View of Douglas Gordon’s video installation I Had Nowhere to Go, 2016, 96-minute loop, at Eva Presenhuber.

The Scottish artist Douglas Gordon is drawn to iconic figures. With 24 Hour Psycho (1993), for instance, he paid homage to Hitchcock, radically slowing down the director’s 1960 film. For Zidane: A 21st Century Portait (2005–06), which he made in collaboration with Philippe Parreno and which exists as both a film and a two-screen installation, he captured the soccer star Zinédine Zidane from multiple perspectives for the duration of a game. Gordon’s recent exhibition at Eva Presenhuber consisted of a video installation titled I Had Nowhere to Go that took Jonas Mekas, the ninety-four-year-old grandee of New York’s experimental cinema, as its subject. Gordon concentrated on Mekas’s diaries from 1944, the year he left his native Lithuania to escape Nazi persecution, to 1954, by which time he had settled in Brooklyn and started a film magazine. (Mekas published these diaries under the same name as the installation in 1991.)

The installation featured a floor-to-ceiling projection on one wall and two flat monitors near the middle of the room. As we listened to a voiceover of Mekas reading excerpts from his diaries, darkness often prevailed. Sporadically, images—of a gorilla, a chimp, bare feet walking in snow, beetroots and potatoes cooking—appeared on the three screens and were reflected in the dozen or so poster-size mirrors that hung on the walls. Gordon used Mekas’s diaries in a nonlinear way. We moved back and forth in time, hearing about Mekas’s visit to the lone surviving chimpanzee in Hamburg Zoo, his impressions of New York upon his arrival, his experiences in displaced persons camps, his transit through Germany.  The imagery on-screen repeated at different points, enhancing the zigzagging quality. 

At one juncture, Mekas appeared on the large projection, recounting a tale about a Russian soldier destroying his first photographic efforts. Aside from this cameo, we did not see him, but only heard his voice. There was also a periodic soundtrack of explosions, distant music, and thrumming machines.    

The film received mixed reviews when the artist released a cinematic version last year, with some critics saying it lacked narrative drive and investigative bite. However, shown in the form of an art installation, a format Mekas himself has embraced, the work was effective. The rich color, minimal lighting, quiet observation, occasional action, and non-narrative collage all echoed Mekas’s own filmmaking techniques.

As we learned from the diary passages, Mekas could not return to the home he knew, because Lithuania lost its sovereignty in the war. The viewer of this exhibition was positioned in a kind of limbo, too, waiting for the subject to reveal itself. Mekas questioned patriotism, championed literature, and spoke of seeking out culture even when he was hungry and exhausted. Man can live on bread and art alone, Gordon seemed to suggest, but it takes an extraordinary figure like Mekas to manage doing so.