JONAS MEKAS
Requiem

23/02 - 05/05/2024

JONAS MEKAS, Requiem

San Carlo Cremona is delighted to present the eighth show in the space: Jonas Mekas, Requiem. The artwork Requiem, commissioned by and presented at The Shed, New York City, is a meditative tribute to Verdi’s score for Messa da Requiem, or Catholic funeral Mass, and a reflection on the beauty of the natural world. Mekas’ Requiem is an unrelenting comment on life on this planet by an artist who, at the age of 96, was well aware of the horrors of the 20th century and dismayed by the events of the 21st. The primary imagery of this work - which is culled from footage shot by the artist over three-decades from his first Sony analog video camcorder to his HD pocketsized Nikon - is flowers. Cut flowers, garden flowers, wild flowers, and flowers in bloom on trees, hillsides, fields and elsewhere are accompanied by the sounds of nature and Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem.

Inter-titles with translations of lined from the Latin funeral Mass sung by the choir are interspersed throughout the work along with other imagery including recordings of TV news reports inspired by themes from the novel “The Betrothed”, a classic of Italian literature set during a time of upheaval and plague by Alessandro Manzoni. For whom Verdi’s “Requiem” was composed. Artist, poet and director born in Lithuania, Jonas Mekas (1922-2019) was one of the cornerstones of New York’s world-famous independent experimental cinema. A founder of the American avant-grade cinema movement, his works have influenced generations of filmmakers, and have been shown in art exhibitions such as Documenta Kassel, the Venice Biennale, the Serpentine in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Jewish Museum in New York. Requiem by Jonas Mekas is the first show of 2024 to be held in the XVII-century deconsecrated church of San Carlo in Via Bissolati 33, Cremona. The exhibition will be on view until May the 5th, 2024.

Jonas Mekas
Jonas Mekas

Jonas Mekas (b. 1922, Semeniškiai, Lithuania – 2019, Brooklyn, USA) lived and worked in New York City, as an artist, poet and filmmaker whose movies are a cornerstone of independent cinema worldwide. In 1944, Jonas and his brother Adolfas were deported by the Nazis to a forced labour camp in Elmshorn, Germany. At the end of 1949 the UN Refugee Organization brought both men to New York City, where they settled down in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Thanks to the friendship with his compatriot George Maciunas, immediately Mekas became active in the Fluxus group. It is well known, for instance, that he filmed Bed-In (1969) and Up Your Legs Forever (1970), two major performances by Yoko Ono, who, in February 2015, has awarded him with the Lennon Courage Awards for the Arts at the MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1949, two months after his arrival in New York, the artist bought his first Bolex camera. He soon got deeply involved in the American Avant-Garde film movement, at first curating screenings for the non-profit organization Film Forum and the Carl Fischer Auditorium. In 1954 he founded Film Culture magazine, which soon became the most important film publication in the US. In 1958 he began his legendary Movie Journal column in The Village Voice. At the end of 1960 he signed the New American Cinema Manifesto, which is representative of an entire generation of independent filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger among others.

Developing the ideas expressed in the manifesto, in 1962 Mekas founded the Film-Makers' Cooperative and in 1964 the Film-Makers' Cinematheque, which eventually grew into the Anthology Film Archives, one of the world's largest and most important repositories of avant-garde cinema. It is difficult to find an avant-garde filmmaker who has not been influenced by Jonas Mekas: from Andy Warhol's feature-films to Michael Snow's structural cinema, to Stan Brakhage's expressionist cinema, to Stan VanDerBeek's expanded cinema. Many Confirmed artists of the late twentieth century recognized his fundamental role, almost preparatory, for their career: Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, Chantal Akerman, Douglas Gordon, Harmony Korine to name a few. Jonas Mekas is largely credited for progressing diaristic forms of cinema. His second film, The Brig, was awarded the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1963. His filmography includes masterpieces such as Walden (1969); Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972); Lost Lost Lost (1975); As I was Moving Ahead I saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000); A Letter from Greenpoint (2005); Sleepless Nights Stories (2011) and Out-takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012). In 2007 Jonas Mekas completed a series of 365 short films released on his website - one film every day - and since then has continued to share new works online as a way to experiment with cinema in the Internet era. This part of his production was the topic of The Internet Saga, an exhibition that has been presented at Palazzo Foscari Contarini on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale of Visual Arts.

Jonas Mekas’ work has been celebrated over the years in the most relevant contemporary art events in the world: 51th International Art Exhibition, The Experience of Art directed | Always a Little Further, Venice, Italy (2005); 50th International Art Exhibition, Dreams and Conflicts. The Dictatorship of the Viewer, Venice, Italy (2003); Documenta XI, KAssel, Germany (2022); 53th Venice International Film Festival, Venice, Italy (1996); 31st Venice International Film Festival, Venice, Italy (1970) and 25th Venice International Film Festival, Venice, Italy. More recent are the retrospective exhibitions at the Jonas Mekas, Open Archives, Monira Foundation, Chicago, USA (2023); Jonas Mekas: Under the Shadow of the Tree, Padiglione de l’Esprit Nouveau, Bologna, Italy (2023); Images are Real, Mattatoio - Pavilion 9b, Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, Italy (2022-2023); Jonas Mekas: The Camera Was Always Running, The Jewish Museum, New York, USA (2022); Again, again it all comes back to me in brief glimpses, MMCA in Seoul, South Korea (2017); Russian Atlases, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia (2013); Jonas Mekas, MUAC in Mexico City, Mexico (2013); Jonas Mekas, Serpentine Gallery in London, UK (2012) and Jonas Mekas, Centre Pompidou in Paris, France (2012).

WHEN I MET JONAS MEKAS
A conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist

I met Jonas Mekas in the mid-'90s, maybe in 1992/1993, in Paris through our common friend Agnes B - the artist, fashion designer, photographer, collector, philanthropist, founder of the eponymous label, and also of the Fab, the new institution in Paris.
It was immediately a friendship at first sight. We were connected through our passion for conversations. I was, of course, very fascinated by Jonas, recording all these conversations with different people, not only films of cities and all kinds of films but also conversations. He was very much into this idea of conversations, and he didn't understand why I didn't film my conversations.
I always remember we sat near Chatelet in Paris, I think it was at the Mirabelle Café, and there Jonas said he didn’t understand why I visited all these wonderful artists and learned from them and worked with them, but I was not filming it. He said, “One day you will regret that you don't have a film of these recordings”. And as always, I listened; I do listen to artists you know, and I certainly would listen to Jonas. I went on to buy a small camera and started initially on mini DB and later on, of course, on the iPhone and the smartphone to record these conversations. And I have several thousand hours today. So I really owe my archive, in a way - I mean not necessarily the interviews because I've recorded them anyhow in audio - but the fact that I have these interviews as film (which is very precious). I owe this to Jonas.

I've always been very fascinated by Jonas as a filmmaker, as an artist, as a poet. I think, like many younger artists now, he was many. He was a leading figure of avant-garde cinema, one of the great poets of our time.

I always felt it would be really important to do an exhibition that would bring these different aspects of film, video, photographic work, literature together, his remarkably prolific career. And in 2012 we were finally able to do that when I became Co-Director and later Artistic Director of Serpentine. I invited Jonas Mekas together with Julia Peyton-Jones to do a survey that would bring together these many different dimensions of Jonas’ films. It's almost like super string theory writing quantum physics - there are so many dimensions to Jonas. His vision was unique: through all these different forms of expression, he always was able to capture very personal moments of beauty, celebration, the joy of being alive on this planet. And, of course, he invented a very unique diaristic film style already in the '60s. These film diaries recorded very intensely his day-to-day activities and, of course, not only his but also those of his peers of the film and arts community. He had so many wonderful dialogues with artists like Yoko Ono, for example. She was also a friend of mine and always talked about Jonas and the strong bond they had. We wanted to organise this exhibition to do a survey of moving image, poetry, sound. We also realised a feature-length film which we presented as an immersive installation. That also is something which, of course, today is out of significance because so many artists are working with these immersive installations. But Jonas started that. He started it early on.

Jonas once told me that he really wanted to celebrate the small forms of cinema, the lyrical forms, the poem, the watercolour, the A2, the sketch, the postcard, the arabesque, the bagatelle, the little 8-millimeter songs. He said that he's standing in the middle of the highway and he's laughing because a butterfly on a little flower has fluttered its wings so much. And I know that the whole course of history will drastically change because of that flutter. A super-8 camera just made a little soft pass somewhere on a New York Lower East Side, and the world will never be the same.

I find this such a beautiful quote by Jonas, and it brings me to another great collaboration we did, when I started a nano-museum with Jonas in the '90s, a part of a little museum where we did two exhibitions with two or three inches images. It was, really, a very tiny museum.

We also worked on probably about 15 interviews together.

Before then, I also invited him to do an exhibition at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He's one of a few artists with whom I actually worked when I was in Paris at the Musée d'Art Moderne and there we exhibited his films. And then in London, the survey of these different dimensions of his work that I mentioned earlier.

And then as the Senior Artistic Advisor to The Shed, I worked with Alex Poots, the Director, and CEO of The Shed. We co-curated Requiem at The Shed, and it represents the last major work of Jonas. It’s incredible, in a way, that one of the great highlights in my collaboration with Jonas is a piece that is not known enough yet. I am really excited that San Carlo Cremona, together with APALAZZOGALLERY, is showing this piece in Europe for the first time. This is the first time this piece is really showcased as an exhibition because originally the piece was The Shed’s Interdisciplinary Art Centre developed with live music by Currentzis. You have to imagine the film was, in a way, the background in front of which Currentzis Orchestra played. But of course, Jonas' extraordinary Requiem exists as a work in its own right and needs to be celebrated as such, and that's why it's so special that San Carlo Cremona and APALAZZOGALLERY are doing this now for the first time. Alex Poots and I have been reflecting on Jonas’ Requiem together when we presented it at The Shed. The story of Requiem begins in Italy in 1874. That year, the composer Giuseppe Verdi premiered his Messa da Requiem, a setting of the Catholic funeral mass that enraptured audiences at the Church of San Marco in Milan with his gifts for symphonic and choral writing and dramatic use of melody and rhythm. Verdi dedicated his score—written for four soloists, double choir, and orchestra—to his friend Alessandro Manzoni, the famed Italian poet, novelist, and hero of the 19th-century Risorgimento movement for Italian unification who had died the year before. Verdi's masterpiece remains today a virtuosic and transcendent musical homage to the dead.

The Requiem has been transcribed and performed in different ways over the last 145 years, from piano solos to fully staged operas, including performances by prisoners in the Terezín concentration camp in 1943 and 1944.

Mekas, whom the New York Times has called “the godfather of avant-garde cinema,” not only brought his vision as a filmmaker, poet, critic, and philosopher but so too his lifelong love of music to his interpretation of the Requiem. His cinematic artwork, edited by his longtime collaborator Elle Burchill, is an interplay of moving images shot by the artist and text from the Roman Catholic missal, a book of liturgical instructions for performing Mass, that plays in counterpoint to the live performance of the score as a delicate lament for the natural world. Mekas, immigrated to New York City in 1949 from post-war Germany and Lithuania, and passed away in January 2019 at the age of 96. We are proud to share one of his last films as a celebration of his life and generosity, hoping that this Requiem will provide a much-needed moment for collective reflection and meditation across artistic disciplines and historical eras.

And so yeah, forever Jonas Mekas, Jonas Mekas forever.