Now Chantal Ackerman
– video installations AmbikaP3 (University of Westminster)
truth and interpretation
The setting for Chantal Akerman’s installations is the uncompromising space of a subterranean concrete bunker, basement zone of the 60’s brutalist architecture of the Marylebone campus site. This building is testament to the force of gravity, an anchored intention expressed in poured concrete. The underground gallery might once have been a car park or a service and testing area. It is cavernous, swallowing up the visitor as they descend into the dark.
At the top of the stairs, before the dark, on steel decking is the first of Akerman’s pieces: ‘In the Mirror’. A young woman naked except her panties, examines her body in the door mirror of a heavy old fashioned wardrobe. She turns, twists, cranes her neck, extends her backbone. It is a loop of investigation without beginning or end in any meaningful sense, an eternity of looking at self image. Made in 1971 on 16mm it is a recycled section of an early film and in itself presages not only the interest in content and form that were to characterise Akerman’s films, but also her psychological approach: obsession and observation.
After ‘In the Mirror’ my descent into the dark discovers 6 more installations. My feeling is that the pieces of work in the basement didn’t match up to either her films or the first 16mm entrance work, which like two other pieces downstairs, comprise of material excavated from film material. But ‘In the Mirror’ works without historical or textual reference. You don’t have to be told what to think (despite the explanation given in the didactic hand out). This work is approached on its own terms; and yours. You read what you see. ‘In the Mirror’ is simple. It is powerful and the more so for its undramatic understated everyday quality.
The psychic element of unabashed obsession permeates Akerman’s films. Initially her obsession was expressed as an internality, a driving inwards a hollowing into being. Jeanne Dielman and the earlier films have this quality. Akerman’s ability as director allowed her to use the energy flowing through internalities to express outward facing thematic concerns of identity: sexuality, gender, social relations. Later in career (and as yet I haven’t seen No Home Movie) her attention turns outwards to the world but retains something of the same formal obsessive quality. In D’est and Sud the composition of her shots, the moving images, retain the dynamic qualities of obsession and observation that are part her perception. Her quality of attentive seeing is reinforced in these films by shot iteration and reiteration. An idea that understanding and seeing are focused and expanded by looking not just once but multiple times; that the patterns of repetition engrained in observation of life which defined Jeanne Dielman, could also be employed in the shot formations of D’est and Sud. Shot formations which would constitute a prime element in the defining of the content of the films. A fusion of means and content.
Akerman’s films engage with truth. Akerman’s installations engage with interpretation.
The difference between a poem and an academic thesis.
Film is a medium that opens up Akerman’s creativity. The sculptural element of Installation seems to close her down, to enfold her into the lacklustre of academicism. The dead hand of interpretive meaning lies over these streaming screens. My feelings on looking at these works mostly comprising multiple screens (except Nightfall and Voice in the Desert) showing multiple images was that Akerman’s obsession turns inward into the shell of the self. As if mesmerised by multiplicities, she searches out a world of private meaning, an inner world of self affirmation, another kind of mirror.
Walking through the works I had the feeling that they were not created in the heat of the critical decisions that are made in the course of a making film. The installation works were the product of multiple choices made in the dark chasm of the editing suite, either by herself or by Claire Atherton. The obsession with multiple choice, days spent in front of the computer screen, the transposition of perception into manipulation. In D’est (and to a lesser extent A Voice in the Desert), this obsessive manipulation served the recycling of her film material, material that exploited in this manner has lost its vibrancy, but gained very little in the capacity of the material to engender reflection on the forces set in play.
Maniac Summer and Maniac Shadows are both personal statements that seem to have left behind the beauty of directness and traded truth for things seen obscurely through the dark glass of formalism. The printed guide helpfully suggests that they reflect Akerman’s practice of structuring space and time. Whatever that means. Perhaps it is no more than a justification for the multiple screen set ups which admix her personal space ( shots of her in her apartment, the views from the apartment, images form the tv) from a variety of perspectives. These pieces are dry configurations, which obscure Akerman rather than open up her vistas of awareness.
NOW (2015), is the last piece chronologically in this set of work. It is the weakest. Seven screens show moving images of a ‘racing through the desert’ accompanied by a sound track denoting the sounds of war: explosions, deep thuds etc. A gesture perhaps to the Israeli –Palistinian conflict. The hand out notes state, on what authority I don’t know, that she was ‘ …aiming to present the current condition of violence and conflict as a lived experience.’ Perhaps in contrast to what we see on YouTube and tv? This artistic attempt to transcribe war into images and sound track in an installation setting does not work. In fact it is a banality, seemingly happy stay at the level of broad truism and generalisation, rather than grasp the actuality of specificity. It lacks the very feeling of immediate experience; the experience of the screens and soundtrack are not rich enough in associative connections to allow for reflection. NOW seems misplaced as a project: we don’t have to go to galleries today to experience war, it’s living at home with us, available 24/7. Alternatively when thinking about the Israel Palastine war we have our imaginations fed by countless images over endless years of blood, mostly Palestinian blood.
Chantal Akerman’s films are full of her life. Her installations seem to be friezes, immobility’s, where formal concerns suggest an orientation to career. adrin neatrour email@example.com