Chantal Akerman

This review of “Chantal Akerman: NOW” at Ambika P3 appeared in Mousse magazine:

Long in the planning, and sensitively curated by Ambika P3’s Michael Mazière jointly with the filmmaker duo A Nos Amours (Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts), this survey of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work was intended to show the continuity of her practice as a filmmaker and an artist. “NOW” follows on from, and in a sense completes, the retrospective of Akerman’s entire filmic output orchestrated by A Nos Amours at the ICA London. Dedicated to the memory of the late artist, who passed away on 5 October, the retrospective came to a close (following two years of monthly screenings) a week before the show’s opening. Casting a shadow over both events, Akerman’s unexpected death, aged sixty-five, gave an added poignancy to the seven works brought together at Ambika P3, even as it made the show’s title sound bitterly ironic.

Akerman, who shot her first film, Saute ma ville (1968), when she was just eighteen, only turned to making work for gallery viewing in 1995, after she was invited to do a show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Many of her video installations reuse film footage originally shot as feature films or shorts with cinema audiences in mind. In the Mirror (1971/2007), which confronts visitors immediately as they enter the mezzanine overlooking the main gallery space at Ambika P3, is a case in point. A young woman wearing nothing but underwear inspects herself closely in a full-length mirror, finding fault with this, that, and the other. It could be a self-portrait, but this is in fact the actress Claire Wauthion, who would go on to portray Akerman’s lover in Je tu il elle (1976). The black-and-white 16mm film transferred to video is a fourteen-minute sequence lifted from Akerman’s second feature film, L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971), which the filmmaker herself deemed a failure but would return to, years later.

Two other video projections displayed in a succession of dark rooms downstairs repurpose footage from travelogue films, a mode to which Akerman would return again and again in her later works. A Voice in the Desert (2002) and D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995) illustrate the varied uses to which Akerman would put existing filmic materials in her installations. Originally shown at “Documenta 11”, the former work is a filmed projection on a screen suspended against a desert backdrop of the final minutes of Akerman’s film De l’autre côté (2002), dealing with clandestine migration along the U.S.-Mexico border, accompanied by the barely audible sound of Akerman’s voice reading extracts from the film in Spanish and English. The latter displays scenes from D’est (1993)—shot while traveling across Eastern Europe shortly before the fall of Communism—on twenty-four monitors, presented in eight blocks of three in a precise arrangement by Akerman’s longtime editor, Claire Atherton. In contrast to this surfeit of bleak wordless images, a final monitor presented on its own shows grainy, indistinct footage of a highway by night as the filmmaker recites, in Hebrew followed by English, the biblical interdiction on graven images from Exodus.

Presented next to each other, Maniac Summer (2009) and Maniac Shadows (2013) gesture in their titles to the manic episodes Akerman was increasingly prone to from her mid-thirties onward. (She openly discusses her bipolar condition with the curator Nicole Brenez in the so-called “Pajama Interview”.) [1] Both show contrasting indoor and outdoor scenes and make striking use of after-images, inspired in part by the traces of radiation left behind in the Hiroshima blasts. In Maniac Summer, the footage shot in and from the vantage of Akerman’s Parisian apartment is drained of color, multiplied, and progressively abstracted, as the projected images travel across three walls clockwise, disappearing then reappearing moments later in an altered guise. A faint shadow on a contiguous wall duplicates one of three moving images composing a triptych in Maniac Shadows, presented as a wall of photographs in a second gallery space alongside a projected image of Akerman reading a text about her mother at The Kitchen in New York.

Described by the filmmaker as her “orphan film”, Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai (2007), made for the omnibus project ”The State of the World” with contributions from Pedro Costa, Wang Bing, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was subsequently part of Akerman’s solo show titled “Maniac Summer” (2009) at Marian Goodman Gallery. Random, gaudy advertisements animating the LED screens on two prominent skyscrapers form a moving image within what is mostly a static long take of Shanghai’s harbor at nightfall. The large-scale projection is flanked by two diminutive mass-produced glowing aquarium light-boxes, whose fish at one point echo the images projected on the towers.

The same twin light-boxes feature beside the five screens suspended within the large black box built to house the centerpiece, NOW (2015), which dominates the show both visually and aurally since its piercing soundtrack bleeds through the walls. Akerman’s most recent work on view was commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale. Tucked away at the back of the room, the kitschy fish tanks strike an incongruous note in the work’s otherwise spare presentation at Ambika P3, which does away with the artificial flowers strewn on the floor in the Arsenale installation. And yet they offer some respite from the dun desert landscapes hurtling past at breakneck speed on the five screens, seemingly divorced from the din of explosions, gunshots, sirens, calls to prayer, human shrieks, and panicked birdsong, all denoting alarm.


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