Born in Lithuania in 1922 and moving to New York in 1949 after five years being forced to live in the Elmshorn Nazi labour camp, Jonas Mekas bought his first movie camera aged 27. Soon afterwards he became closely involved in the emerging avante-garde film scene there and has been making beautifully personal shorts that capture fleeting moments, often with himself and his close group of friends at the center, ever since. Firmly establishing himself as an influential film-maker, Mekas' work has evolved throughout his career to incorporate installation, photography, poetry and writing. His prose has been translated into over 20 languages internationally and his poetry is taught as part of Lithuanian classic literature.
Now 89 years of age, Mekas is still producing works and is currently presenting his latest installation as part of the Serpentine Garden Marathon, taking part during Frieze week. Along with a huge list of artists and creatives, including Pablo Bronstein, Jake Chapman, Rodney Graham, Wolfgang Tillmans, Alice Rawsthorn and Paul Smith, to name just a small selection, Mekas' work will be presented in the Peter Zumthor-designed Serpentine Pavilion. Shortly after the event, the film-maker will also debut his latest film, SLEEPLESS NIGHTS STORIES as part of the London Film Festival. Dazed caught up with the art-cinema legend to get to the core of his latest projects.
Dazed Digital: How did your involvement with the Serpentine Garden Marathon come about?
Jonas Mekas: I have a long working relationship with Hans Ulrich Obrist. It began some fifteen years ago when he was still carrying a pocket gallery in his pocket, I think he gave me at least two shows in it. Our friendship continued after he moved from Paris to London and I have been a part of Serpentine Marathons for three or four years.
DD: What is your contribution to the project?
Jonas Mekas: At this year's Garden Marathon I will be presenting a neglected, overlooked Lithuanian environmental artist, Vilius Orvydas. His monumental installation in a little town of Salantai, referred as Orvydas Garden, is a very unique and sublime installation that hasn’t yet received enough, if any, recognition in the art world due to the fact that Lithuania has no understanding of its importance and has done nothing to protect it from vandalism.
DD: The subject of the Vilius Oryvas Garden is something that you are looking to raise the profile of through the Serpentine contribution and the recent Agnes B. exhibition. Can you tell me about the situation surrounding the garden?
Jonas Mekas: Orvydas' Garden was built during a period of two decades. As its basic components, Orvydas used huge stones and uprooted trees. The garden was periodically leveled by the communist party during the Soviet regime but Orvydas kept rebuilding it again and again. Today, even after much vandalism, the Garden is considered a sacred place by the younger generation of Lithuanians. I myself consider its importance on the level of Smithson's Spiral Jetty or Gaudi's unfinished cathedral in Barcelona.
DD: You will also be premiering your new film at the London Film Festival. What was it about the 1001 Arabian Nights tale that inspired you?
Jonas Mekas: What amazed me in re-reading 1001 Nights was the down to earth factuality. Sublime fantasy merges with a sublime earthiness. In SLEEPLESS NIGHTS STORIES I try to make reality take small flights into the fantasy. A kind of intensification of reality.
DD: You have chosen to work with close friends in the piece, why did you want to involve yourself in that way? Some of the people in the film are famous, others unknown. Why did you choose to cast it that way?
Jonas Mekas: I always work only with friends, but it must be about them and myself. Because I film only very personal moments, nothing preplanned, staged or written, it has to be real and spontaneous. Some of them have become famous, some are not yet famous, some will never be famous. But they are all my friends. In my movies they are not personalities, they are people.
DD: What is the narrative through each of the stories that pins the film together?
Jonas Mekas: What ties these 25 or so stories together is same as with the 1001 Nights stories stories, which are tied together by the book in which they are printed. My stories are tied together by the fact that they are all on same strip of film, or more correctly in this case, video tape. Originally all of 1001 Nights stories were separate, only later they were collected into volumes. It's their variety, their difference from each other that binds them together, what makes the reader want to read the next one. Same with SLEEPLESS NIGHTS STORIES. No one story resembles the next.