“No, I’m not tired—I don’t know what being tired is!” said Jonas Mekas, the 93-year-old artist and filmmaker, a few hours after flying into Basel, Switzerland, from his home in New York. It was Wednesday night, and Art Basel was in full swing. Mekas was sitting wearing a Panama hat during a dinner in his honor at Restaurant Rhyschänzl. He was vigorous enough to put the jet-lagged Basel arrivals 60 years his junior to shame.
It was Mekas’s first trip to Basel, the city and the fair, and he made the trek because his dealer, James Fuentes, had dedicated his booth to pictures of Mekas during his time as a refugee after the end of World War II, having been captured by the Nazis after fleeing from his native Lithuania. He spent years in a German camp for displaced persons. It’s a dazzling and heartbreaking booth, the pictures lined up on the walls, as the images show the quotidian acts of eating lunch, hanging out, and just existing in limbo, unsure when they would go to a new place they’d call home.
“I was not alone, after the war, because when Germany was defeated, at that point there were millions in flight from Germany—I was one of 18 million,” Mekas said, while eating some ice cream and finishing a little white wine. “That 18 million consisted of war prisoners, and the others were forced laborers, dragged from all the occupied countries, to work in Germany, for the war machine.”
Mekas noted that Basel, while in Switzerland, is just across the border from Germany, and not too far from the area that he stayed in while held in internment for those years.
“Myself and my brother ended up in the forced labor camp near Hamburg, and four, five years we stayed in this place, and eventually those camps were dispersed but it took time, it took a long time,” Mekas said.
These images can’t help but evoke the current wave of immigrants trying to leave Syria to make their way to Europe, some taking similar routes as the migrants following World War II. It’s kind of a gamble to bring overtly political works to a fair like Art Basel, where the transaction is king—the photographs, which come in an edition of five, are selling for $10,000 each—but Mekas said it’s important to make that connection.
“Those images are from that period, it’s part of that time, I’m part of many others who have gone through that experience—and now we see that happening today,” he said. “It’s a similar situation when you see the images from the refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, they are very, very similar images.”
Mekas and his brother eventually escaped from the camps and, with the help of the UN Refugee Organization, made their way to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they settled into a building on Meeker Street (the same building that, incidentally, now houses the gallery Real Fine Arts, which is showing here in Basel at Liste). He bought his first camera soon after arriving, and by the mid-1950s had established himself in the avant-garde film scene. He cofounded, with his brother, Film Culture magazine and later became the first film critic of the Village Voice. The story goes that he introduced Andy Warhol to Lou Reed. He also won the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival for The Brig, befriended John Lennon and Yoko Ono through the Fluxus founder George Maciunas, and would spend summers in Montauk with Jackie Kennedy teaching the young John F. Kennedy Jr. about filmmaking.
(Here’s a good time to say that there was another film-world person there at Restaurant Rhyschänzl Wednesday night: Adrien Brody was sitting at the head of the table at a dinner organized by Pace Gallery’s Marc Glimcher, who was seated to Brody’s left. Glimcher has never shied away from inviting a celebrity into his gallery.)
Mekas also came to Basel to screen in the Film sector Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a film he made in 1971 while on his first trip back to his home country after escaping during the war. It plays tonight, and will be followed by a talk with Mekas and the Film sector curator Maxa Zoller.
“The film is me revisiting my home village, visiting my mother, after 25 years in exile, because the Soviets did not permit me to go,” Mekas said. “But eventually I got them to give me a permit to come. All the details that I picked up in the film, they are memories from childhood, and when the Soviets saw the film, they asked me to destroy it. There was some film expert organization, and one of the representatives saw the film and said, ‘How do you dare show this film, it does not show anything about the progress, the achievements of the Soviet Union in Lithuania! The Soviet Union saved the Lithuanians!’ But I said I was not interested in filming that aspect, I was interested in filming my childhood.”
Now he’s revisiting it again, watching a film he made over 40 years ago, now that the world where he grew up has been completely upended many times over.
“None of it exists anymore, now none of it is there, so it’s a document of the period, of how the Lithuanian village used to be,” he said. “In a way, I was an anthropologist. Much of what I do, my cinema, I’m like an anthropologist, recording moments of humanity of my contemporaries today, and the essential moments.”
Mekas is only staying in Basel a few days, and after a quick jaunt to Vienna he is heading home to New York, where he lives in Clinton Hill and works at Anthology Film Archives, the cinephile’s paradise and indie theater in the East Village that he founded in 1970.
He’s something of a legendary figure in the neighborhood, having long been a habitué of the now-gone Mars Bar (he made a lovely film about the wonderfully rancid place), the Russian beer joint Anyway Cafe, and the French bistro Lucien, where he takes Anthology patrons after screenings and has his birthday party every year, on Christmas Eve. (He was overjoyed when I told him that the son of the restaurant’s founder, who now runs the operations at Lucien, was actually in Basel this week for the fair, and insisted we take a selfie and send it to him.) He can’t stay away from the neighborhood for too long, as he’s quite busy; he has three books coming out in the next year.
“I’m doing 10 to 15 things at the same time—but I’m not planning, I’m just doing,” he said.
And there are major plans to expand Anthology—a new library for printed editions, an extension of the film library, a new cafe for the theater’s neighbors—even as the block of Second Avenue and Second Street, where it’s stood for decades, has been rapidly gentrifying. Mars Bar is now a bank, there’s an upscale pet store called Unleashed that just opened across the street, and most of the foot traffic leads to Whole Foods.
Still, Mekas says he will never leave the space.
“We will be there,” Mekas said. “The building was built as a prison, it’s very strong—it will last 600 or 700 years.”
After dinner was wrapping up around midnight, James Fuentes tapped a glass and gave a toast to Mekas and Alison Knowles, whose performance Make a Salad was restaged this year in Basel. He thanked Knowles, who was seated down at the other end of the table, and Mekas, calling them his mentors, and his family. Midway through the toast, Mekas reached in a bag and pulled out a big blocky camcorder, long discontinued, that he found on eBay, and started filming the toast, capturing the essential moments as other dinner guests took out their iPhones to film Mekas filming.