Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre), 2007, 2 channel projection, © the artist, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

The Interiors of Chantal Akerman outside the Norms of Cinema

Chantal Akerman, To Walk Next to One's Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge, 2004, © the artist, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Chantal Akerman, J'ai faim, j'ai froid (I am cold, I am hungry), 1984, 35mm, 12 min., B&W / Production: JM Production / Films A2.

Chantal Akerman, J'ai faim, j'ai froid (I am cold, I am hungry), 1984, 35mm, 12 min., B&W / Production: JM Production / Films A2.

Chantal Akerman, Je, tu, il, elle (I, you, he, she), 1975, 35mm, 90 min., B&W / Production: Paradise Films, Brussels.

Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre), 2007, 2 channel projection, © the artist, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.

Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre), 2007, 2 channel projection, © the artist, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris..

 

Camden Arts Center
Arkwright Road
London
+ 44 (0)20 7472 5500
Chantal Akerman
July 11-September 14, 2008

By DOMINIQUE PAINI

Well in advance, and without ever ceasing to be a filmmaker, in the 1990s Chantal Akerman took the adventurous step of exhibiting her images in a gallery of contemporary art (her magnificent layout of D’Est [From the East] at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the Jeu de Paume, Paris, in 1995-96). She also wrote (admirably well) and, with her “bare voice,” spoke her own texts (Une famille à Bruxelles [A Family in Brussels], 1998) and made videos about artists and choreographers.

How does one define the inventions of this filmmaker and artist whose career offers such diversity? What model can we find for each new film when at first viewing it seems so far from the previous one? Well, strangely enough, classic Hollywood cinema provides an appropriate example here: in the thirties, directors like Lubitsch and Borzage tried their hand at everything from comedies and thrillers to exotic adventures, historical drama and burlesque.

Doing it differently from the last film — is ultimately how one could describe the logic of this director who, paradoxically, is compelled by similitude, repetition, resemblance, homo-sentimentality and the fascination of sameness.

D’Est (From the East), 1993 and Sud (South of Europe), 1998/9 are as similar as they are opposed. Un Divan à New York (A Couch in New York), 1996 and La Captive (The Captive), 1999 constitute two cardinal points in the conception of amorous union: a couple that is osmotic in spite of geographical distance, and a couple that grows apart in the closeness of captivity. Thus everything is opposed and yet fits together in this body of work characterised by its shifting styles. From Jeanne Dielman, 1975 to Le Déménagement (The Move), 1992 from La Chambre (The Room), 1972 to Les rendez-vous d’Anna (The Meetings of Anna), 1978 Akerman puts forward a dialectical proposition whose contradictions find ramaturgical resolution in the interiors of apartments. She has invented a modern “kammerspiel” that is as droll or as tragic as in Lubitsch or Strindberg, those two virtuosi of “chamber drama.”

It is this dominant presence of interiors from one film to the next that enables both the exceptional variations that are journeys into the modern genres of cinema — films about art (about Jean-Luc Vilmouth, Pina Bausch), confessions or the personal journal (News from Home, 1976), expanded cinema (the installation of D’Est) — and her simultaneously admiring and critical revisiting of classic genres such as sophisticated comedy (Un Divan à New York [A Couch in New York], 1996), musical comedy (Golden Eighties, 1985 and Toute une Nuit [All Night Long], 1982) and slapstick (J’ai faim, j’ai froid [I’m cold and I’m hungry], 1984).

Always rigorous, she is the exemplary artist of the coming cinema, refusing any kind of “brand labelling.”

Her new proposition, Femmes d’Anvers en novembre (Women from Antwerp in November), 2007, surprises yet again, comprising as it does two projections, a face in close-up (The Square Black and White Portrait) and a panoramic cityscape (The Landscape). Face and landscape, close-up and distance shot — the basic, binary terms of film-making are reconstituted in the gallery.

It is as if, by sparing her the duty of compliance with the demands of a narrative, the space of the gallery (or museum) has once again provided Akerman with the opportunity to get back to the essentials of cinema.

However, the beauty and emotion that emanate from this new installation is due to more than this formal concern, for these Women from Antwerp are also messengers of memory, starting with the memory of Akerman’s own work and influences.

Seeing The Square, how can we fail to think of the face explored in the title sequence of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, 1958, as the camera moves circle-wise over the forehead, mouth, eyes, chin and cheeks? And the spiralling motif designed by Saul Bass for that sequence has its equivalent here in the curls of smoke. While this is not the first time Akerman has referred to the Anglo-Hollywoodian master of suspense, it is the first time she has done so in her work as a visual artist. Not that shedeliberately quotes or appropriates images from his legendary films; rather, she reuses a motif and reinvents it at the same time. Already, in 2004, the installation Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide (To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge), which features again here, used this spiral theme in the space through which visitors moved both physically and with their gaze.

There are other cinephile references to be found among these women from Antwerp, these women waiting, wandering and courting. This time, though, it is Akerman’s own cinematographic universe that colours and constructs the landscape. That horizontal line of screens laying out the nocturnal labyrinth creates an equivalent to the walking that occurs in one of the masterpieces by this specialist of urban nights: Toute une nuit (All night long), 1982. If in that film shot in Brussels it was the alternating wanderings of the women that created the amorous and melancholy choreography of their insomnia, in The Landscape it is the five simultaneous images and the lateral mobility of the gaze that randomly multiply the points of view. Drunkenness, sadness, delight, concentration and many other emotions emanate from their faces and postures, adorned by the smoke from the cigarettes and glistening from the night-time dew. Desirable because their waiting resembles availability, inaccessible because their silence makes them remote, sovereign because their beauty protects them, these women perform a travelling shot that should be called Du nord (From the North), just as another one once filmed by Akerman is called D’Est.

Dominique Païni is a writer and freelance curator based in Paris.

— Translated by
Charles Penwarden

Chantal Akerman

Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre), 2007, 2 channel projection, © the artist, Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris.