In memory of Jonas Mekas by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi

8 months ago

In remembrance of Jonas Mekas we have translated this moving obituary by Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, originally published by Artribune, which retraces the artist’s story from his arrival in America to “The Cinema of Happiness”.

It is not easy to express what Jonas Mekas meant to us, especially now, when the world seems to have, all of a sudden, worsened, an epoch in which the birth of a happy man seems improbable in the next one hundred years. The memories we have of him and the adventures we lived through together are many. The thought that these will not be lived anymore is hard to accept and disorientating. So perhaps it’s better to start with what everyone says about him.

Born in a rural village in Lithuania in 1922, at the age of twenty-two Jonas was captured by the Nazis while trying to get to Vienna together with his brother Adolfas. He spent several months in the Elmshorn labour camp; he attempted to escape to Sweden, but didn’t make it. Fortunately, the war ends. He spent another four years, revealed in the book “I Had Nowhere to Go”, in the Wiesbaden refugee camp and then Kassel. But he did not like to talk about this part of his life, in fact we hardly ever talked about it.

Finally, alongside his brother, a UN programme sent Jonas to New York. In 1949 at twenty-seven years old. He started off with whatever small job he could find and lived the life of a poor refugee. With the little money he had, however, he bought a Bolex, a light and very handy camera that he used up until the 2000s. He used it like a notebook; he bought a practically identical new one, only when the previous one broke. He collected five altogether. When we invited him to Venice in 2015 he was filming with a digital Sony with a broken screen: he held and moved it without looking, intuitively capturing the images he was after with his whole body. It was as if he were dancing or, as he said, practicing Kung Fu.


The rest is History. “The Film Culture” magazine, which he co-founded with Adolfas, and the film critic column on “Village Voice”. The screening of avant-garde films in which Andy Warhol participated: Jonas showed him the ropes and filmed the Empire State Building for him. Then there is his friendship with Yoko Ono and George Maciunas, also Lithuanian. Fluxus, The Factory, The Beat Generation revolved around Jonas and he was their mover and shaker. The complaints about obscene acts after the screening of Jack Smith and Jean Genet. Up unto the foundation of the “Film-Makers’ Cooperative” and the “Anthology Film Archives”. “The New American Cinema Group”, which in actual fact was far from being American, being formed by foreigners like himself and Peter Kubelka, gay, queer, women, proletarians.

That was the world of Jonas Mekas. A fast paced, interconnected, surprising, ingenious, hardworking and pulsating world, escaping any dynamics of irresponsibility connected to the market and institutions including museums. It is the independent universe portrayed in “Birth of a Nation”: a state with open borders, and in deep contact with the urgency of life. A state of grace. A state we have been lucky enough to have lived with him over the years, working closely with Jonas and his son Sebastian: the best team in the world. The team of a better world.


Mekas practiced this utopia daily in his tireless activity as theorist and unifier of the avant-garde, and he vividly brought it alive in his films. Yes, the films. Over a hundred, coined by the genre of “film diary”. They are usually described as cinema of happiness, because this is what Jonas loved to film from a certain point in his life forward: happy moments. But what is happiness, if not a stoic and rather difficult exercise to exclude the evil from one’s field of vision?

For this reason all the images he captured on film are juxtaposed and travel seamlessly from one film to the next: a flower next to his daughter Oona; Jackie Kennedy, Harmony Korine or Madonna, and then a dog, a street party, a flower again. Such an intensity that during the projections or exhibitions something subtly magical always happened; we remember when at the end of “He Stands in the Desert Counting the Seconds of His Life”, part of the audience held in a kind of collective paralysis, could not get up from their chairs. Or when at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (MMCA) people hung around for hours in the great hall at the centre of the exhibition. Or when the waiters at Burger King in Venice, at the end of the exhibition “The Internet Saga”, asked him not to take down the works on the windows of the building.

Jonas will always be a lot of things to us, the happiest man in the world, the avant-garde spirit, the artist who, just a few months after the launch of YouTube, started producing works on the internet. He was eighty-five years old when he filmed and released a film a day every day for a year during his 365 Day Project, intuitively understanding what the future of moving image had in store. Images free to travel in an eternally infinite present. Images without hierarchy, between the walls of great exhibitions, as well as on the big screen and on our timelines. “Images in the sky!”, as he wrote this autumn while we were preparing our last exhibition together. That’s how we want to remember him.

 Francesco Urbano Ragazzi


Lara Morrell

  • The Internet Saga in collaboration with Zuecca Project The Internet Saga in collaboration with Zuecca Project
  • The Internet Saga in collaboration with Zuecca Project The Internet Saga in collaboration with Zuecca Project
  • Courtesy of Missoni Courtesy of Missoni