Bordering on Fiction

Chantal Akerman's journeys through time, space, and history
by David Schwartz  posted July 2, 2008
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Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space,
MIT List Visual Arts Center, May 2-July 6, 2008

Though it is an invisible and largely unspoken presence, the weight of history is evident in every moment of Chantal Akerman's work. Ever since she made her first film, the 11-minute short Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town), in 1968, she has been concerned with the question—and the impossibility—of situating one's self comfortably in the world. The many autobiographical passages in her films and videos (including letters, diaries, and phone calls) make us aware of her specific identity as a Jewish European woman born five years after the end of World War II. Yet her work is deeply ambivalent about the way that she (and others) are identified by their membership in a group—whether by race, nation, or gender.

These are the key issues explored in an impressive new exhibition of her recent films and video installations. "Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space" shows that the director best known for her 1975 masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, has moved productively toward a new mode of practice that is ideally suited for the contemplative environment of an art museum.

Filled with symmetries, echoes, repetitions, and variations, this revelatory exhibition (which originated at the Blaffer Gallery at the Art Museum of the University of Houston, is now on view at the MIT List Visual Art Center in Cambridge, and will travel to the Miami Art Museum in October and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis next May) consists of five works that fit together into an elegant whole. The coherence of the show is suggested by the names of four of the projects, all indicating a constant quest for orientation, for a homeland that doesn't exist: From the East: Bordering on Fiction (D'Est: Au bord de la fiction, 1995); South (Sud, 1999); From the Other Side (De L'Autre Côté, 2002); and Down There (Là-Bas, 2006).

Down There and South are feature-length films, each about 75 minutes long. In the former, Akerman confronts her paradoxical "downright repulsion" at the idea of making a film in or about Israel. In the latter, she explores the American South, inspired by Faulkner's vision of a verdant landscape in which nature is fraught with history, the branches of trees literally sagging with the memory of lynchings.

From the East: Bordering on Fiction and From the Other Side are multi-monitor installations (25 and 19 monitors respectively). The former is a somber yet mesmerizing journey through a post-Cold War Eastern Europe that seems to consist only of people waiting stoically in lines; the latter an achingly beautiful study of the danger, torpor, and mundane beauty of life in two border towns, in Mexico and Arizona.

These four works are all composed of documentary footage. The fifth piece, Women From Antwerp in November, commissioned specifically for this exhibition, is a theatrical work that stands somewhat on its own. On one wall is a video projection of a repeating black-and-white four-minute shot of a woman smoking a cigarette; on the opposite wall is a five-screen quasi-narrative video projection of 20 short interlocking vignettes (one for each cigarette in a pack) of women smoking, either alone or in small groups. The actors move between the different screens—and stories—in a complex, unpredictable pattern.

Formal and thematic connections between the five pieces abound, and ultimately Akerman's work proposes a universal and abstract idea of what can loosely be called a "Jewish question," an inquiry into the nature of marginalization. The haunted faces of the older Eastern Europeans in From the East suggest that they may have escaped a cruel historical fate; but also existing in limbo are the Mexicans who are spied from border patrol surveillance plans in From the Other Side, and the African Americans in South who are dealing with their own experiences of racism and brutality. South is Akerman's most overtly political work, focusing on the aftermath of a notorious and vicious crime: the lynching and murder of James Byrd, a Texas man who was dragged to his death from the back of a truck for three miles. A neo-Nazi interviewed in South describes Jews "as the seed of Satan," and then talks about the need to drive out "the black man and the Mexican."

For Akerman, marginalization and displacement can be found in less brutal forms in many other facets of contemporary life. Women From Antwerp in November is a highly theatrical piece about what is now a politically incorrect act—and a part of Akerman's daily life—smoking cigarettes. Smoking is seen as a private refuge that can be sensual, erotic, wistful, and defiant. One of the smokers is a seemingly intoxicated woman who twirls and dances down a sidewalk, alone at night, at once self-contained and rebellious.

While Women From Antwerp in November is a staged work, created and choreographed by Akerman with conceptual artist and fellow smoker Jean Fabre, Down There is a covert documentary, filmed from behind the semi-transparent matchstick blinds of a Tel Aviv apartment in which Akerman stayed during a brief visit. Like James Stewart's character in Rear Window, Akerman sneaks glimpses of her temporary neighbors, as they sip coffee, talk, and pass the time on terraces and balconies across the way. At one point, we are jarred by the loud ringing of a telephone; it is Akerman's mother (a beloved presence in many of her films), calling with concern, telling her daughter to stay away from restaurants and crowded places. After the call, Akerman muses, "I don't feel like I belong, I am just disconnected...Sometimes I just drift, semi-blind, and semi-deaf."

The apartment becomes a self-imposed prison; freedom is suggested during a few brief interludes when Akerman takes her camera to the beach. The film is an intimate, existential meditation on the very idea of Israel, the country her family deliberately chose not to move to during Akerman's childhood. Her father was hopelessly ambivalent about the idea of moving to Palestine, perhaps out of fear that the country created as a safe haven would become a trap, perhaps out of defiance over the idea of the Jewish population moving away from Europe (Akerman herself decided to move to Paris, where she still lives and works), and perhaps out of his disdain for the hot weather.

A key inspiration for Akerman's formal precision and its exquisite attention to detail that allows us to see and hear the world more sharply (to escape the condition of being semi-blind and semi-deaf), is her interest in Franz Kafka, or more precisely, in the critics Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's concept of Kafka's invention of what they call a "minor literature." Deleuze and Guattari describe how Kafka's outsider status as a Prague Jew writing in German led to his creation of a subversive style, in which he could become a stranger within the master language. While challenging the authority of the German language, Kafka also chose to focus in his writing on the lives of servants and employees. In other words, he created a marginal style to examine life on the margins. In minor literature, subversion comes through a focus on minutiae, on the seemingly mundane conditions of daily life, viewed through a prism that is at once poetic and political. Akerman is interested in big issues—racism, immigration, the survival of Jews—but she explores these concerns only through specific and small observations. As Akerman is heard saying in one of the video monitors in From the East, she is interested in " longer with a capital H."

The exhibition opens with From the East, which greets the visitor with a cacophony. Twenty-four video monitors are placed in receding horizontal rows. The sound is a din, the murmur of crowds at train stations and bus lines, offset by a plaintive cello song that hovers in the room. (Sound is a critical and distinct element throughout the exhibition, working as counterpoint rather than in direct synchronization with the imagery.) The constant tracking shots, and the images of people herded into lines, all evoke the historical subject that remains unspoken but is always felt. Just past the crowded murmur of the main gallery is a small room with just one monitor. We hear Akerman's voice, reading passages from the Old Testament and notes from her own journals. If history is etched in the lives of the people she films, then it makes sense that her own identity, her own personal history and voice are present throughout the exhibition as well.

From the East arrives at its destination indirectly, without any sense that Akerman is forcing an agenda. Writing about her intentions, and her approach to filming, Akerman said, "I will not attempt to show the disintegration of a system, nor the difficulties of entering into another one, because she who seeks shall find, find all too well, and end up clouding her vision with her own preconceptions." Instead, she approaches her subjects with "a calm and attentive gaze," simply filming the people that she encounters and allowing history and meaning to emerge organically. "In my films I follow an opposite trajectory to that of the makers of political films," she once said. "They have a skeleton, an idea and then they put on flesh: I have in the first place the flesh, the skeleton appears later."

In South, a black man mows a lawn in front of a church; a car tracks through a poor town, passing ramshackle buildings and people who openly acknowledge the camera; a musician on a screened porch, wearing only jeans and black shoes, plugs in his electric guitar and plays a blues song. Amid the languorous rhythms, painful memories emerge. A woman talks about how Nat King Cole was assaulted during a trip to Birmingham. And then Akerman stumbles onto what becomes the central focus of South; the shocking murder of James Byrd. The film builds to a simple and disturbing five-minute shot; from the back of a truck, the camera slowly travels over the same three-mile stretch where Byrd was dragged to his death. The man-made gray ribbon of asphalt slices through the green hills, and a gentle thumping noise from the vehicle quietly evokes the violence of the crime. The long driving shot echoes a similar shot down a city street in From the East: Bordering on Fiction, and one down a freeway toward Mexico in From the Other Side; visual rhymes throughout the exhibition encourage us to draw connections between different places and historical periods; the link between the murder of James Byrd and atrocities only alluded to in the European works is apparent.

In contrast with the nocturnal cityscapes of From the East and Women in Antwerp in November, From the Other Side is filled with daylight and wide-open landscapes. People pass time in the sweltering heat, talk quietly—sometimes directly to the camera. Similar in physical arrangement to From the East, From the Other Side was videotaped in widescreen format, with crisp high-definition images giving the work an intimacy and immediacy that is made possible by the advances in digital video. Akerman reflects on the physical nature of the medium in the fascinating final room of the exhibition. While photographing From the Other Side, she set up a large movie screen in the middle of the desert, with a mountain backdrop, and projected a portion of the video she had already shot. She then photographed this projection and presents it in the gallery, an elegant way to allow us to reflect on the materiality of her work, to show that her art is part of the world she is exploring.

"Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space" is a journey, both geographical and through different modes of filmmaking. As we move through the galleries, we also move between quiet contemplation and active, physical participation. Playing with different modes of perception and presentation, the works encourage heightened attentiveness and awareness, epiphanies and revelations that achieve major impact while working in a minor key. 


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Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris
Chantal Akerman's Women of Antwerp in November (Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre) Video Installation, 2007
Photo Gallery: Bordering on Fiction


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David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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