Chantal Akerman: Macro to Micro
By Bryan Barcena
As the twentieth century reached its final hours, many artists felt that art based on critical theory was on the way out. The conceptual frameworks, which had propelled art along during the past hundred years, were beginning to seem feeble. The strategy became one of refusing to criticize or to become an antithesis to what preceded their work. It became more important to reject the concept that art created conflicts, which were, in turn, mediated through their creation. If art was to be commentary on the post-modern condition, it was just and essential for them to present these issues with an unflinching vision that sought to provide evidence, if not closure.
Chantal Akerman can appropriately be identified as an artist who felt it important to present the issues of contemporary life through unbiased revelations. The subjects of these post-modern thinkers were complex and fragmented; almost imperceptibly, yet unequivocally, connected to a rapidly globalized planet. Belonging to a group of artists as varied as Andreas Gursky, Jeff Koons, Duane Hanson, Gabriel Orozco and Krzysztof Wodiczko, Akerman shares a concern for sharing the complexities of contemporary identity, and even crisis, while carefully avoiding the passage of any judgment or inflection of guilt. Akerman allows the stories she wishes to tell, to tell themselves; she is faithful to the lens of the camera, allowing the brain to process what is obvious to the eye.
Born in Brussels, Belgium in 1950, Akerman quickly rose to prominence within Europe for ushering in a new genre of film. Dubbed “hyperrealist,” Akerman’s films sought to highlight the banal, emphasize narrative and intimacy, while still eschewing dramatics. In her most prominent film, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” created in 1975, the filmmaker invites us into the life of the title character over the course of three days. As the film progresses, the viewer gets an intimate glimpse into the character’s regimented and uneventful life, which eventually takes a turn towards the bizarre. Lauded as a herald of new-wave feminist film, Akerman has continued to revisit themes that attempt to recast the mundane as soberly extraordinary.
The partnership between Miami Art Central and the Miami Art Museum continues to provide visitors with high-quality exhibitions under the direction of Peter Boswell, and “Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space” is no exception. Miami Art Central had already proven to the community that they could put together a superbly-executed video exhibition with both “Video: An Art, A History” in 2006 and “Tacita Dean: Film Works” in 2007. Miami Art Museum continues MAC’s history of expertly-devised video installation by creating an inventive and well-thought-out exhibition that asks the viewer to rethink the spatial relationship between themselves and the videos. The museum staff is adamant about creating a specific flow through the museum, and in doing so, has created a directed narrative that not only highlights the different facets of Ackerman’s work, but also how the physical experience of viewing film can influence perception. The five films on view allow visitors to investigate the subjects that Akerman presents. Exploring the complex relationships that exist in Akerman’s films only requires us to look and to be present; they choose to develop and unfold at the pace of the visitor’s realizations.
As visitors reach the Upper Gallery of the Museum, they are guided into the first of five video installations. Inside the first gallery, viewers are first confronted with a large-scale projection of “D’est,” a 16mm experimental documentary Akerman created in 1993. The first of the three sections of the installation exposes the viewer to the landscape of a post-Cold War Eastern Europe, short vignettes of countryside and cities interspersed with scenes of domesticity. Akerman creates what can be described as a visual catalogue of the faces and places of the former Soviet Bloc through short snippets. The camera acts as a roving reporter as it quickly jumps from scene to scene, but within the next room of the installation, the roles are reversed. The second installment consists of twenty-four video monitors positioned in groups of three and arranged laterally, thus asking viewers to become transient figures themselves, as they are forced to move between the rows of video monitors. The videos themselves deepen a plot that was begun in the first video. Each screen loops panoramas of transitory individuals, groups of people in train stations, waiting outside of factories or driving along dark city streets. On a few of the monitors, we see people relaxing in their homes, watching television or preparing dinner. Akerman creates a vivid juxtaposition between the individual and the group, by focusing in on these scenes of utter intimacy and solitary moments. Exiting this room, viewers enter a much smaller room containing only one small video screen and a pair of speakers. This final video presents a single still, from the films, of a Moscow street that slowly fades to black accompanied by spoken word recited by Akerman.
The second film on view, “Sud,” is much more grounded in the style of the documentary than any of Akerman’s other videos on display. Akerman’s investigative lens is now turned towards the southern United States and, more specifically, the segregation and underlying racism that continues to exist there. Just as in “D’est,” Akerman presents drawn-out vignettes that highlight life in the rural south; long dusty roads, swamps and roadside chain-gangs. The film centers around the recounting of a brutal hate crime involving the lynching and dismemberment of James Byrd, Jr. by three white supremacists. The film is punctuated by interviews with local figures, who vividly recount the crime.
The third film in “Moving Through Time and Space” is perhaps the most personal film that Akerman offers us. It is the only film that gives the feeling that there is a distinct connection between filmmaker and subject. “Lá-bas,” filmed in 2006, is a kind of visual documentation of Akerman’s experience while vacationing in Israel. Scenes of voyeuristic encounters, looking into the windows of nearby apartments, watching neighbors go about their business, as the camera inhabits a darkened apartment, allow us to imagine the filmmaker’s social hesitation and sense of isolation. This feeling of isolation is compounded by later scenes in which Akerman is witness to events proceeding a bus bombing and the danger inherent in this complex environment. Viewers may surmise that although the filmmaker feels a connection to Israel, she is unable to fully confront the difficulties created by the same kind socio-political quagmires that she chooses as subjects for her films.
The fourth film again uses creative installation as a tool to highlight Akerman’s ability to use film as a barometer for complex social relationships. In “Les femmes d’Anvers en Novembre” the activity of smoking takes on very personal and introspective connotations. The filmmaker investigates this often-chastised habit by creating twenty (the same number as cigarettes in a pack) vignettes that highlight moments protagonists are sharing with a cigarette. Lacking in any male presence, the short films give off an almost melancholy sentiment; many of the moments are solitary and show women embroiled in, what would appear to be, intense introspection. The two-channel installation also consists of a single black-and-white projection of young woman in the process of smoking a cigarette, on the wall opposite the other films. Whereas the color films are almost all too real and sobering, the black-and-white film is dramatic and sensuous; the rings of smoke careen upwards, as we see the woman indulge in, what appears to be, a very pleasurable experience.
The final film encountered brings the exhibition full circle as it re-contextualizes the installation experienced in “D’est.” “De l’autre coté” uses the same kind of multi-room set-up, but reverses its order and changes the subject matter. In this series of films, Akerman turns her attention towards the plight of illegal immigration from Mexico into the United States. Using the same method as before, she attempts to illustrate life as both intimate and universal. In the first room, visitors sit before a lone television screen where cars streak along a highway that leads to the Mexican-American border, accompanied by the sound of Akerman’s voice recounting the stories of perilous border crossings. The second room again employs twenty-four video screens to the same effect as before. Some screens show scenes, shot from helicopters, of infrared immigrants huddling underneath trees in the desert, stills of homes sitting just across from the wall marking the border; others show Mexican families sitting at a table mourning the loss of a family member who did not make it across. The final room seats the viewer opposite a large screen where a picture within a picture contrasts a sublime and serene desert sunset rising over mountains in the background, against the chaotic images of desert crossings, seen before, in the foreground.
Although Chantal Akerman’s subject matter is quite geographically diverse, the issues surrounding her protagonists are all too similar. At the core, these films reveal a search for identity through transition; whether it is manifested in Eastern Europeans after the fall of the Bloc, Mexicans trying to re-envision an American life, smokers grappling with a killer pleasure, or Israelis fighting for a promised land. Akerman does not pass judgment; her position remains neutral and clear throughout. She is able to present these conditions to us from the vantage point of the countless unnamed, faceless masses, or bring her lens down to the level of a kitchen-table discussion. Chantal Akerman wishes not to create drama within the consciousness of the viewer; instead, she focuses in on the complexity and subtlety that accompanies a convoluted world.
Bryan Barcena is a graduate of the University of Michigan specializing in Art History and Latin American Studies. He is the Assistant Director of Chelsea Galleria Wynwood, in Miami.