Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, MAC@MAM, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis will present Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space. This is the internationally renowned filmmaker and video artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States, and will feature five multi-media video installations: her “documentary series” comprised of D’Est (From the East), Sud, From the Other Side, Là-bas, and a new work created especially for the exhibition.
D’Est (1993), comprised of multiple video monitors filling a large, crepuscular room, retraces a journey from the end of summer to deepest winter, from East Germany, across Poland and the Baltics, to Moscow in a series of inter-related images. This experimental documentary is a compendium of striking images of Eastern Europe and its citizens in transition, following the collapse of the so-called Cold War. Places as diverse as Baltic beaches, and Moscow’s snow-covered streets vie for attention along with the citizens of these places as they wait in lines, march in military formation, or stand idle in the waiting rooms of train stations. There is no narration, and no clear point (except the idea of transitions) is indicated by the beautifully chosen, enigmatic imagery. Through a seemingly objective, omniscient point of view, Akerman’s relentless cameras deliver an impressionistic report from the new front. Displaying her distinctive visual style, influenced by structuralism and minimalism, her journey unfolds as a procession of postcards in which she captures the essence, if not the historical particulars, of a region on the move.
The documentary From the Other Side (1999) is presented in a 99 min. digital video recording that is spatially layered in several parallel rows of monitors whose 18 screens and 2 projections create a complex simultaneity from the documentary material. The work is an unsentimental look at the plight of illegal Mexican immigrants as they attempt the dangerous crossing from Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico to Douglas, Arizona. Akerman approaches the documentary from an unobtrusive and objective standpoint evident from the lack of an omniscient narrator that “might suggest an unequal power relationship between filmmaker and the filmed” and from the long camera angles and takes that capture miles of dividing fence between the Mexico-Arizona border and produce an air of uninterrupted verisimilitude. Akerman interviews both the immigrants desperately seeking to reach more prosperous conditions on “the other side” and the border patrols that guard the fence against the daily barrage of illegal immigration. In addition, Akerman interviews sheriffs, migrant advocates, and relatives of those who did not survive the passage north.
Chantal Akerman’s Sud (1999) began as a “meditation on the American South,” inspired by her love for the work of the renowned southern writers William Faulkner and James Baldwin. However, shortly before Akerman began filming, a black man by the name of James Byrd Jr. was brutally murdered in Jasper, Texas at the hands of three whites who chained Byrd to their truck and dragged him three miles through predominantly black parts of the county until one of his arms came off and he was decapitated. The direction of Akerman’s film quickly shifted from an elegant meditation on the south to a passionate documentary capturing the emotionally tumultuous aftermath of the murder of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas. Akerman’s Sud reconstitutes the horrible incident documenting the solemn funeral and memorial services and interviewing both whites and blacks among the county authorities, witnesses, and the friends and family of James Byrd Jr. The film opens in characteristic Akerman fashion with static images of a small church anchored in Jasper’s lush surroundings. “The action is negligible, dialogue non-existent, and sound muted, investing these opening scenes with an oppressive beauty,” one critic writes. In similar fashion Akerman leads the viewer down the length of the road where James Byrd Jr. was murdered, at once contrasting the horror of racial violence with the transcendental beauty of the wild Jasper countryside that frames the fateful road. Interviews with witnesses, authorities, and friends of James Byrd Jr. flesh out the haunting scenes with observations on politics of race and eyewitness accounts of the incident. “We found pieces of his body all along the road,” says one witness, and the sheer horror of the brutal murder begins to sink in.
In a radical break from her point of view in works from the Histories d’Amérique (American Stories) such as Sud or From the Other Side, in Làs-Bas Akerman approaches a subject directly attached to her own history. In fact, Akerman did not want to make a film in Israel, convinced that neutrality would be impossible and that her own subjectivity would interfere. “When I make a documentary, my greatest desire is that it have nothing directly to do with my own story or that of the Jews. I thought that, to contemplate Israel, one had to go to Afghanistan, or some¬where else, like New York, but certainly not Israel,” she explains. “Then I went to Tel Aviv University to teach film. One day I took the camera and sat down and suddenly there was an image, a shot. I thought it was a great picture. After that, all I had to do was wait and let things run their course.”
Thus, Là-bas is a bare and minimalist undertaking, a deft self reflection in which we rarely see Akerman; she leaves the apartment only for the occasional visit to the shore. We hear her voice, resigned and somewhat disconnected. We hear her answer the telephone, listen to her monologues, replete with her childhood, intimate torments, reflections on her past that infuse her present, stifled by longing to be elsewhere. Akerman takes the chamber play to its ultimate form: it is almost entirely chamber. She films from the apartment and in her narration she talks about her family, her Jewish identity and her childhood. She wonders whether normal everyday life is possible in this place and whether filming is a realistic option. Akerman does not film here with any intentions defined in advance. She wants to be as open and blank as possible to ensure that things take their own course.
Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space is jointly organized by Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, MAC@MAM, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. The exhibition and publication are supported by a generous grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The commissioning of Women from Antwerp in November is made possible by the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros Collection.
Image: Installation view of Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space by Rick Gardner Photography