Fillip 9 — Winter 2009

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.

The video installation occupies two rooms, the first of which presents two video projections on a spiral tulle construction, which gently envelops and (mis)leads the viewer towards the second room through a non-linear path that, in its labyrinthine form, recalls other sorts of non-linearity at stake in Akerman’s work: that of circular time, of recurrent words, of a never finished nor fixed reading, and of repeated history. The images projected on this sculpturally translucent fabric structure are made of slowly fleeting, superimposed layers of text written in French by Akerman herself—from her own diary—about film, the Second Commandment’s prohibition of making images, and the unspoken trauma of her family’s history of exile, deportation, murder and survival under Nazi Germany. This visual palimpsest is accompanied by the sound of classical music and infiltrated by voices coming from an adjacent room.

While entering this second space, the viewer is immediately confronted with a single-image video projection on a tulle screen featuring the Polish-written diary that belonged to Akerman’s grandmother, behind which an almost static, black-and-white double image of the artist and her mother in conversation is projected on the wall. This video projection again emphasizes the importance of repetition or, more appropriately, duplication, in Akerman’s work. Here, as is typical, the doubling is non-symmetrical, non-identical—instead distorted by de-centering, defocussing, enlargement. Sometimes there are three figures instead of two or four—when, for example, Akerman appears next to her mother on one side and by herself on the other, perhaps in order “to summon the presence of the absent figure, the one whose biography her daughter and granddaughter attempt to reconstruct according to the clues embedded in her diary.”2

In fact, the viewer can choose to watch this third video component without any obstacles by leaning against a lateral wall. However, it is significant that the artist has decided to add another layer of mediation to an already fragmented one by providing visual access to her conversation with her mother through the small-rectangular projection of her grandmother’s diary—the conversation’s starting point—which calmly but constantly shifts position across the tulle screen. This screen, and its interaction with the multiple images around it, recalls Freud’s notion of “screen memory,” which serves to cover the repressed memory of a traumatic event too painful to be remembered.3 In this respect, Moshenson considers Akerman’s “interaction with her mother” as “a supremely sensitive expression of the act of bearing witness...expropriating her mother’s silence and giving her mother (and her grandmother) a name and a voice.”4 There is also a resemblance between this intersubjective reconstruction of family memory and the dialogic dynamics of psychoanalytic transference.5 French and Polish, visual and audible, written and oral, silence and memory—three generations of women intermingle in the very split of and passage between the two rooms, which resonate with the split of the subject, the breach of trauma, and the intersubjective reconstruction of memory.

From this installation to the next, the viewer again walks through connected rooms. Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre also sprung from a previous cinematic work which, however, had an early connection to visual art. In fact, Akerman collaborated on artist Jan Fabre’s multimedia “ode to tobacco” I’m a Mistake (2007) with a film projection as a series of scenes or variations on the theme. Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre was then created from this previous film projection in the renewed context of a commission for the touring exhibition Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space. 6 Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre is a two-channel video installation comprising a projection of a large, close-cropped black-and-white image of a woman smoking (The Square Black and White Portrait), and, on an opposite wall, a series of five black-and-white and colour scenes, again depicting women smoking, isolated and in groups, in indoor settings and outdoors, wandering, leaning against walls, and sitting in park benches in the cold November night of deserted Antwerp (The Landscape). There is no sound, just a silent possibility of some cinematic plot.

Of the piece, Akerman states:

I made the five moving images together, in a long, horizontal presentation in a space of the landscape, but it is really about presence—about movement and shape. In front of the camera it is abstract and about choreography. There is no sound, because it’s not about realism; it’s about abstraction and choreography. The five images stretch horizontally, like a landscape, and the facing image is a huge, fascinating face. But I don’t want viewers to be fascinated by the image; I want the fascination to be focused on the narrative.7

The artist attempts to deconstruct a linear, narrative gaze directed toward female bodies and faces, as if she were weaving a multidirectional story. This creates a corporeal-visual web whose time and space seem closer to those of performance and dance than to the linear progression of a cinematic plot. In fact, the performative aspect of Fabre’s piece, of which the original film by Akerman was part, might have left its traces of a vertically abstract and choreographic presence of shape and movement. Terrie Sultan discusses this aspect of Akerman’s work in relation to “an abstract, qualitative concept of time that cannot be measured because there is no beginning, middle, or end...producing a perception of a place where we become unfixed, having lost our sense of time passing.” 8 A similar fragmented structure of concentrated narrative had appeared previously in Akerman’s Toute Une Nuit (1982).

With The Square Black and White Portrait, however, one wonders whether or not the artist really achieves her purpose of disrupting fascination through techniques of narrative and visual fragmentation. The possibilities opened up by the huge face just seem to become artistically frail or too mundane—as though the attempt to disrupt the fascination of the gaze, this time by surpassing plain circularity instead of plain linearity, as in_ The Landscape_, became somewhat frustrated. Moreover, this frustrating sense of mundane superficiality emanating from the monumental screen of The Square Black and White Portrait appears to contaminate its split, indeed more interestingly layered, counterpart.

In contrast, the single-screen film Hotel Monterey (1972) deals less with the superficial than the banal. The work is projected in a separate room, and points towards another time: the early 1970s and the beginning of Akerman’s relationship with the US through contact with New York’s experimental film scene. The film’s long shots, either static or slowly tracking, depict the seeming banality of the anonymous architecture of a New York hotel, its entry hall, elevator, corridors, rooms, and roof terrace. Somewhere between experimental documentary and fiction, the camera seems extremely present—becomes, one might say, the film’s main character. This paradoxical impression of an invisible, yet sensed, cinematic eye is achieved not only by the hotel customers’ bewildered, amused, or indifferent reactions to the lens, but also in the way the camera structures our gaze and creates narrative out of disorder. Through long takes of repeatedly similar narrow walls and windows, the viewer is led by the lens through an endlessly claustrophobic labyrinth. The path becomes discernible only when the camera reaches what appears to be the aim of this wandering—the hotel rooftop and the New York urban skyline.

Or maybe not, for the film resists a definable plot or a stable end. In Hotel Monterey there is indeed a general sense of moving without moving, for even when the lens’ gaze reaches the top of the building, it still moves restlessly. Again, Akerman returns to repetition as a formal and theoretical structure. The end of the path might just be its beginning—or maybe there is neither beginning nor end. Hotel Monterey’s complexly interwoven circularity and linearity, verticality and horizontality, outdoors and indoors, undoubtedly present the viewer with an enigmatically suggestive, layered, and paradoxical mundane banality.

Horizontally narrative, vertically performative, and spirally displayed, spatial and timely, interior and exterior, nocturnal and diurnal, through film and video, image and text, autobiography, documentary, and fiction—Akerman’s camera crosses borders in a constant wandering between the familiar and the unfamiliar (home and exile) and the unfamiliar within the very familiar (exile at home).

  1. Edna Moshenson, “Chantal Akerman: A Spiral Auto-biography” in Chantal Akerman: A Spiral Autobiography, (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2006), 32, italics added.
  2. Ibid., 17.
  3. See Sigmund Freud, “Screen Memories” (1899) and “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” (1914), in The Penguin Freud Reader, ed. Adam Philips (London: Penguin Books, 2006); Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), James Strachey, trans. and ed. (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1961); and “A Note Upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad’” (1925 [1924]), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 19, James Strachey, trans. and ed. (London: Vintage, 2001).
  4. Moshenson, “Chantal Akerman,” 19, 27.
  5. See Mignon Nixon, “Oral Histories: Silvia Kolbowski and the Dynamics of Transference,” in Silvia Kolbowski: Inadequate…Like…Power (Vienna and Cologne: Secession and Walter Koenig Books, 2004); “On the Couch,” October 113 (summer 2005), 39–76; “_The She-Fox_: Transference and the ‘Woman Artist’,” in Women Artists at the Millennium, Carol Armstrong and Catherine de Zegher, eds. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press/October Books, 2006). See particularly the discussion of the Laplanchian notion of transference’s essential dissymmetry; the Lacanian notion, through Shoshana Felman, of transference as disavowal of mastery; and Nixon’s discussion of the dialogic dynamics of transference as a potential model for intersubjective and intergenerational artistic practices by women artists.
  6. Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space, Blaffer Gallery, The Art Museum of the University of Houston, 19 January to 29 March 2008; MIT List Visual Arts Centre, 2 May to 6 July 2008; Miami Art Museum, 10 October 2008 to 25 January 2009; Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, 7 May to 2 August 2009.
  7. Akerman quoted in Sultan, “Women from Antwerp in November,” in Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space, (Houston: Blaffer Gallery, The Art Museum of the University of Houston, 2008), 52, italics added.
  8. Sultan, “Women from Antwerp,” 56.
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.

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