Chantal Akerman, To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge (2004). Courtesy Camden Arts Centre.

Chantal Akerman at the Camden Arts Centre

by Robert Stalker

Hotel Monterey (1972), the earliest of the three films included in a recent exhibition of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s films at the Camden Arts Centre, reflects the influence of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, and especially Andy Warhol, American avant-garde filmmakers with whom Akerman became acquainted during a brief relocation to New York in the early 1970s. Shot in color with camerawoman Babette Mangolte, who would become a frequent collaborator, Hotel Monterey, like Warhol’s early “stillies,” such as Sleep (1963) and Empire (1964), is degree zero filmmaking, offering a bare bones minimalist tour from lobby to rooftop of a fairly banal architectural space. Pausing along the way for almost-unbearably long takes of the hotel’s mostly depopulated corridors, elevators, and corners, the film’s heavily protracted pacing generates a strange kind of suspense, eeriness, and, at times, even humor out of what would otherwise be rather ordinary moments, such as the unexpected opening of an elevator door. (Interestingly, those few moments in the film that contain human presence tend to elicit nervous laughter from the audience.) The excessively long takes have the affect of appearing to arrest cinematic movement, opening the film to another reality. At times, the stillness of the images begins to evoke the mystery and melancholy of a de Chirico painting or the surreal emptiness of an Atget photograph. 

More than thirty years separates Hotel Monterey from the other two works included in the Camden Arts Centre exhibit. In the time between the earlier and later pieces, Akerman has worked in a variety of cinematic forms and contexts: feature films (A Couch in New York [1996], The Captive, [2000]), experimental cinema (I’m Hungry, I’m Cold [1984]), documentary (South of Europe [1998/9]), and video. In the mid-1990s, beginning with D’est: a bord de la fiction, a multi-monitor video installation about the Eastern European diaspora after the fall of the USSR, Akerman brought her work into the space of the art gallery. It is to this latter project that the other two works exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre bear the closest resemblance, while retaining the earlier work’s interest in pushing cinema in the direction of stillness. 

More of an installation than a film, To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge (2004) takes as its subject the discovery of the diary of Akerman’s maternal grandmother, Sidonie Ehrenburg, who perished in Auschwitz in 1942. Divided between two rooms, the first room contains a large ribbon or spiral of semi-transparent white tulle, probably 8 feet tall, upon which is projected words from Akerman’s grandmother’s diary. While some have dismissed this part of the installation as “lightweight Richard Serra,” such criticisms ignore how this spiral of words interacts with the images in the second part of the installation. The adjoining room contains a rectangular scrim with pages from the diary projected onto it. Beyond this, running on a loop, is the double screen, semi-transparent projection of a 22 minute interview by Akerman of her mother Nelly Akerman, who discovered her mother’s diary. The various media involved here—sculpture, written text, still photos, and film—work together to raise important questions about media and the representation of history and temporality. The absurdist ring of the project’s title might even invite comparisons to Dadaist strategies of jumbling visual and textual codes, the projection of the diary’s pages onto the spiraling scrim specifically evoking Apollinaire’s curious description of cinema as “a book of pictures.”

Chantal Akerman, Women from Antwerp in November (2007). Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre.

The ease with which Akerman moves from these vanguard registers to more playful reflections on cinema’s narrative modes is obvious with Women from Antwerp in November (2007), the third project on view at the Camden Arts Centre. A two-channel projection, the piece is comprised of a large close-up of a woman’s face projected on one wall (The Square Black and White Portrait) and on the facing wall a large rectangular screen (The Landscape) showing five women, all smoking, involved in various everyday activities—waiting, reading on a bench, talking on a cell phone, crying. The narrative possibilities of the five vignettes of the women in The Landscape are beautifully played off the stillness of the Warholian screen-test like portrait, thus freezing Hollywood cinema’s classic structure of oscillating between narrative movement and fetishistic possession of the image in close-up. Speaking about her relation to commercial cinema, Akerman has said: “[W]hen most people go to the movies, the ultimate compliment—for them—is to say, ‘we didn’t notice the time pass!’ With me, you see the time pass. And feel it pass.” As these films make clear, Akerman’s cinema not only makes us intensely aware of time’s passing but also shows how art can expose us to a different sense of time.

Reviewing Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory (1958) for the Cahiers Du Cinéma, critic and then would-be filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard noted that “A gulf yawns between the still and the film itself. . . Ray forces us to consider as real something one did not even consider as unreal, something one did not even consider at all.” Perhaps no other filmmaker has pursued so compellingly the unreality Godard glimpses in the space between the still and moving image than Chantal Akerman.

This exhibition ran from 11 July - 14 September 2008 at the Camden Arts Centre in London, UK.

Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.