Ornate, spectacular, sentimental—these are terms that sit uncomfortably next to the oeuvre of Chantal Akerman, whose work is known for its domestic yet avant garde styling that has inspirationally defied the many categories that she spans—filmmaker, writer, artist to name a few. Yet there is something incongruous in the selected trio of works on show here. It seems necessary to revisit Akerman’s previous works immediately after the experience of this Camden show to recall she has indeed produced some of the most interesting film-based art in the past 40 years, even if those works are not present.
‘Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, 1975, for example, is the portrait of a housewife-turned-prostitute that brought early recognition to Akerman’s work, defining the then 25-year-old woman as an intelligent and bold filmmaker. Described by Le Monde as a ‘masterpiece in the feminine in the history of cinema’, such praise was fairly matched throughout her body of work in works such as ‘Toute une nuit’, 1982, and later in ‘D’Est’, 1993.
This show—Akerman’s first solo in the UK—brings together three other works: ‘To Walk Next To One’s Shoelaces In An Empty Fridge’, 2004, ‘Women From Antwerp in November’, 2007, and ‘Hotel Monterey’, 1972. There is something strangely wrong-footed about this exhibition’s order, not to mention alienating where it offers little English translation of the monumental, French text-heavy work, ‘To Walk…’, which is confusingly, and perhaps needlessly dispersed across installation, sound, video and text. Such over-elaboration masks the density and frankness of its key story—an intimate dialogue between Akerman and her mother recalling the filmmaker’s maternal grandmother, her death in Auschwitz, her journal, the young Akerman’s budding career, family tensions.
But this sensitive core is packed within exhibition design. Decorative at best, distracting at worst, the multiplicity of sound, projection and text masks the integrity at the heart of the work. Such highly-wrought designs appear as self-doubt regarding the power of the story, as if aesthetic choices might add gravitas, while in reality they only embellish a thin veneer of sentimentality to an otherwise serious and touching foundation. In the neighbouring room, gimmicky design repeats in Akerman’s recent work, ‘Women from Antwerp in November’, which uses elaborate split screens, dissolves and vacuous close-ups of women smoking. The faux noir kills time.
Startlingly then, it is the early work ‘Hotel Monterey’ that is the most original and intriguing work here. Regardless of whether this is dispiriting or not in the presence of recent weaker works, ‘Hotel Monterey’ deftly presents the imagistic prowess of Akerman.
Static shots of the hotel’s uninhabited spaces—neither domesticated nor entirely public—are punctuated with the occasional movement of lifts, a door opening ajar, the movement of anonymous guests. It is in the absence of mechanical or human intervention, however, that a feeling of time begins to stack up at an abnormal rate—loading each image with unexpected density.
This is not the ‘march’ of time, but rather a succinct illustration of how pensiveness (the consequence of Akerman’s elongation of image time) can be developed into a personal experience. These sparse images open up hidden spaces, imbuing them with a plenitude of meaning through their temporal expansion. Then, suddenly, time flushes through the frame with the paucity of smallest movements— brief flash of red light signals a lift in service, the twist of a door knob, the face of a passer-by dodging out of shot. The observer is snatched from reverie, and swiftly reminded that this space of contemplation is not simply an unmoving image, but a rush of sequences, fluttering through the projector as the blurred spine in a thumbed deck of cards.
This, the final work in a show that would have benefited from chronological order, marks the bare and simple filmic mediation of time with silent confidence, begging the existence of a full-bodied Akerman retrospective.
Isla Leaver-Yap is MAP’s editor-at-large