It’s interesting that Elizabeth Price, who has just won the Turner prize, is thought of as an “artist”, while Jonas Mekas, who has just opened a delightful retrospective of his bumpy, wonky, 16mm outpourings at the Serpentine Gallery, is seen as a “film-maker”. Both make films. Yet one takes the art gallery as her domain, while the other is a famous haunter of cinema clubs, evening showings and fleapits.
As far as I can see, their variant labelling is chiefly a question of age. Price is 46, and falls just within the Turner’s limits; Mekas turns 90 on Christmas Eve, and was born before such limits existed. Their difference is not just a question of semantics. I have been around contemporary art long enough to know that demanding clear definitions of any modern art form is a loser’s game. There is no point getting Louis Walshy about it and saying silly things like: “This is film, not art.” Besides, Price’s winning effort is an effective piece of work that packs a wallop. A throbbing, pulsing rumination on the meaning of the word choir, it manages to segue from the choir of a gothic cathedral to the chorus of a 1960s girl band to the “chorus” of bystanders who witnessed the effects of a fatal fire at a Woolworth’s in Manchester in 1979, in a pumped-up video journey that works really well until the end, when large amounts of flick-of-the-switch slo-mo fail to trigger the appropriate poignancy.
Price remains a decent winner. But that does not magic away the conceptual problematics that accompany the kidnapping of film and video by contemporary art. Has there ever been a greedier cultural monster stalking the earth than the art of today? Just look at all the creative forms that have been swallowed up by it — ballet, music, literature, drama, photography, film. All are findable in today’s art galleries, successfully repackaged and rebranded. It’s a bit like watching the expansion of Tesco. First it was a supermarket. Then it began selling clothes. Then car insurance. Then it went into banking. And DIY. Now it’s opening branches in Japan and China. It has even started a record label!
Gorge and change is the approach of the successful modern corporation — and that is what contemporary art has been doing in the years of Tate expansion. Film is particularly pertinent because so many contemporary artists grew up with it and are so effortlessly familiar with its dynamics.
Film has caught on in art for the same sorts of reasons that the dishwasher has caught on in the kitchen. Essentially, it’s a labour-saving device that leaves your hands free and offers superquick connections to the artistic imagination: expression without effort. You don’t have to learn to carve marble, or paint illusionistically, or any tough stuff like that. All you have to do is record and reshape.
Of course, quick does not necessarily mean shallow. For a warm and charming exposition of the pleasures of impressionist film-making, I recommend the Jonas Mekas event at the Serpentine. Born in Lithuania in 1922, Mekas has been making films in New York for an astonishing 60 years. He arrived in Brooklyn in 1949, via a displaced person’s camp in Germany. Two weeks later, he bought his first Bolex film camera. Since then, he has been using it to record life at the epicentre of the New York avant-garde on a daily basis.
As it happens, I know something about Bolex cameras. I used to make films with them, too. They’re a bitch to use, for two main reasons. First, they operate on a clockwork wind-up mechanism that allows you to take only very short shots. Second, their viewfinders were designed for people with pea-sized eyes and cataracts. You can see hardly anything through them. Unless, that is, you are Jonas Mekas, who saw not only the exciting busyness of the new city in which he had fetched up, but its subtle beauty and elusive rhythms. In his hands, the wobbly, shaky, mercurial energy of the Bolex seemed to find a soul mate in New York. All his films — and there are scores of them playing simultaneously at the Serpentine, creating a filmic cacophony that brings the rhythms of Times Square into Kensington Gardens — are characterised by catch-me-if-you-can imagery and butterfly-short glimpses.
They have two subjects: places and people. In the second category, Mekas appears to have filmed everyone who was ever anyone in the New York avant-garde between 1949 and now. Their quickly glimpsed faces, popping up at parties, picnicking in Central Park, constitute an impressive who’s who of creative types from the Big Apple’s cultural heyday. There’s John and Yoko eating dumplings with Andy Warhol in George Macunias’s basement. There’s Lou Reed and Edie Sedgwick. There’s Allen Ginsberg. Norman Mailer. Jackie Onassis. This is film-making that shares some of its DNA with autograph-hunting.
Mekas may have lived in Brooklyn since 1949, but he’s never lost that sense of being an outsider with his face pressed against the window. His other subject, the city itself, is another fan letter. A particularly charming film playing at the Serpentine consists chiefly of shots of the World Trade Center collected from the backgrounds of his earlier films. The twin towers with a seagull gliding fatefully before them. The twin towers in the fog. The twin towers as unmissable symbols of hope at the end of a typical SoHo vista. They’re just tiny background moments, rescued from other situations, but how potently and poetically they have taken to the foreground.
In his native Lithuania, Mekas is best known as a poet. And these quick-fire, cross-fingered filmic observations have something of the haiku about them: little is shown, lots is implied. The film-clubby Serpentine display also includes some of his Lithuanian poetry, in which he remembers the village in which he was born and the people he grew up with. Another sad section returns to the refugee camp in which he was kept prisoner when he escaped from wartime Lithuania.
Despite this difficult personal history, Mekas insists he has led an exciting and happy life. His latest film, premiered at the show, is actually called The Life of a Happy Man. But the sensations that linger afterwards are slow-acting and poignant. What a courageous life. What a brave old boy. What gentle and delicate moods film was capable of preserving before it was kidnapped by contemporary art.