Maniac Shadows

Paleis voor Schone Kunsten / Palais des Beaux-Arts

Expo
4/05-25/05
Tuesdays-Sundays 10:00-18:00
Nocturne on Thursdays 10:00-21:00
Opening: 4/05 - 18:00

Performance
4/05 - 22:00
FR > NL
±2h

An iconic figure in the world of contemporary film, for over twenty years Chantal Akerman has also been developing work intended for exhibition spaces. Meditative, engaged and intensely personal, her multi-screen video installations express the inexpressible about identity and otherness, confinement and migration by appropriating reality through a complex game of autobiographical references. At the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, this humanist artist will be presenting a new installation combined with a performance. Against a backdrop of images, some of which are filmed live in or from her apartments in Paris, Brussels and New York, between here and there, inside and outside, we hear her read letters to her mother in which she contemplates her life and the world. So close and yet so far away... Akerman questions the relationship between presence and absence at a time when the technological mediation of communication is merely increasing the distance between people.

A project by
Chantal Akerman

Editing
Cécile Martinaud

Presentation
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, BOZAR

Production
The Kitchen (New York City)

Co-production
Kunstenfestivaldesarts, LVMH, Cultuurcentrum Strombeek Grimbergen

Supported by
Vidi Square

Created in New York City in April 2013

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No Idolatry and Losing Everything that Made You a Slave

Elisabeth Lebovici: If one wants to begin with a loaded introductory statement about Chantal Akerman, one should definitely talk about borders, frontiers, limits, the other side and the side of the Other. These notions are also there in the way you deal with your work, your craft, your profession: are you on the side of experimental filmmaking, or in the history of mainstream narrative cinema? The side of cinema or that of art? Or all of the above? That would be my first question, since you were one of the most prominent filmmakers to "cross over" in the mid-1990s. What do you feel about this crossover towards making art?

Chantal Akerman: My history with installation was probably not an accident, though it appeared as if it were: it would never have happened without Kathy Halbreich, then the head of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, who asked me if I would do something in a museum context. That was probably in the early 1990s, when the curator Michael Tarantino had repeatedly observed that my films were a major influence on contemporary artists. You know I didn't learn about art. I ran away from school when I was 15. I was never really exposed to exhibitions before the early 1970s, the best years to me, when I found myself in a small group of the New York avant-garde, with Babette Mangolte, Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Annette Michelson, whom I respect so much...

Anyway, it happened because of Kathy Halbreich. At the time I was doing Night and Day. She said she was interested in history, I said I was equally interested in the polyphony of languages. I had been wanting to go towards Eastern Europe for twenty years - and it was just opening up - in order to work with the different Slavic languages, which are distinct but sound quite similar. I wanted to do a work about changes in voices and languages, a project that then developed on its own into a totally different form: while the texture of the soundtrack is very important in From the East, there is not one word in the film. At the beginning I wanted her to produce such a film; I didn't care about the art thing. In the meantime I found money and did From the East.

One year later, maybe two, I was told that funds had been raised for an installation, and I began playing around with the film material I had already gathered. It happened when I had three reels of the film, and I was playing with time. I saw four minutes that worked together in these three reels. Why? I don't know. There were four minutes. And then we found eight times four minutes, 24 screens as in 24 images per second; that is how the installation found its own agency. I wrote the last, 25th part as something more visually abstract, but with a very intimate text that evoked something more like a memorial. It also deals with limits, death, the camps.

My fixation with borders comes from the camps. When you touch on that limit - and I touched it very closely through my mother, who was in the camps but was never able to talk through her anxiety - this border takes on the source of the anxiety, it becomes an "anxious Abject". In From the Other Side, for instance, I show the wall to my mother and ask her what it brings to mind, and she says: "You know what". When it is internalized, experience is given without speaking, transmitted as a spectral presence; you cannot separate yourself from it. In the film Down There the notion of the "Other" takes on more complexity, because it's the same side, but the other side, the inside too. I try to connect to that internalization, because it's something you have to live with, that lives there before you. But it's hard. The reason is that I touched another limit, which is myself.

Talking about borders and confinement, home and breaking loose... Isn't that what home is about? When one looks at Jeanne Dielman in her kitchen, or when one finds oneself immersed in your last installation, shot in and from your home, the camera is the operator to feel confinement, beyond the visual depiction of space...

The jail is very, very present in all of my work, in La Captive as well as Jeanne Dielman... sometimes not so frontally. Now when you enter America, you have to put all of your fingers in ink, it's like entering a big jail. Do you know that you cannot smoke anymore in Central Park? New York is not like it was in the 1970s, everything was happening then, now it's much more about money. France is terrible, you feel no energy at all. In America you still have energy, but mostly for bling.

For you, where does this notion of the other side come from?

From Emmanuel Lévinas. He is part of my culture. For two years I attended his classes at ENIO (École Normale Israelite Orientale): he would always have a young person, a boy or a girl, read an excerpt from the Bible, standing in front of him, a minuscule, fragile figure surrounded by tons of books, and then he would get started and go far, far away... I often quote his statement: "When you see the face of the Other, you already hear the words 'Thou shalt not kill'". If only he had been heard. How could I not hear it! The other face is also the face of the viewer, I have always thought: I have an understanding that making films is very much about frontality, about facing off.

The notion of the Other has also been reassessed by feminism, first by Simone de Beauvoir when she observed that "he is the Subject, he is the Absolute - she is the Other" - that is, the non-subject, the non-person, in short, the mere body. Being on the other side, then, is also being on the side of the Other, reclaiming the self.

It was such an emancipating time, between 1968 and 1973. I felt free to make Je tu il elle, which was then an incredible provocation. I shot the film in one week, and at first I tried to have another woman play my part, a substitute for my own body. But I soon realized it had to be me, my body. Just as in Saute ma ville, which I now think is my queerest movie. Saute ma ville, to me, is the opposite of Jeanne Dielman: the story of a girl who talks back to her mother, who explodes the norms confining women to womanly tasks, who breaks everything in the kitchen and does everything in a crooked way - and yet, for all that, it is a love story: the film is dedicated.

I love the way you deal with your own body - defying its sense of gravity as well as its respectability - in Je tu il elle, for instance, where after your long journey you finally enter "elle"'s apartment, and the first thing you do is to trip on the carpet and fall down...

I'm a female Charlie Chaplin, I could have made slapstick comedy. I'm thinking more and more about acting again, in my films. My body in a movie is very important, it says something by itself, it has the weight of the Real. I can't have actresses playing my clumsiness. It seems impossible for me to be in a restaurant without knocking something over: my gestures are too large, or I'm pursuing my thoughts and get startled. You're out of convention with your own body, with your own way of moving. When I was a child, and being raised in such a conventional bourgeois high school, I thought it was a question of class, I attributed my non-conformity to the fact that I was a Jew. I didn't attribute it to gender then, but I realized later that the other girls were already built to fit what a young woman was raised to become, in conformity with their future as women in a normative society: my parents didn't have the time, they didn't succeed. When I was fifteen and ate too much chocolate, and put on weight, my father suddenly realized that I had to get skinnier to be sold to a man; he wanted me to wear dresses but it didn't work. When I was 18 I rushed to Paris, then I rushed to New York, to get even farther away. The only person I didn't succeed in making that split with was my mother, because she was a camp survivor, and I was born when she was older, in 1950. I still think of myself as an old child...

On the other side of gender difference?

Well, for several months I joined the feminist faction of "Psych et Po", with Antoinette Fouque, which made it normal to expose yourself. But that's another story...

But you were recruited to film a case history of Freud: was it Anna O?

No, it was The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman. I was just asked to help, not to do the film myself, and was soon pulled away.

Psychoanalysis is part of your life, but could you film Freud?

I remember that Dora was fascinating. But there are so many people who have thought about psychoanalysis after Freud. For instance, there is this theory of André Green, in Narcissisme de Vie, Narcissisme de Mort (1983), about the complex of the dead mother, where he writes about the ways maternal depression abandons the child and his or her craving for being held, comforted, accompanied.

Taking sides with the mother?

At the beginning I thought that since she didn't have any voice, I would be speaking for her, but it turned out not to be so true, it was just my way of explaining things. What is true is that I was speaking for all women: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: what woman didn't feel something about that? When Je tu il elle was released my telephone was bombarded with calls from people who identified with what I was showing. When a figure appears that has rarely been exposed, it indicates that something was probably boiling.

A long version of this interview was published in Mousse Magazine #31, Milan November-December 2011, and in Chantal Akerman: Too Far, Too Close (catalogue), Ludion & M HKA Antwerp February-May 2012. With thanks to Edoardo Bonaspetti and Stefano Cernuschi.

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Chantal Akerman (b. 1950) was born in Brussels and currently lives and works in Paris. One of the most important filmmakers of her generation, she has been a leading figure in European experimental cinema since her earliest films including Saute ma ville (1968), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080Bruxelles (1975), Je tu il elle (1975) and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna(1978). Since the early nineties, Akerman has used video and installation in her exploration of film form, in such works as D’Est(1995), Sud (1998/9), De l’autre côté (2002) and Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un Frigidaire vide (2004). Her most recent feature film was La Folie Almayer in 2011. She is the author of several books, including Une famille à Bruxelles, a fictional stream of consciousness text first performed as a monologue in Paris and Brussels, and published in French by Les Editions de l’Arche, Paris and in English by Dia Art Foundation. She is the author of several books, including A Family in Brussels, a fictional stream of consciousness text first performed as a monologue in Paris and Brussels, and published in French by Les Editions de l’Arche, Paris and in English by Dia Art Foundation. Akerman’s most recent retrospective, Too Far, Too Close was presented at M HKA, Antwerp in 2012. Her 2008 U.S. survey Chantal Akerman: Moving through Time and Space traveled to MIT’s List Visual Arts Center; the Miami Art Museum; the Contemporary Museum of Art, St. Louis, The Blaffer Gallery at the Art Museum of the University of Houston, and The Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Other solo exhibitions have been seen at the Camden Arts Center, U.K. (2008); Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel (2006); Princeton University Art Museum, (2006); Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires/Malba, Buenos Aires, (2005); and École supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Toulouse (2004). Important earlier exhibitions include a retrospective survey, Chantal Akerman, held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 2003, as well as the travelling tour of the film D’Est (1995), a documentary of the transition from summer to winter across Germany, Poland, and Russia, which was seen at San Francisco MoMA; Walker Art Center; Galerie national du Jeu de Paume, Paris; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; IVAM, Valencia; Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg; and The Jewish Museum, New York. Her work has also been included in such significant group exhibitions as the 2010 Sao Paulo Biennial, 2002 Documenta XI, Kassel, Germany, and the 2001 Venice Bienniale, as well as numerous international film festivals.

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