Screens of Film, Video, Memory, and Smoke
Ana Balona de Oliveira
Chantal Akerman’s current exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, London, constitutes the artist’s first in a public gallery in the United Kingdom. The exhibition encompasses two video installations— Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide (2004), and Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre (2007)—together with one of the filmmaker’s first experimental films, Hotel Monterey (1972), shot in New York four years after her Brussels-inspired, first, short film Saute ma ville (1968).
Having cinematically meandered through several genres since the late 1960s, Akerman has addressed numerous questions in her work, including those of identity, domesticity, displacement, history, war, and trauma. In the 1990s, Akerman began yet another experimental voyage—this time, from film to visual art—and her video works were installed in art galleries and museums. This transition is often attributed to Akerman’s experimental, re-interpretative and meta-linguistic urge to revisit her own films in a renewed, fragmented way—a strategy that has allowed the artist to make new formal experiments with and discover new layers of content in already existing works and to think about film and video as linked, yet distinct, artistic practices. Accordingly, the viewer of Akerman’s films has been provided with renewed cinematic experiences through their return as video works. Within the gallery, the films open up access to less linear, less narrative, more concentrated, and at times, perhaps, more challenging experiences for the spectator. The transition does not imply, however, that video can simply offer more and/or better possibilities of aesthetic experience than film, but rather the possibility of a more accurate awareness of the difference between, or specificity of, the artistic mediums of film and video. Akerman’s long-term thematic and formal interest in repetition (one could even say compulsive repetition) is repeated again through these video re-interpretations.
In her essay “Chantal Akerman: A Spiral Auto-biography,” Edna Moshenson describes Akerman’s transition to video work:
The [video] installations constitute an important means both of investigating the cinematic medium and of offering a retrospective interpretation of her cinematic work. It is an act of interpretation that is undertaken by means of another medium, which dictates unique means of display and observation_.... _A more personal, independent, and intimate medium, video allowed Akerman to focus on the autobiographical dimension of her work and to examine questions of belonging, displacement, exile, wandering, home, and family. The continuous loop in which her video works recur amplifies their thematic obsession.1
Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide might constitute the beginning of the viewer’s encounter with the three works presented. It is associated with the film Tomorrow We Move (2004), but unlike this work, it is explicitly autobiographical. It explores the historical, intergenerational, and familial events, thoughts, and emotions revolving around the discovery of a diary written by Akerman’s Polish grandmother. Written when she was a child, the diary was mysteriously lost, then found after Akerman’s family faced traumatic years of exile in Belgium in the 1930s, war, and deportation to Auschwitz.
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About the Author
Ana Balona de Oliveira studied philosophy and aesthetics in Portugal and Switzerland and art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, where she is currently a Ph.D. candidate. Her doctoral research focusses on contemporary art in relation to violence, war, exile, memory, trauma, and gender. She is also a freelance writer, lecturer, and curator.