An Arabesque for Marie Menken, Tate Modern, Sat 15 Nov - Sun 16 Nov 2008. Curated by Lucy Reynolds.
Last week's post on Marie Menken was bizarre. Based on very limited exposure to her work - Ubuweb, a google search, and a copy of the Film Culture reader - I wanted to generate a response to her work that didn't reproduce the oppositions these materials revealed: the gossip about a turbulent emotional life versus the celebration of a quiet, thoughtful lyricism. Maybe, I wondered, the body-camera could also be read in terms that were agitative, turbulent and dissociative rather than blissful, calm and engaged.
Many of these ideas were revised by the screenings and discussions comprising last weekends excellent An Arabesque for Marie Menken, curated by Lucy Reynolds at Tate Modern. But the sense of how to engage with Menken remained, with different strands of the event emphasising the films themselves, the emotional complexities of her marriage and other relationships, as well as broader artistic movements and trends. One speaker, Melissa Ragona, for example, was keen to move Menken away from categories of film-diary or poem, emphasising instead her alignments with conceptualism, pop, and structuralist film.
All of which was fascinating but could rather take over from the films themselves, which were divided into two screenings. On the Saturday there was a programme highlighting Menken's relationships to landscapes, buildings and natural objects. A further selection on Sunday focussed on films with direct relations to artists ands art objects. Alongside this, there was a screening of work by the Gryphon Film Group - including, amongst others, Menken, her husband Willard Maas, Brakhage and Charles Boultenhouse - and a programme highlighting Menken as performer in other peoples films.
After last weeks essay I need to start with Glimpse of the Garden (1957) and the gorgeous colour that has evaporated from the various versions on the internet. Indeed, Menken's sensibility as a colourist, her related exploration of surface and depth, and how she navigated around buildings or landscapes were some of the themes that emerged from the first batch of films, alongside a continual exploration around relations of sound and image - both in collaboration with Teijo Ito or, as in Glimpse, through combining her images with an LP of bird song.
Menken engaged with the medium of film as entwined in nature. In Moonplay (1962) an initial moon appears crumpled into the materiality of the film itself, before being replaced by another moon more evocative of electric light. Menken is always fucking up nature, observed Ragona, actually referring to Glimpses where Menken shakes a branch to generate required raindrops. The unfolding shifts and twists of Menken's body-camera are somewhat elusive at first viewing, but it would be fascinating to reconstruct them and try and inhabit those swings of attention.
Elsewhere there were studies of city movement and traffic in Go! Go! Go! (1962-4); flickering flames over shots of sperm with a fireworks soundtrack in Hurry! Hurry! (1957); whilst sections of Notebook (1963) demonstrated her interest in animated paper cutouts. What linked these different techniques was a stop-start sensibility, an interest in momentum interfused with actual or potential interruption, lingering and delay. This is how Menken's work becomes - to quote one of the contested terms in the weekends discussions - "play." It is part, too, of a sense of nature always interfused with human fallibility; of shifts from establishing shot to close up uninterested in maintaining a sense of ordered, gradated, perspectival space.
Marie Menken (from TOP:) Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945); Hurry! Hurry! (1957). Copyright Menken estate.
Before Sunday's programme of Menken films, there was a chance to see Menken - known to her (male) contemporaries as "The Body" - as performer in Warhol's The Life of Juanita Castro (1965). The film comprised a tableau of around a dozen performers, including Ronald Tavel, who reads aloud from his script. Tavel calls out the name of the speaker and the line, and the actors then dutifully repeat their words. At the front of the tableau, dressed in their own everyday clothes, sits Menken as Castro's wife, flanked by two women playing Castro and Che Guevara. Menken's performance style offers a useful frame for reading her own films.
Menken's physical presence is immense and often hilarious. The same sense of delay and repeat between Tavel and the actors is also enacted by Menken's body, so that her face and gestures have a sense of delay, suggesting thinking, processing, and an ever volatile sense of non-comprehension and unpredictability. This tension dynamises the tableau, working similarly to Warhol's decision to film from a side camera, whilst the actors assume a more frontal placed camera is the one doing the recording. When Menken stands she moves partly out of the frame and into an eloquent, suggestively invisible off-screen space.
As shown on Sunday afternoon, Menken also played bit parts in films by The Gryphon Film Group, whose cinema was romantic, mythological, and saturated in the influence of Cocteau. According to Ragona, Menken laughed at this mythological approach. But, of course, the Gryphon Group's films jar not just with Menken's work, but with the future developments in New American Cinema, and of its own participants, notably Brakhage. It is interesting to reflect whether this romantic, poetic, Cocteau- like sensibility disappeared or was transmuted in the pop and structural work that followed.
A final set of Menken films focussed on her relationship to art: both art objects and the artists themselves. In Watts with EGGS (1967) a fluxbox was opened and the silver eggs playfully arranged and re-arranged in a rapid-fire stop-motion sequence. In Drips and Strips (1963), paint was allowed to run down a vertical board. This tied the gestures of abstract expressionism more to gravity than to any grand artistic sensibility. It also dramatised Menken's own relationship both inside and outside various groups, sensibilities and techniques.
Similarly, if her portrait Andy Warhol (1965) has an intimate closeness in its shots of the artist at work, it also removes itself from Warhol's studio to film the real Brillo box factory and its workers. Like her focus on Warhol and Malanga making screenprints, it's another example of Menken's interest in production that fuses the hand-made, organic and mechanical. In Mood Mondrian (1963) this is revealed in two techniques. Firstly, the juxtaposition of still frames into a rapid collage. Secondly, the rapid movement of the camera itself over the paintings own lines and squares.
Which just left a final Q&A. As well as critical arguments, a lot of valuable information emerged from panelists and audience. For example, title credits - often by Jack Hawkins - were added by Menken when a screening opportunity came along in order, Menken believed, to give the films a desired professionalism. Melissa Ragona, meanwhile, stressed Menken's influence on Warhol - and her salon home with Maas as a proto-Factory - but also warned against over-emphasising Menken's historical role. She highlighted Carolee Schneeman's recent observation that it had been humiliating to see Menken at home "servicing the daisy chain"- bringing drinks and cookies to Maas and his boyfriends.
Other parts of Menken's life and work remained mysterious, not least a precise sense of what she thought she was doing. A video tribute by Jonas Mekas was criticised - by Ragona and others - for his description of Menken's "little little films", as if this patronisingly denied her both a purpose and a project. I saw Mekas's remark as a philosophical position about the inherent uncertainty and fragility of certain types of moving image making. It was an uncertainty hard to hold onto amidst all the screenings and discussions. By the end of a fascinating weekend I wasn't sure if I believed in it or not.