Jem Cohen at Whitechapel


As part of an ongoing retrospective Jem Cohen: Compass & Magnet, film maker Jem Cohen was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery on Saturday afternoon (April, 11th) for a screening of a number of his works: 12 short films – akin to newsreels – made during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protest; Real Birds, a 10 minute film made on the 10th anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre; and a pre-release, almost-but-not-quite finished, version of his most recent film, Counting. Allowing for an in-conversation session with the gallery’s film curator and a short tea and toilet break, that amounted to nearly five hours in the Whitechapel’s less than sumptuous auditorium, hard on the bum, but fascinating nonetheless.

The only film of Cohen’s that I knew well before the afternoon was Museum Hours, a rare – and beautiful – venture into fictional narrative and, I would guess, the only one of his films to have been given a fairly widespread theatrical release. Set in Vienna, and filmed largely in the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum, its narrative revolves around a brief friendship between two otherwise lonely people, one of the museum guards and a Canadian woman who has gone to Vienna to visit an ailing but distant relative.

You can see the trailer for Museum Hours here …

Speaking about the film, Cohen was keen to stress its similarities with his other work, rather than its differences. In some respects, he said, the relationship between the two characters was like a comfortable sweater, there to help the viewer relax and feel at home with what was happening; that done, he allowed the sweater gradually to unravel until the film became more clearly at one with his other work.The idea for the film began for him, Cohen said, with the art works in the museum, the crowded paintings of Breughel in particular  – the way in which, instead of focussing the viewer on a particular aspect, a particular section of the painting, the leave the viewer free, encourage the eye to move across the canvas from person to person, incident to incident, space to space. A more democratic art allowing for a more democratic viewing and as such in keeping with Cohen’s aesthetic.

Growing up with a half-brother, Adam, whose father was Sid Grossman taught at the Photo League of New York, Cohen was exposed to the work of Atget and Lewis Hine, Helen Leavitt and Robert Frank, and street photography has remained at the heart of his work, taking on the influences of writers like Walter Benjamin and John Berger, film makers Jean Vigo and Chris Marker, as well as the numerous musicians with whom he has worked, from Vic Chestnut to Patti Smith.


The retrospective continues until 28th May, largely at the Whitechapel, but with screenings also at the Hackney Picturehouse. There are details here …

There’s more information about Jem Cohen and his work on his website here …

Author: John Harvey


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