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Chantal Akerman:Now

By Bridget Penney.

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The recent exhibition Chantal Akerman:Now at Ambika P3 Gallery featured seven of Akerman’s video installations, drawing on work made over a period of more than forty years. Though Akerman was recognised as one of the most significant directors associated with the Nouvelle Vague and her 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles often features on lists of the greatest films of all time, this exhibition was the first time her video installations had been shown in a UK gallery.

The earliest work on display, which confronted the visitor immediately upon entry, was a scene from Akerman’s 1971 film L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme, repurposed as In the Mirror (2007). A young woman, naked but for a pair of briefs, critically examines her image in a full-length mirror, noting what she considers her most pleasing features with approval and unsparingly enumerating the bits of her she doesn’t like so much. It’s funny, moving and definitely not erotic; the grimace with which she announces the results of her hypercritical self-study ‘I have hairs on my chin’ leaves little space for fantasy. The enumeration of her good and bad points can be interpreted in a number of ways. Is she measuring herself against what she feels society expects of a young woman; and if so, is she affirming the points at which she feels she conforms or actually expressing satisfaction at the ways in which she doesn’t measure up? Assessing one’s body in this way is never just about its physical form: it’s about the possibilities that body seems to offer, the potential encounters the way it is shaped may invite.

The woman examining her own body in the mirror also seeks the sense of why it is that her gender should define her experience of life. Maybe the hairs on the chin and and the way she smoothes her hand over her flat buttocks could also be seen as drawing attention to how a woman’s body is not very different from a man’s. It’s not the same, but why should it be seen as other? If Akerman’s work often has female experience at its centre, that is not to define it as only concerned with female experience and that is no reason to play down its extraordinary interest and importance by ringfencing it as feminist. Staring intently into the mirror is a search for truth, for self-knowledge; questioning what is involved in adopting or constructing an identity. The young woman gazes steadily into the mirror and back out at the viewer. Both male and female visitors, confronted with her reflection, have the opportunity to identify with her.

The exhibition leaflets had been printed before Akerman’s sudden death, reportedly suicide, in October and included details of a screening and workshop she was scheduled to attend. Which made it oddly disquieting to see the footage of Akerman herself, pottering about her Paris apartment in Maniac Summer or reading from the text My Mother Laughs as part of the installation Maniac Shadows.

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Maniac Shadows (2013) was shown in two adjoining spaces. In the outer room were four screens showing footage shot in and from the window of an apartment in New York. Space within this apartment is shown as cluttered, narrow and dim. On the street outside is activity and movement, people strolling, a child on a scooter, an outbreak of dancing. Sometimes figures seem to pass from one screen to another which sharpens the sense of disjunction to one of shock; it’s as if unfilmed, elided moments are somehow recreating themselves. Other shots on the beach show scuffed footprints at the edge of the water and the shadows of one or sometimes two people standing still. The shallow, moving water can’t reflect their images: yet their shadows are clearly visible through the waves lapping on the sand. In the inner room, a collection of ninety-six still photographs taken from the video loops projected in the outer room were pinned to one wall. On another wall, film of Akerman reading from the text My Mother Laughs was projected. This soundtrack was quiet and I found her words difficult to make out but the shifting rhythms of Akerman’s voice worked as another element in the space where the viewer was confronted with the still photographs, so perhaps in this instance the words were meant to be secondary, a voice-under.

The installation Maniac Summer (2009), shot from often unattended cameras from the windows of Akerman’s Paris apartment, films activity in the park and in the street. On the timer that shows on each original segment of film, the viewer can watch those particular seconds ticking away. Every time the loop is played, what happened then is on show: but with each repetition of the loop the viewer is made aware that they are further from the time in which it was recorded. Maniac Summer is split over four screens. On occasion two versions of what appear to be the same moment appear next to each other. Some of these images have been polarised into beautiful monochrome shapes which could be ink drawings, abstracted out of all resemblance to the original. The viewer is invited to consider the ways they experience time and how moments are retrieved in memory. There is a sense of memory as both a creative and destructive process because the selection involved in remembering one version of how things happened is also a form of obliteration. Yet the missing, the absent, the erased retain their significant place in Akerman’s work. It’s signalled by the repetition of sequences of time detailing very ordinary happenings which make the viewer simultaneously more aware of the processes of everyday life and their own mortality.

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D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995) was developed out of Akerman’s film D’est (1993), shot during a trip through several former Communist bloc countries in the early 1990s. In one room at Ambika P3 the film was split across 24 monitors, so any sense of a sequential progress was impossible. The viewer couldn’t see all the screens from a single vantage point. Wandering among the monitors feels a bit like wandering through a crowd; the viewer spots faces already familiar from a loop on a different screen and it feels like recognition, but of course it isn’t. The camera is occasionally an object of curiosity but on the whole the people being filmed ignore it. Perhaps in a culture used to surveillance there’s no point in engaging with it – or perhaps it is more dignified simply not to react to Akerman on her odyssey across Eastern Europe. So, when during a panning shot of people seated on rows of benches in a hall, one man smiles and waves towards the camera while everyone else looks straight in front of them, it’s disconcerting, like he’s suddenly acted out of part. In another sequence outside in the street a disabled man pushing himself along on a trolley engages with the camera nervously, constantly glancing in its direction while everyone around him appears not to notice it. When the camera follows him – causing him palpable anxiety and embarrassment – the viewer’s awareness of the problematic nature of filming, and their own complicity in watching, is engaged.

Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai (2007) records the transition from natural light to artificial light at Shanghai harbour, and is also, as many of Akerman’s works are, a meditation on the perception of time. Mapping the shift from day to night that we experience each day, both the effect of the changing light on the cityscape and the human transition from day to evening are focused upon. The spectacular panorama of the harbour, where sky, water, ships and buildings are gradually reshaped in the changing light, alternates with footage from a bar, where, in contrast to many of their customers coming in for a drink after work or settling down with their evening meal, the staff are starting work.

Compared with the multi-screen works where there is always more than one image to feed the viewer’s imagination, Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai is a slow burn, thoughtfully placed where the visitor, too impatient to stand and just watch the process of daylight being replaced by artificial lighting, could pass by, going in and out of the other spaces, and keep an eye on its progress. The two Chinese lanterns (not the red paper variety, these ones look like illuminated pictures of fishtanks) that flank the screen maintain the same level of artificial light throughout as the main screen darkens from daylight to night. When the main screen shows daylight, the artificial lanterns appear anaemic and tawdry. When the main screen is predominantly dark, they look magical. Exploring the intersection of daylight and artificial light also investigates the nature of film. In Mandarin, a film is ‘dian ying’ – ‘electric shadow’; and that is simultaneously film’s weakness and its strength. Projected in daylight film all but disappears, yet it has the power to illuminate a dark space.

In A Voice in the Desert (2003) the camera is pointed at a ten metre screen positioned on the US-Mexican border somewhere in Arizona. Projected images from De l’autre côté, Akerman’s 2002 documentary about two small towns on either side of that border, appear increasingly ghostly as the sunlight becomes more intense. On the soundtrack Akerman relates, alternately in English and Spanish, the story of a Mexican woman, an immigrant worker who has disappeared. The image on the screen becomes a placemarker, somewhere to rest your gaze while you engage aurally. But the screen itself marks an important place, the invisible, arbitrary line that divides two nation states, and the installation provides a space to consider the implications of that dividing line: what is involved in maintaining it and what it means to cross it. This screen could be viewed from both sides of the border and thus the image is mirrored depending on which side the viewer stands, making a powerful statement both for those able to cross without hindrance from one side to the other, and those who can’t.

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For Now (2015), multiple large screens were arranged so the viewer could watch their overlapping images from the bench provided. All show film of landscape described as desert, apparently shot from vehicles moving fast over bumpy roads, to a soundtrack combining birdsong and livestock sounds with voices of adults and children, gunfire and sounds of conflict. It’s simultaneously exhilarating and intensely scary. According to the gallery notes these ‘images from desert regions, specifically violently contested regions in the Middle East’ were collected by Akerman. The undifferentiated landscapes, passing by at speed, are made up of wide expanses of bare earth, rocky hillsides with occasional plants and trees, power lines, generic directional road signs. There are no names, no distinctive buildings, no images of people.
It’s very unlike A Voice in the Desert, where the precise geographical location of the screen and the source of the images projected on it defined the questions the viewer had the opportunity to ask themselves. The places shown in Now are unspecified, they could be close together or thousands of miles apart: when everything is in flux locations are constantly displaced. The soundtrack for Now followed the visitor round the cavernous spaces of Ambika P3, reminding that what is happening now, even in a faraway, unspecified place, can’t be ignored.

Yet this desert landscape spread across multiple screens is a troubling fantasy. There’s a feeling of a strong narrative but it isn’t at all clear what it is. The installation generates an overwhelming impression of people in rapid transit through the landscape. They could either be soldiers heading towards a battle or a family fleeing what was once their home. The viewer is invited to imagine the experience of one involved in warfare and to share the experience of being dislocated in the midst of chaos. By so effectively generating anxiety and excitement in the mind of the viewer, Now encourages us to consider our own reaction to film. It invites us to consider how subtle the propaganda we are exposed to might be; how effectively images can manipulate their audience. Once again, Chantal Akerman demonstrated her understanding of the problematic authority of the camera by providing a space in which the viewer could also consider this phenomenon.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bridget Penney is the author of Index.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015.