Chris Marker Show Premieres in Brazil

Jul 27, 2009

Never having been south of Mexico City, and armed with a knowledge of Portuguese limited to bossa nova song lyrics from the late 1960s, I was recently both excited and daunted by the prospect of visiting Säo Paulo, where our Chris Marker exhibition, Staring Back, was opening at the Museu da Imagem e do Som, on Bastille Day, no less. I had no serious misgivings about the exhibition itself; when I'd expressed mild concern to the artist about wanting the show to replicate the sequencing of the 200 photos and the generally desired feeling of the installation overall, he told me not to over think it, writing, "The Brazilians are cool people and I tend to trust them." And so I did and so they were, and the exhibition looks as good, perhaps better, than in any of its previous iterations.

The MIS is an elegant, open space, presenting multi-media exhibitions, holding workshops, hosting residencies, providing online computer access to visitors, and generally serving the cause of moving image media literacy. Prior to the exhibition, another organization, the Centro Cultural Banco de Brasil had supported a near-exhaustive screening series of Marker's film and video projects, Bricoleur Multimedia, that also toured to Rio de Janeiro and Brasília, accompanied by a first-rate catalogue. While all these activities might have technically fallen under the national initiative of the Ano da Franca no Brazil (an eight-month long series of French culture), the month of July felt like it belonged to Marker alone, with extensive write-ups in the local and national press, and even television coverage. (The interviewer asked me what Marker's position on existentialism was; I invented one in response.)

MIS Curators Mariana Almaral and Alvaro Razuk, who supervised the graceful installation.

Opening in an adjacent gallery space, an amazing rotunda, was Solar, an experimental project by Brazilian artists Rejane Cantoni and Leonardo Crescenti, an enormous, interactive robotic installation that simulates the functioning of a sundial, and in keeping with MIS's commitment to experimentation and to the support of working artists, visitors will be able to interact with the artists during the course of the exhibition as they explore the device's potential and capacities. Solar's physical adjacency to Staring Back made for a fortuitous interchange, the profound stillness of times past suggested in Marker's backward glances playing off the imposing sculptural presence of Solar as it too weighed in on how time itself is given physical form, how it's measured and how it might be caught.

The artists, being introduced by MIS's irrepressible director, Daniella Bousso.

A few days later I was fortunate to be given a tour of the Cinemateca Brasileira, the national archive for film preservation and research, a stunning compound of buildings housed mainly in the shell of a designated architectural landmark: a 19th century abattoir. Two of the Cinemateca staff, Paula Signorelli, who'd previously worked at MIS, and Millard Schisler, led me on a top to bottom tour of the compound, which also includes two screening venues, paper archives on the history of the national film industry and its most important players, still photographs and promotional ephemera, and fully up-to-date labs and facilities for preserving 35mm film as well as emerging digital forms and already antiquated ones (e.g., reel to reel video). I don't think I'm naïve in the dynamics of working in a cultural institution, but I can't remember visiting one where I could observe workers (of all ages, from quite elderly to very young) laboring together and with such resolve on something they collectively believed to be of value. I found it inspiring, and unexpectedly moving.

That said, Säo Paulo is, by some metrics, the fourth largest city in the world, a megalopolis, its skyline an incomprehensible sprawl of thousands of virtually indistinguishable (and, it ought to be said, largely undistinguished) concrete high-rises. In that respect, it's not a city that makes you love it on first sight unless you're enchanted by seeing how many things you never knew could be done in or with or to concrete. But after a week spent walking semi-aimlessly in all directions (maps being an open joke that even residents seem to be in on…; streets whimsically changing name in mid-block, and distances that look manageable on a map turning out to require semi-professional hiking skills), and basically getting near-hopelessly lost every time I ventured more than a block from my hotel, by the time I was ready to leave, I was letting myself harbor the delusion that I finally "knew my way around." Of course, I didn't; once back home, I was looking at a map and I couldn't even locate my hotel, much less its general neighborhood.

None of that matters, really, though. What meant the most to me was the graciousness of my paulistano hosts, their instinctive and profound hospitality, not to mention their excellent taste in restaurants, from the landmark Sujinho, the go-to joint for steak, to the newer Brasil a gusto, winner of a best restaurant in the country award a mere eight months after opening, and where my multi-lingual Brazilian hosts were at a loss for coming up with English translations of what we were eating, since much of it consisted of ingredients found only in Brazil. But I can't say I came back with any more knowledge of Portuguese than when I arrived, except for the phrase I found myself saying numerous times each day: "Obrigado, muito obrigado." "Thank you, thanks a lot, really…," more or less gets at in English, though probably less, not more.

The last word, as before, goes to Guillaume-en-Egypte: