Tag Archives: Anja Salomonowitz

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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Berlinale Forum 2013

This report appeared on the Sight & Sound blog:

727 Days Without Karamo

Justifiably billed as “the most daring section of the Berlinale”, the Forum certainly doesn’t eschew standard narrative fare and for the most part stays well within the bounds of cinematic convention. Yet even if you’re not narratively inclined, this is still the place to be. Some of the quirkiest offerings both in this strand and in its younger offshoot Forum Expanded, now in its eighth year, melded documentary and fiction, art and cinema, in a genuine attempt at forging new cinematic forms.

A case in point: Anja Salomonowitz’s The 727 Days Without Karamo. A documentary looking at the impact of Austrian immigration laws on the lives of couples of mixed race and nationality, forced to live apart or stay together for fear that one partner would otherwise be deported, this might have made for grim viewing. Salomonowitz lightens things up using Bernhard Fleischmann’s upbeat music and copious amounts of the colour yellow, which (in the absence of a narrative arc) acts as a quasi-formal device, linking together discrete interviews staged in real homes or workplaces. This yellow-mania comes in all shades and is applied to all manner of objects, from bridesmaids’ dresses to bicycles, wallpaper, wellington boots, towels in a salon or soup in a chef’s kitchen.

Hélio Oiticica

Pulsating rhythm and colour also informs Hélio Oiticica, a fast-paced documentary charting the personal and intellectual trajectory of one of Brazil’s most prominent twentieth-century artists, which won the Forum’s Caligari Film Prize. Made by his nephew Cesar Oiticica Filho, and reminiscent of Jack Smith’s drug-fuelled aesthetic, the film uses found footage from an impressive range of sources to construct its riveting collage of sounds and images, toned in Oiticica’s customary palette of warm yellows, oranges and reds. Oiticaca Filho has managed to tap recordings of his uncle, too, such that – unusually for a biopic – we hear the artist, who died in 1980, narrate much of his own story. (He comes across as charismatic, if somewhat conceited.)

Shirley – Visions of Reality

A different but likewse visually alluring experiment comes from another Austrian writer-director, Gustav Deutsch. Shirley – Visions of Reality unfolds in a series of animated tableaux based on 13 iconic paintings by Edward Hopper. The loose, contrived plot (each episode is set on August 28/29 of the year in which a given canvas had been painted) centres on the eponymous Shirley, a fictional actress who successively embodies various female figures in Hopper’s paintings, and who remains opaque, undeveloped and unaging, even though the film spans three decades of her life. But that’s not really the point. What makes the film fascinating to watch is the unreal, painterly quality of the moving images themselves.

Mamas

Made up of ten short films, Isabella Rossellini’s 21-minute-long Mammas is a worthy successor to her Green Pornos, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2008, and their sequel Seduce Me. Having acted out for us the sexual proclivities of various creatures, Rossellini now turns her comic talents to motherhood, exploring specifically the maternal instinct (or lack of it) of toads, spiders, hamsters and the like.

If anything, Mammas is more tightly edited, punchier and – thanks to the haute-couture costumes Rossellini sports in her different animal guises – more glamorous than its predecessors. And not unlike Deutsch’s film, each episode is introduced by a brief musical interlude – followed by a black-and-white photograph of a little girl (Rossellini herself) riding a pony led by her mother (Ingrid Bergman). At Mammas’ premiere, shortly after being awarded the Berlinale Camera, Rossellini told the audience that her inspiration for the films lay in her finding animal behaviour “hysterically funny”, yet seldom seeing it portrayed as such.

Frog Spider Hand Horse House

Humour in the depiction of animals is also a feature of Shelly Silver’s Frog Spider Hand Horse House, 49 minutes long and shown in a double bill with Mammas. As the title suggests, the film opts for a disjointed mode of narration, alternating disconcerting close-ups of animals (at one point we see only a horse’s twitching ears, which seem more expressive in the absence of eyes) with images of group activities such as outdoor Tai Chi classes or school singing lessons. Certain motifs – a man loudly playing the piano, a frog-shaped kite floating in the sky – contribute to create a broody, fairytale atmosphere.

Stemple Pass

If Rossellini’s films are short and sweet (though the humour in them, as Shelly Silver pointed out at a talk, comes from a dark place), James Benning’s Stemple Pass explores duration. Consisting of four quasi-static, half-hour shots of the same lush California mountain valley across the seasons, devoid of human presence save for a small log cabin in the bottom right-hand corner, it gives plenty of time to observe the changing quality of light as spring turns to autumn and winter to summer (in that order), and to grow attuned to valley sounds.

The silence gives way for roughly half of the time to the anti-technological diaries and interview excerpts of ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski, read out by Benning in voice-over as if emanating from the cabin, a faithful replica of Kaczynski’s own at Stemple Pass in Montana. (The artist built it as a counterpart to an earlier replica of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond cabin.) As with all these films, there is a formal elegance to Stemple Pass that harks back to early cinema yet feels new.