Outside, on the cold streets of New York’s borough of Brooklyn, there is still plenty of frozen ice and snow, the leftovers of several snowstorms that battered the Eastern Seaboard over the last weeks. Jonas Mekas, dressed in his blue working outfit, stands in the door of a spacey loft in a former shoe factory where he lives and works and shares the place with several well-fed cats.
He greets us and we move to the kitchen table filled with some very old and new books and flowers that he received from his longtime friend Yoko Ono. Just a week earlier, Jonas Mekas received Yoko Ono’s Courage Award at a ceremony in New York City’s MOMA.
We sit down with the father of avant-garde cinema, a serious man with a very sharp mind, in his loft filled with archives and artwork.
Jonas Mekas, a man with a long, rich and eventful life, has become somewhat of an icon. He turned 92 in December. It has been a long and remarkable journey for a young man of 22 who escaped Lithuania with his brother in 1944. They spent almost a year in a German forced labour camp but managed to escape, waiting in Denmark for WWII to end. He studied at the University of Mainz and in 1949 left as a displaced person for the USA. Within weeks he bought a Bolex film camera and has been making movies ever since.
Brother Adolfas and Fluxus
Together with his brother Adolfas, he was part of Fluxus, an art movement founded by George Mačiūnas, where he met Yoko Ono in the early 1960s and worked with the likes of Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg. Among the perhaps lesser-known facts of his life is an episode when he taught filmmaking to President John F. Kennedy’s children, John, and Caroline (the present US ambassador to Japan).
In November 2007, Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center opened in Vilnius.
Mekas is still very active with art installations and exhibits. He is also a poet and his books have been published in many languages. He plans soon to publish a two-part diary entitled “I Seem To Live…”
What are your views on the state of the art world?
The art world during the last decade has been in a transition. This has been brought on with the changes in technology and in particular the Internet, where so much is happening right now. It has a profound effect on all art forms. That is an important aspect, as an artist can reach a very wide public in very little time.
This came at a moment when art was becoming very expensive and large galleries took a large part of the market with lots of smaller galleries disappearing. More recently, there has been a reaction to big money taking too much importance. Therefore, there has been a return to more human-sized galleries retaking part of the art market.
There has been a lot of rethinking by the curators and the artists themselves. It was mainly the artists that were not happy with the way their art was presented in museums and galleries. Smaller galleries have been able to attract again more attention.
But this new technology has become an interesting tool in terms of accessibility and dealing directly with your public, hasn’t it?
That is true and not only that, technology expands the possibilities. Take poetry. There is written and printed poetry, but now we also have digital poetry developing. So, in addition to the written words, a visual aspect is added. New forms come into existence because of the new technologies. That makes for interesting changes.
What is there in these new art forms that fascinates you?
There was a period when I was only in motion pictures, making movies. It was expensive to distribute my work. Physical copies of the movies needed to be made and theatres were very selective. There are preferences for personalities.
Nowadays I can make a movie, I can put it immediately out, upload it on the internet and people can decide for themselves if they like it or not. So it has become much easier to distribute my work at a very low cost, something that makes me happy. It is also a more personal experience, almost one-to-one, as opposed to projecting it on a big screen where one sits with a few hundred other viewers.
The fact that I am a diarist, my work is a visual diary and something about real life, as opposed to some invented story that is developed; this new form allows for communication at a more personal level and suits my work perfectly.
Do you have any plans to exhibit your work in Lithuania in the near future?
There are no plans in the near future. But I will have at least three shows in Europe. In May, I will have a show in the art section at the Venice Biennale. Then in mid-May, I will be in Sarajevo and teach at the Film Factory, a workshop organised by the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr. Then later in the autumn, I will return to Venice and participate in Venice Film Festival. In addition to the European shows, I will also have a show of my photographs and prints in Houston sometime in August. So, no plans for Lithuania this year.
Are there at this moment Lithuanian artists or movie makers that you find interesting?
I am not familiar with what is being done in Lithuania with cinema. I do not see it or have access to it. I know what was done some 15 or 20 years ago. I respect very much the work of Šarūnas Bartas. His work is at an international level and I consider him an important filmmaker. In 1989, some 12 or 15 students from Lithuania came to Anthology Film Archives for a summer seminary. These students returned to Lithuania and after Lithuania regained independence they became the main body of documentary filmmakers. I had all these main figures in the movie world as my students.
Alantė Kavaitė won a prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
She is part of the new generation of moviemakers and I am less familiar with those. I am sure there must be others too.
Lithuania regaining independence 25 years ago, joining the EU and NATO in 2004 and even becoming part of the eurozone – are these developments something that you could have imagined happening in your lifetime?
Nobody could have imagined the independence until just a few years before it actually happened. Nobody could have imagined the Soviet Union to collapse and it came suddenly, but then the collapse happened very fast.
I am glad that the European Union exists. However, I am not so sure how it benefits smaller countries. It may be good for countries like France, Germany and Italy with firmly established cultures and languages. I think that smaller countries will suffer and are in danger and at risk, like endangered species. I feel it would have been better for Lithuania not to join the European Union. It was a mistake.
Lithuania has a long history of making mistakes. It started already back in the 1920s when the decision was made to destroy the villages and allow for individual farms and settlement, similar to what happened earlier in the Netherlands and Germany, and I feel that this had a negative effect on the Lithuanian culture as did many other influences. I may be more conservative than even amid conservatives with regard to the Lithuanian culture and language.
What brought you to posting just recently on Facebook a sticker ‘Make War, Not Love – signed – Devil’?
I am preparing the publication of my written diaries (“I Seem To Live…”) that will be published in two parts. I was looking for appropriate photos and illustrations; I came across this little scribble.
But isn’t that statement obvious? There must be at least 50 conflicts at present in the world. Therefore, this sticker is timely and a perfect message.
You received the Courage Award from Yoko Ono recently. She and John Lennon had these famous billboards in the early 1970s advocating “Making Love…”
I am indeed an old friend of Yoko Ono. I could not say no. I do not need awards. I feel a bit embarrassed getting awards.
Have you ever regretted leaving Lithuania? Do you think you could have achieved your fame if you had been a young filmmaker in Lithuania rather than New York?
I would never have been a filmmaker in Lithuania because if I had stayed even one week longer, I would not exist anymore. The German military police were after me because I was part of the underground. There had been some informants and I had to leave immediately. If I had been able to stay, the Soviets would have deported me, or worse, as I had written poems and as part of the underground. I would simply not exist.
Luckily, we were able to escape before they got to us. We were in Zarasai and close to the front line. We could hear the war rumbling on close by. I am very lucky and happy with what I am doing now and I think that I am more useful now to Lithuania being here than if I would be there.
We now have a few questions from some distinguished Lithuanians.
Prof. Vytautas Landsbergis: To what do you attribute your secret of remaining young?
All this is a well-known concept passed on through the ages: wine, women, and song. And of course the right attitude to life combined with the good genes that my mother and father passed on to me. My last movie, “Outtakes From the Life of a Happy Man”, is about that very subject.
When I was 14, I started running 1km every day and a few years later I started with brother to engage in martial arts. We became obsessed with jiu-jitsu. So the physical exercise helped my body.
Linas Linkevičius (Minister of Foreign Affairs): When did you buy your hat?
(Smiles) I have a long history with hats. It goes back to my childhood. My uncle was studying theology in Switzerland and he gave me his old straw hats, whenever he bought a new one. Later in life, I changed styles.
(He laughs and gets up and shows his two hats, the slightly beaten up ‘Mekas hat’ – most likely the one the minister refers to – and then a more recent one in the southern French style.)
About five years ago I decided to get this French style cap so that I could be a bit more ‘invisible’ and a bit less recognised on the street.
(Mekas laughs again and says) It did not work.
Monsignor Rolandas Makrickas of the Papal Nuntius in Washington: What does it mean for you as an artist to go back to Lithuanian and especially to your native town Biržai?
For me, it means going home to reconnect for a moment with my roots. Because you cannot detach these roots completely where you come from and they run very deep. These roots go very deep, not just into the language, but also into the land itself. These roots remain connected and they are never completely cut off. I feel like for a moment returning home.
One is and has to be reborn several times, that was one part of my life, and since that time, I have lived several different lives. However, one is still connected to the original source and you cannot uproot that. Whatever I do, the place where I was born is where the subtle and essential parts are that make me who I am and where I come from. (Mekas shows a number of spiritual books that provide him with daily reflections.)
Lithuanian Ambassador to the USA, Žygimantas Pavilionis: Would it be very Fluxus not to ask a question?
(Mekas pauses for a moment and says) In a certain way, yes.
Consul General of Lithuanian in New York, Julius Pranevičius: How do you explain that an art movement like Fluxus has its roots in two Lithuanian displaced people?
Questions as to where and why in some places a certain art movement starts cannot really be answered. Not only in the case of Fluxus, but also as to why the Beat generation or Pop Art came at that moment in history. There are developments of course rooted in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism. There were Modernism and Post-Modernism, Minimalism and finally Conceptualism.
Fluxus came out of Conceptualism in the 1960s. When George (Mačiūnas) met Yoko Ono, she was already very much into Conceptual art, which was very active at that time in Japan. She brought that to the USA. There were other reasons and artist as there was a real transition going on. All Classical art ended and underwent changes and that was noticeable in music, theatre and in the cinema started popping up.
Whenever an art form takes itself too serious, that leads to a reaction. These changes were well underway in the period between 1955 and 1965. George and Yoko were there at this important crossroad of change and I was there to help George. There are many factors at that confluence of time, partially in reaction to established forms, partly other changes in society. George arrived with his smile, a light touch and his sense of humour. Other movements such as the Futurists came with denunciations.
Humanity needs some humour and Fluxus provided that and applied that light touch. Humour leads to positivity and a force for the good. If a terrorist had a bit lighter touch, some sense of humour, they would not do their awful deeds.
(Jonas Mekas switches the subject and explains how terrorist have it all wrong because they lack a sense of humour. He continues with an anecdote about an exhibition of his work in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg in 2013.)
They had their classic art collection, but in 2013, they opened a modern wing in the Hermitage with an exhibition of Fluxus and my work. The director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, asked me what it was all about and I told him that it was all about humour, lightness, and humanity. And, I said, that is what Russia and humanity needs, a bit more humour.
What do you think about the conflict in Ukraine?
He (Putin) is obsessed. I think he is evil. I think you can reason rationally and he will say ‘yes’ and he will agree, but he will do what he is doing because he is possessed by evil. He is not possessed with the spirit of Russia but by other spirits. He will go on, until he self-destroys. I do not think that today he can really conquer Europe.
The 170 million or so Russians are not able to deal with that. Of course, he has that (nuclear) bomb, but at some point, I see him self-destructing. Possibly someone will get rid of him, but meanwhile, he will do a lot of damage. The West has not to give in to him. One needs to be like a strong father with a badly behaving child. (Speaks up) Stop it, right there! I am not sure that the West will be able to do that.
As we get ready to take a few photographs for the article, Mekas stands up to get his southern style French cap. On the way out, we see a jumbo photo in his hallway of a film clip that Mekas made of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol. What a fascinating life it seems true!