The Wagner Free Institute of Science in North Philadelphia is a 19th-century natural history museum filled with fossils, minerals, and taxidermy animals, which has remained largely unchanged since it opened in 1865.
Stuck inside its own time capsule, it is the setting of a short film now screening in a gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Memory of a Time Twice Lived” by the New York-based artists Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere is both an examination and a reinterpretation of the classic, French art film “La Jetée” (1962) by Chris Marker. The science fiction tale of a man from the future who travels back in time to stop the coming apocalypse is also a love story about romance that could never have actually taken place.
The film’s nameless protagonist meets a young woman in the halls of a natural history museum — “a museum filled with ageless animals” — that looks remarkably like the Wagner Free Institute.
“Walk into the Wagner, and you’re walking into the past, into a space locked away since the Victorian era,” said Nevarez.
“The taxidermic animals are paused in time. They been frozen in time,” added Tevere.
With its philosophical content and unusual visual style — the film was shot as a series of still photographs with a scripted voiceover — “Le Jetée” has been hugely influential over the last half century. It was the basis of the popular 1995 film “12 Monkeys,” directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Bruce Willis. (Like “Memory of a Time Twice Lived,” it was also shot in Philadelphia.)
Nevarez and Tevere both use the film in their respective teaching careers. They examined “La Jetée” closely to find hidden references buried by Marker. For example, they discovered under the Army jacket worn by the nameless protagonist is a T-shirt printed with the image of El Santo, a masked wrestler from the 1950s who became an icon of Mexican pop culture.
“We were recognizing codes in the film we wanted to expand further,” said Tevere.
Their reimagining of “La Jetée” includes the same voiceover text, translated to Spanish, and footage of a contemporary Mexican folk band, Jarana Beat, performing inside the Wagner Free Institute’s historic auditorium. The band played music that would have been played during the Institute’s 19th century heyday, rearranged for acoustic guitars and accordion as a Latino folk fusion.
“It’s interesting to take an image in this film and explode that in various ways,” said Nevarez. “And music as well. Music is taken from the film and rearranged. There’s a lot of transpositioning of material.”
“Memory of a Time Twice Lived” is featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art, alongside several other video installations by Nevarez and Tevere, including performances of ’80s songs by a mariachi band and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, through March 27.