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 was 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 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 means 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 was Modernism and Post-Modernism, Minimalism and finally Conceptualism. Fluxus came out of Conceptualism in the 1960s. When George (Maciunas) 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 cinema started popping up. Whenever an art form takes itself too serious, that leads to a reaction. These changes were well under way 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 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 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 indeed!