Jonas Mekas, film-maker, artist and poet at the Serpentine Gallery

By Richard Moss | 07 December 2012
a film still of a woman wearing an Asian style wicker hat
Jonas Mekas. He Stands in a Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life 1969/1985 Caroline Kennedy in China Town, New York, 1972.© 2012 Jonas Mekas

Exhibition Preview: Jonas Mekas at The Serpentine Gallery, London until January 27 2013.

When Jonas Mekas escaped the war-ravaged landscape of Lithuania in 1949 for the bright lights of New York, one of the first things he did was buy a cheap movie camera.

A constant companion ever since, his Bolex 16mm has accompanied him on a journey from beatnik movie snapshots of New York’s Lower East Side in the fifties to the immersive multi part movie installations and iPod experiments of recent years.

The mediums may have evolved, but another constant in this sixty year trajectory of avant garde film making has been the transitory poetry of the short film.

a gallery photo with a glass case full of photo equipment in ht eforeground and a montage of images in the background
LAVENDER PIECE 2012, 16mm film transferred to video, various dates. Bolex cameras owned by Mekas. Installation view.© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

“I want to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical forms, the poem, the watercolour, etude, sketch, portrait, arabesque, bagatelle and little 8mm songs,” says Mekas, who turns 90 on December 24.

This welcome retrospective features the world premiere of a new feature-length film, Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man. A kind of collage of captured fragments and moments, there is perhaps no better summation of the career of this veteran champion of avant garde film who has collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg and film-makersKenneth Anger and Maya Deren.

Mekas’ love of life, his spirit of adventure and his commitment to experimental artforms can be explored across the gallery walls via stills, film portraits of friends, family and ephemera and in the many films which flicker into life – like haikus offering transitory glimpses into a beautiful whole.

“I am standing in the middle of the information highway and laughing, because a butterfly on a little flower somewhere just fluttered its wings, and I know that the whole course of history will drastically change because of that flutter," adds Mekas.

"A super-8 camera just made a little soft buzz somewhere, on New York’s Lower East Side, and the world will never be the same.”

A personal, transitory celebration of the moment, Mekas' approach has made him a hero to successive generations of film-makers, from Martin Scorcese and Jim Jarmusch to Mike Figgis and Harmony Korine.

A visit to the Serpentine reveals why he continues to exert a powerful influence on the film world and beyond.

More pictures: 

a photo of two frames of film strip showing a group of people
Jonas Mekas, Award Presentation to Andy Warhol 1964, Andy Warhol's factory. 16mm film frame.© 2012 Jonas Mekas

a photo of framed documents, photos and other imagery and ephemera on a gallery wall
To Petrarca 2009, Digital print on photographic paper on aluminium. Dimensions variable.© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

a photo of a man in gallery in front of a film projection
THE FIRST FORTY 2006, 16mm film transferred to video.© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

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