While most can hope to live authentically in the one life allotted them, some are able to expand beyond such limitations. One way is through art, which not only arouses an inner life that may stand apart from one's corporeal being, but also extends past any sort of physical life into the realm of the sublime, where it survives so long as there are people willing to appreciate it.
The French photographer, filmmaker, and installation artist Agnès Varda is often referred to as having lived three lives, testifying to a career divided into three parts of artistic exploration but which are nevertheless interconnected, ultimately comprising a distinguished whole. Accordingly, Varda favored the triptych across much of her oeuvre and specifically in her installations; the division into three was as consequential to her in application as in theory.
In considering Varda’s evolution as an artist, one epoch does not exist without the other. Still, each is appreciable as its own discrete phenomenon: Her first as a photographer, which she focused on in her early-to-late 20s; her second (and most renowned) as a filmmaker; and, finally, her third as an installation artist.
“The old lady filmmaker turns into a young artist,” she said of the latter era, which began after she was invited by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist to create an installation for the 2003 Venice Biennale, where she also became one herself, famously dressing up as a potato to the delight of admirers at the event and all over the world.
The monumental retrospective “The Third Life of Agnès Varda,” which was on display in June and July this year at silent green Kulturquartier in Berlin, Germany, covered much of this culminating period. Silent green founders and directors Jörg Heitmann and Bettina Ellerkamp first encountered Varda’s installation work when it was exhibited at Paris’s Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain in 2006. Ellerkamp especially was fascinated, hoping to bring it to Berlin even before silent green existed.
The retrospective’s curators, Dominique Bluher and Julia Fabry, have also had a long interest in this tertiary (but no less intriguing) life of Varda’s. Bluher, an academic who’s studied Varda’s work, was long-time friends with her. Fabry, an artist herself, was also close with Varda; the two worked together for 13 years on a variety of projects.
Established in 2015, silent green is located at what was once a crematorium, the first ever in Berlin, dating back to the early 1900s. (Note that it has no association with Nazi Germany; rather, the building stands as a testament to modernized cultural norms in that era of the country’s history.) The venue likewise evokes the theme of passage that Bluher and Fabry wished to convey in the retrospective.
With Varda’s recent passing in 2019, one might think about it as being “passage from life to death,” remarked Fabry in a recent interview with the two curators. “But it’s also passage from part of your life to another one. It was about a still image to a moving image, from cinema to video installation, [and] so it has different levels of meaning within this topic of passage,” all of which were touched upon in the landmark exhibition.
A CINEMA SHACK
In a meme often shared on social media or printed onto mugs and canvas tote bags, Varda declares, “I live in cinema. I feel I’ve lived here always.” (The exact translation varies from reproduction to reproduction.) This quote comes from her 2008 documentary The Beaches of Agnès, exclaimed as she sits in one of the makeshift dwellings she created out of repurposed celluloid strips from abandoned 35mm prints of her films.
That shack was made out of celluloid from her unjustly maligned 1966 sci-fi outlier The Creatures. Later, another was constructed out of prints from Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969), her first feature made in America; a greenhouse-type structure was also made from prints of Le bonheur (1965), complete with live sunflowers—a recurrent motif in the divisive film—inside it.
Greeting visitors outside in the crematorium’s courtyard at silent green was the first of the eventual three-part exhibition, another cinema shack. A “new” old one, A Cinema Shack: The Tent of Vagabond (2022), is a posthumous realization based on a model Varda made in 2017.
“It was very interesting to bring back something from the past, which is brand new,” said Fabry. “And also to build a new installation for her, as she wanted it to be.”
It’s fitting that the structure made out of prints of Vagabond (1986) is a tent; inside is a lantern, a knapsack, and a sleeping bag, items that the film’s protagonist, Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), a spiritually ungovernable transient who traveled from place to place in search of nothing and no one, may have carried with her.
As a concept the tent arouses a spirit of innocence, the idea of sheltering one’s self in a vulnerable domicile that separates its inhabitants from the natural and outside worlds with only a mere flap of material. Light filters through the strips, the shelter likewise mimicking the mercurial quintessence of cinema. Thus Varda’s maxim is actualized in accordance with all its symbolic potential: to be in one of these structures is to live in cinema.
As Varda is often referred to as the godmother of the French New Wave—a somewhat reductive epithet that diminishes her contributions to its genesis—it’s nevertheless apropos that, like such a figure, her work invites viewers into its embrace, whether it's being projected onto the big screen or even closer in proximity, as with displays of her photographs and installations. But when it's the latter, physical experience, there’s a materiality involved that more fully realizes a key tenet of her work—to turn spectators into participants.
To that end Varda’s installations have embodied the avowal of Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov that “[t]he main actor in the total installation, the main center toward which everything is addressed, for which everything is intended, is the viewer.” It follows, then, that this would come naturally to Varda, for whom people are at the essence of her practice.
In some ways this manifests itself in the exhibition by dint of an invitation into the artist’s personal life. For example, there was another shack outside at silent green, though not one made of cinema. Zgougou’s Grave in its Shack (2022) combines Varda’s 2006 two-video installation Zgougou’s Grave with a newly constructed edifice, the wooden shack in which it’s housed.
Footage of Varda’s beloved cat Zgougou is projected onto a mound of dirt resembling a freshly covered grave. Soon a formation of shells, rocks, and starfish begin to appear, decorating the supposed burial site. An array of flowers climbs up the wall behind it and gives way to a larger projection zooming further and further out from this spot, until it’s just that, a tiny spot on Varda’s beloved island of Noirmoutier, off the Atlantic coast in France, where the cat is interred.
Fabry is inspired by Varda’s career-long enchantment with places, an influence evident in how much of the work in this exhibition communicates with a location, whether literally, figuratively, or even coincidentally. Zgougou’s ligneous mausoleum, for example, stands mere yards from the former crematorium and a small nearby cemetery, suggesting that death is more than elimination, but rather transition. This concept can only be actualized in such a location, in close proximity to the tactility of death.
Among the most striking installations in this exhibition was one that isn’t Varda’s. Upon entering the indoor part of the space—the opening of which accounted for the second part of the fittingly three-part exhibit—attendees walked down a creeping slope that entered into the main hall where the majority of the works were installed.
Greeting them atop the entryway was video footage of Agnès in silhouette, looking like she was walking into the place beyond the PVC curtain divide through which exhibit goers would descend. It’s simple but affecting; winsome but not egregiously sentimental. Varda but also not.
“That’s us,” Bluher affirmed. “It doesn’t exist. That is our creation.”
This projection was influenced by Varda’s 2006 installation The Passage du Gois, which itself mimics the real-life causeway between Beauvoir-sur-Mer and Noirmoutier that floods twice a day. It’s a silhouette rendering of footage that a keen observer might also recognize as featuring in The Beaches of Agnès, toward the film’s end. It stands alone in both the source of its creation and its haunting reinvigoration of the departed artist.
Fabry affirmed that for her “it was not a phantomatic presence but a poetic one.” It also ties back to the motif of place. “This piece exists now, but only in silent green,” she said. “It’s all about thinking about a place and how the spirit of the artist can fit very well to it.”
At the entrance of the exhibition, a few of Varda’s canonical installation works provided a de facto overview of the artist. Seaside (2009), for example, is a single-video installation in which footage of the sea is projected. In front of it is actual sand, which serves to juxtapose the technical flatness of the imagery. This component of the installation transcends its natural functionality, as Varda takes the commonplace substance and turns it into art—something she did throughout the entirety of her career, transforming the banal into the sublime.
Like the footage that greeted exhibitiongoers before it, it’s simple but nevertheless breathtaking, no less because beaches are a significant motif in Varda’s oeuvre. "If we opened people up, we'd find landscapes,” she once said. “If we opened me up, we'd find beaches."
Next is a series of three photographs that I consider to be among the images that best represent Varda, her Three Self-Portraits. A triptych of images from three different points in her life, they were mounted here against a bright pink background.
The first, Mosaic Self-portrait (1950), was created when Varda was just 20 years old; she took a photo of herself in a mirror, then cut it into small pieces and rearranged it as a mosaic. It’s an iconic image of Varda, a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, six years even before she made her first film, La pointe courte (1955). As a declaration of self, it’s a formidable portent to the life that followed, in which many pieces made up an indelible whole.
In Venice, in Front of a Painting by Gentile Bellini (1962) finds Varda before Bellini’s Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of S. Lorenzo (1500). At the bottom of the large painting are a group of six men; in this photo, Varda stands in front of them, “with them” as she liked to say. Finally, Broken Self-portrait (2009) depicts a “selfie” of Varda as an older woman in a broken mirror, similar to the first image in how fragments continue to make up the whole, a single person made up of various parts, even into old age.
PORTRAITS WITH VIDEO WINGS
Another series of photographs, Walking Pictures (2016), adorned a large wall further inside the partially submerged Betonhalle (concrete hall) exhibition space, which has a warehouse-type feel to it. These seven photos from the 1950s, from countries including Cuba and Portugal, depict people walking. “There are 50,000 ways of walking,” Varda is quoted in the accompanying materials. “It’s always the same movement. What is interesting is finding this movement in completely different countries and circumstances.”
The relationship between stillness and movement is at the center (almost literally) of the Portraits with Video Wings triptychs. The first, Alice and the White Cows (2012), features a still, gelatin silver black-and-white image of a young girl in front of cows, with video panels to the left and right depicting the cows in movement.
The discernible impact of each is emphasized by the other, a phenomenon especially prevalent in the second, Marie in the Wind (2014). In this work, the central still photograph is of a woman holding a pinwheel with both the toy and her hair blowing in the wind; on either side of her is video footage of steel windmills, the seeming movement of the still image as impactful as that of the actual moving ones.
3 MOVING IMAGES. 3 RHYTHMS. 3 SOUNDS
This overarching concept of “thirds” is again evoked in the works 3 Postcards from Agnès Varda Addressed Posthumously to Her Beloved Jacques Demy (2010) and 3 Moving Images. 3. Rhythms. 3 Sounds (2018).
The former is a small, sweet display of three postcards Varda wrote to her late husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy, 20 years after his death, which were included as part of a 2013 retrospective and exhibition around Demy at the Cinemathèque Francaise.
The latter is decidedly larger, three huge screens featuring (as its title suggests) three images, three rhythms, and three sounds. The first contains the scene from Vagabond where Mona is accosted in a local tradition that involves people dressed as monster-like straw-people throwing rags soaked in wine at passersby; the second, footage of people walking on the beach, across the frame, at irregular intervals; and the third, a sequence from The Gleaners and I (2000) in which the cover of her camera lens dances on the ground, Varda having forgotten to turn the device off.
A medley of sounds assaults the viewer’s senses, from Mona’s screams to the sound of the sea to jazz music by Pierrick Pédron that accompanies the lens cap’s frolic. Sound likewise plays a part in The Potato Costume (2003), titled after the costume (a living installation of sorts) that Varda wore at that year’s Venice Biennale to intrigue eventgoers. Images of this whimsical costume circulated around the internet, though many people likely didn’t know that the suit also emitted sound—specifically, Varda’s voice reciting the names of the different varieties of potatoes, heard with the display in this exhibition.
Varda’s enduring fascination with potatoes started with The Gleaners and I (2000), in which she’s shown becoming particularly obsessed with heart-shaped aberrations of the scabrous vegetable. For Bluher this enthusiasm represents the ability of Varda to enrich anything upon which she set her sights. “She enhances the individuality of a potato,” the curator said. “She also enhances the experience of each viewer. If you accept it, it gives something to you.”
The Potato Chimney (2003), a digital print of a photomontage, depicts a sea of potatoes spilling out of the mouth of a monster-like chimney. The enlarged photograph suggests the brute presence of the scenario therein, despite it being a visual manipulation. In contrast to this somewhat chilling imagery is the Heart-Shaped Potatoes Series (2002), 11 framed digital prints of heart-shaped potatoes taken from among those featured in The Gleaners and I. The rudimentary beauty of the images speaks for itself.
Patatutopia (2003), a three-screen video installation with 500 kilos of real potatoes in front of it, is the tuber-laden pièce de résistance of the potato-based artworks, offering a full-fledged immersion into this aspect of Varda’s artistic heartlands. Each panel is dedicated to the subject from as many perspectives, focusing on how they grow and change; the purity of the depictions is futile to explicate. Like so much of Varda’s work, the genius is to be found in how naturally and effortlessly she transforms the most basic everyday items into unlikely objets d'art.
Varda’s enthusiasm is palpable, outside even the aspect of the installation that is physically present. “It’s extremely haptic,” elaborated Bluher. “In the sense that it evokes a feeling of touch, a caress.” A short looped video, Filming the Potatoes (2012), allows Varda to avow a similarly profound suggestion. “Potatoes, apples and other discarded foods,” reads the accompanying commentary, “masterless objects and wall clocks without needles are the gleanings of our time.”
ONE MINUTE FOR ONE IMAGE
One of Varda’s most evocative photographs, Ulysse (1964), is both the subject of and lends its title to a 2012 installation that includes the photograph and Varda's 1982 short film about it placed side by side. The striking picture shows a small boy, named Ulysses, and a nude man on a stony beach in Normandy with a dead goat lying nearby. It’s presumed the goat had died by falling from a cliff; the short film, Ulysse, made 28 years after the photo was taken, ruminates on the creation of the photograph.
Considering the theme of passage, this installation succinctly epitomizes the progression of time. It also merges all three of Varda’s lives into a spiritual triptych of sorts, starting with her first life as a photographer (Ulysse the photo), her second as a filmmaker (Ulysse the film), and, finally, her third as an installation artist (the mounted combination of the previous two works). “These so-called three lives, they are not separate,” said Bluher, “they are really interwoven in interesting ways. She made photographs, but then she also made films about photography and she included photography in her films.”
One Minute For One Image (1983), a French television program Varda created and to which she contributed fourteen of her own "episodes" (on display in the exhibition), is an even more literal interpretation of that intersection among her work. In these one-minute segments, Varda comments on one photo per each minute she’s featured, including work by photographers she admires and even a family photo.
Another posthumous premiere of the late artist’s work (after the newly constructed cinema shack), At Dinkelsbühl is a series of 24 photographs taken in the southern German town in 1960. “Another discovery of her first life as a photographer,” commented Bluher, the never-before-seen photos accounting for Fabry’s favorite of the installations in this exhibition. “It was all about bringing something from Germany to Germany, and through Agnès’s eyes.”
Among Varda’s most arresting installation works is The Widows of Noirmoutier (2005), a polyptych composed of fourteen monitors surrounding a larger central screen that play short looped videos, listenable only via headsets that sit atop fourteen chairs where viewers can listen to the accompanying monitor’s audio. The videos relate the experiences of fourteen widows from Noirmoutier, where she and Demy had lived, whose presence adorn each screen and whose voices and stories account for the audio.
One of them is Varda herself, recounting her experience of having lost Demy, the love of her life. The size of the installation, which requires either its own room or a substantial part of one, both exacerbates the widows’—and thereby her own—insurmountable grief, while at the same time showing a single person’s emotions to be a mere echo among the others.
In contrast to the emotional vulnerability of this momentous work is Stilled Moments (2012–2016), a series of 11 still images taken from “barely half a second” of a minute in Vagabond, the scene during which Mona is accosted with the wine-soaked rags.
Varda pointed out that this is the single instance of violence across her films; it’s notable that, in contrast to her other films, this scene is present across two installations, the other being the first panel of 3 Moving Images. 3 Rhythms. 3 Sounds. Isolated here into striking still images, the result is something more experimental than narrative, like impressionist painting or the avant-garde cinema of someone like Stan Brakhage, both of which have the capacity to appear merciless in their abstraction.
This deviation from that often associated with Varda—of gentleness, a near-ideological refutation of violence—adds yet another layer of nuance to the multifaceted artist, one that perhaps unconsciously responds to her public persona as nothing but a harmless, elderly woman with a two-tone bowl cut and a predilection for whimsy. This is fitting because, at their essence, Vagabond and the resulting installations derived from it are about the restraints of society on freedom, specifically for women.
The third and final part of the exhibition, Homage to the Righteous of France (2007), I was not able to view at the exhibition’s opening, but was arranged in the Kuppelhalle (cupola) of silent green at a later date. It’s a smaller version of an installation Varda was commissioned to create by France’s Ministry of Culture in honor of those who assisted the Jews during World War II, composed of a triptych of panels—two videos and one digital photography print—situated above a circular arrangement of photographs. The latter is composed mainly of those exemplary figures, along with photographs of extras who appear in the video installation, intended to represent the "unknown Righteous."
This immense endeavor was the first installation Fabry worked on with Varda. “It’s a strong piece, but it’s going to be even stronger in Germany,” she said days before its opening, “because it has a meaning there, and the place fits perfectly to the piece.”
It’s appropriate to think of the stages of Varda’s career as being three lives rather than three phases, so fully did she experience and seek to impart each. Much like the triptych format she was so adept at wielding, Varda extends past the center part of her artistic passage as a filmmaker, with those epochs on each side of the core complementing and, furthermore, supplementing and expanding upon that middle part for which she’s most commonly recognized.
“The Third Life of Agnès Varda” embraces one of these lives and in doing so illuminates the others, potentially even some not fully expressed by the three modes referenced. “I discovered that she had a universe in her,” Fabry said, “and that she had so many more to share.”
At the beginning of the catalog accompanying the exhibition there’s a poem by Varda, titled “Yes, I like,” which is an abiding assertion from the artist about the enduring impact of art:
This makes me happy because
I like to think that art and
imagination can be shared all
over the world.