Chantal Akerman: Now

Published in 3 Quarks Daily

Art Criticism

The Belgian filmmaker and artist Chantal Akerman died suddenly on October 5. It is said to have been suicide. Maybe it was her nationality, the nature of her death or her multi-screen installations with their themes of alienation, interiority, conflict and violence that drew me, in these complex de-centred times, to write about her now. A self-imposed death, whether of an artist or a suicide bomber, is always an enigma and the nature of her demise can’t but help colour our view of her work, which seems to echo the mood of these sombre days with uncanny prescience. 

Born in 1950, an adolescent viewing of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965) decided her career as a film-maker. After moving to Paris she took part in the seminal events of May 1968, then in New York met the cinematographer Babette Mangolte and hung out in avant-garde circles with the likes of Jonas Mekas and Michael Snow. Mostly widely known as a film-maker, her Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, made in 1975 when she was 24, is said to have influenced film makers from Michael Haneke to Todd Haynes. But it was to the cavernous underground industrial space of The University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 gallery that I went to see, what has turned out to be, her swan-song exhibition. The central work, NOW, was commissioned for this year’s Venice Biennale. Akerman was working with curators on the show until close to her death.

Her work requires patience, like the reading of a complex modernist poem. It unfolds slowly, so there is not an obvious sense of a coherent whole but rather images that fit together to create associations and metaphors. Maniac Summer (2009) is a disquieting piece that explores, among other things, the passing of time. A digital clock counts the seconds of each recording, evoking Hereklitian notions of being unable to step into the same river twice. Though, of course, the irony is that the technical innovation of video allows for a constant revisiting. Shot from the vantage point of her surprisingly bourgeois Parisian apartment, the camera is left unattended so we see her at her desk fiddling on her mobile phone and taking care of daily appointments, pottering around her kitchen amid normal domestic clutter, or isolated alone in dark silhouette. Outside children play in the park and the camera pans along empty streets, their pulled shutters closed like eyelids. Some of the images are manipulated, moving from colour to black and white. Shadows appear smudged on the wall like the afterglow of a nuclear holocaust. There is singing or, perhaps, chanting. Doors bang. This is the minutiae of life. Yet there’s a sense that everything is vulnerable, everything transient. That all we will leave behind are traces.

Manic Shadows (2013), a four channel video projection shot within the confines of a New York apartment, shows Akerman sorting domestic clutter for disposal into plastic bags, while the frenzy of the Obama election is played out in another section of the screen. The artist’s mother, Natalia, a survivor of Auschwitz who died last year, can be seen in the kitchen, whilst elsewhere Ackerman seeks sanctuary in her bedroom.  Her voice-over intones her text, My Mother Laughs. The piece is full of poignant hiatuses and non sequiturs, unresolved longing, guilt, yearning and anxiety. Her mother’s presence, though seemingly marginal, is all encompassing and ubiquitous; yet the overwhelming emotion is one of isolation.

Commissioned by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), was initially put on hold but Akerman decided to go ahead anyway and film a trip through Eastern Europe before the fall of Communism, re-editing it when the commission finally went ahead, for 24 monitors, divided into eight blocks of three. It is a strong, evocative piece and perhaps the easiest in the exhibition to read. People in fur hats, heavy coats and boots gather in groups and queue and wait for, who knows what, huddled grim-faced against the cold. It is dark and the ground is covered with frozen slush. No one smiles. The numerous screens only emphasise the separateness of the individuals depicted. Life feels bleak, something to be survived. There are also shots of people in their homes, which now look impoverished and dated and, another, of a cellist receiving applause after a concert. But the whole with its juxtapositions of light and shade, stillness and flux, is a bleak image of existential alienation. Like a musical composition, each abutted image is counterpointed with its neighbour. And, perhaps, it is not too far- fetched, twenty years on from its making, to read these estranged individuals as victims of some sort of displacement, refugees even.

But the central work of the exhibition is the title piece, Now. Entering a black box in the middle of the gallery you cross a threshold of neon lights to be confronted by 5 screens filled with flickering images of rocky desert terrain and scrub. This seems to have been shot from a car window whilst travelling at speed. There is the sound of gunfire, of car breaks and wheels screeching, shouts in what might be Arabic mingle with animal cries The implication is that this is a war zone and this a high speed escape (or possibly attack). As we watch our adrenaline pumps and our hearts pound, though nothing ever happens, this endless frenetic movement creates both a sense of panic and exhilaration. Yet we don’t know the reason for this flight or even where this is taking place. No narrative is offered.  Just raw sensation. Occasionally there are gaps between the harsh sounds broken by bird song.

The cavernous underground arena of Ambika P3, with it harsh industrial Kafkaesque anonymity, is the perfect setting for this work.  The sense of dislocation is pronounced as we wander through the dark concrete space, trying to locate ourselves in a continuingly shifting and unstable world.

On the 30th October, the Regent Street Cinema will posthumously premiere her new, and now last, film No Home Movie, 2015.


Photo Credit: Marthe Lemelle. Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

D’est (From the East), 1993
16mm film, 110 min. colour, sound.
Production : Lieurac Production, Paradise Films Brussells, La Radio Television Portugaise
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

Now, 2015
8 channel, HD Video installation, colour, five sound tracks mono and stereo.
Courtesy the artist estate and Marian Goodman Gallery

Published in 3 Quarks Daily


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