and his transformation into the foremost champion of independent cinema in the United States as the first full-time film critic for the Village Voice and a founder of Anthology Film Archives. In his act of filming, Mekas meticulously captured the poetry of the everyday as he experienced it—springtime flowering bulbs, intimate weddings, dinner with friends, or a sunset on the beach. Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running at The Jewish Museum situates the artist’s displacement as the impulse for his lifelong search for joy through the camera’s lens in a moving, nuanced, and topical presentation of Mekas’s work.
Born in Semenikiai, Lithuania, Jonas Mekas and his brother Adolfus fled their country in 1944 for fear of arrest from the Nazis due to involvement with resistance activities. While their family was not Jewish, in their escape, the Mekas brothers were interned in a Nazi labor camp near Hamburg, and after the war’s end, they moved through Displaced Person’s camps until they were allowed to come to the US in 1949 as refugees. Arriving in America, with nothing to his name, Mekas situated himself in Brooklyn’s Lithuanian diaspora and purchased a 16 mm camera. On display, Lost, Lost, Lost (1976) brings Mekas’s exile experience to the forefront through black-and-white footage he took of his community. Here, the beginnings of his diaristic tendencies come forth, but there’s also an apparent distance, Mekas playing the role of the documentarian spaced away from his own culture due to the devastating war.
If Lost, Lost, Lost, represents the artist’s displaced beginnings, Walden (1969), a seminal film that established his 16 mm diaristic style, documents his integration into New York’s artistic landscape. We see Mekas mingling with the most famous artists and poets of the 1960s, from Allen Ginsberg to Andy Warhol, even filming John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In for Peace. Both films typically run for three hours, a potentially grueling prospect for museum gallery viewing. In an inspired decision from curator Kelly Taxter, parts of each film are divided and projected simultaneously across equally sized and staggered screens, cutting Walden’s runtime to thirty minutes, creating a more accessible watching experience. Seeing portions of each film played synchronously from multiple projectors allows for Mekas’s images to combine in new ways, connecting moments in the artist’s life across time that otherwise wouldn’t be possible in a traditional theater setting.
In Walden, Mekas’s aesthetic principles are defined: rhythmic handheld footage of life as he experienced it in flickering frame rates and poetic stop motion sequences, overexposed film, ambient noise mixed with the artist’s musings through narration and text cards, and the beautiful chromatic materiality of 16 mm film. In one scene, the artist places the camera down, recording himself enjoying a warm beverage and croissant outdoors while sharing his food with stray cats. The sound of Mekas playing the accordion as he sings, “I am searching for nothing, I am happy,” is overlaid. The endlessly endearing sequence embodies the cheerful nature of Mekas’s films, but there is a slightly somber undertone. We are left to wonder whether the artist searches for nothing because, like the stray cats, he has no home to look towards.
As I Was Moving Ahead Ocassionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), the cumulation of Mekas’s footage taken during the twentieth century, is the artist’s articulation of his new home in the wake of displacement. The film’s original run time of almost five hours is spliced into thirty minute increments, illuminating three decades of the artist’s life across twelve glowing screens simultaneously. In one tender image, Mekas captures his ex-wife photographing their child as her elderly father snaps a shot behind her, indicating Mekas’s urge to preserve the cycle of life in its early, middle, and final stages. Even as Mekas celebrates cherished moments in his adopted country, his sense of loss is seen through narration and intertitles, one reading, “a man whose lip is always trembling from pain and sorrow experienced in the past.”
Requiem (2019) was the last film Mekas made before his death at 96. Here, the artist shifted to digital video in addition to analog, and the difference in medium reflects a change in content. There are snippets of natural disasters on the news—a fire in Queens, an earthquake in Japan. The artist’s warm narration also takes a noticeable departure, with a symphonic soundtrack carrying throughout. The viewer is left with a reminder of the cyclically unstable nature of the world, that the tragedies that Mekas experienced in his youth persist today.
Requiem does not indulge in pessimism, though: instead, Mekas’s video focuses on quiet contemplation both in form and tone. And despite the introduction of new elements, motifs from his earlier films are apparent. Gorgeous long shots of ordinary flowers in pots, blossoms on trees, or bouquets at a corner store predominantly occupy the work—a meditation on the ephemeral and quotidian brilliance of the world. After experiencing a lifetime of fast-paced joy through Mekas’s images and effervescent voice, I was moved by the dynamism of the artist’s poetics, which simultaneously engage with the wonder and pain of existence. The trauma of his displacement manifests throughout the exhibition, which, while always relevant, seems especially pertinent with Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine—echoing the conflict that left Mekas a refugee in 1944. While there is no answer to overcome the hardship of exile, Jonas Mekas powerfully shows us art’s ability to mitigate that sorrow with his unrelenting pursuit of beauty and ecstasy in the moving image.