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The Missing Part: Chantal Akerman's "NOW" Exhibition

Exploring the first large scale exhibition in the English-speaking world of Chantal Akerman’s installation work .
Tom Stevenson
In The Mirror (1971/2007). Photo by Sarah Cuono.
Several of Chantal Akerman’s installation works are remediations of previous films. In the Mirror (1971/2007) consists of a scene from an early film (1971’s L’enfant aime – ou je joue a etre une femme mariee) in which a young woman stands naked in front of a mirror, examining her body feature by feature. The slab of grainy footage is the first thing one sees, entering the dark space of Ambika P3 gallery in London, currently hosting NOW, a large exhibition of Akerman’s installation work. Below and to the right, sounds leak from the other exhibits and the question becomes–more or less instantly–at what point does one move away from the image that In the Mirror so candidly offers up?  
This question is never a problem in the cinema. Indeed, Akerman’s particular cinema is at its most effective when her use of duration becomes part of the quality of the image, the lengths of her shots express just as much as their framing, movement or content. But In the Mirror does not cut, it is a long loop. Its placement at the entrance to the space is a canny challenge to the visitor: absorb as much as you will, you’re not in a cinema. There is no director; no one to say ‘cut;’ no one is here to tell you when to move on. 
Films structure time to communicate a particular experience. Gallery works can’t do this. Instead, they uncover the manifold ways in which our time and experience can be overtly structured. They re-stage and make explicit the contingent factors that determine subjective experience: the way in which space governs attention, for example, or how meaning can be dependent upon someone letting you know when a thing is finished.
Chantal Akerman’s installation practice–particularly when remediating her films–is one of withdrawal. By removing the auteur, she leaves us with the much more open-ended gesture of the artist. But this withdrawal is key to the experience of the installations: Akerman’s absence is an invitation to look at the images–and our relation to them–differently. 
Akerman’s absence, of course, is felt throughout this exhibition. Her recent death is a striking loss. However, as with her re-staging of previous films, what’s missing is key to what is there. Chantal Akerman: NOW is an opportunity to gain an entirely new perspective on Akerman’s work, a promise that there is no end to the ways in which her films can be re-assessed, re-discovered and experienced anew.
Downstairs, A Voice in the Desert (2002) is another remediation. It shows a screen in the desert straddling the US/Mexico border. The images on the screen, however–taken from Akerman’s film about immigration, From the Other Side (2002)–don’t become visible until the desert sun sinks. Here, duration is a secondary issue. The very legibility of the piece is given over to the turning of the planet. If a clean and cohering ending is missing from In the Mirror, then A Voice in the Desert is its converse:it has no beginning. When does the film begin: when it is first projected, or when it first becomes visible? The piece denies the possibility that ‘beginnings’ can be plucked from the continuum: the film can’t be separated from the sunset; the United States can’t be separated from Mexico, at least not in any way meaningful enough to justify the violence of the border. Without ‘beginnings’ there is no legitimate way to differentiate one nation from another, or one nationality from its neighbor.
D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995). Photo by David Freeman.
Another piece included in this show is D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995) Akerman’s reconfiguration of her mid-career masterpiece D’est (1992). Here, the film—Akerman’s wordless examination of life the Eastern Bloc in the early nineties—is fragmented and re-distributed in loops across twenty four monitors standing, at eye-level, in groups of three. Jonathan Crary’s critique of the original film, from his book 24/7, stands both as an exemplary reading of Akerman’s achievement and as a description of what is intensified in the installation. ‘Using very long takes,’ Crary notes ‘it is an extended portrayal of certain textures of everyday life… In her essay on D'est, Akerman famously declared that she felt the need to make the film “while there’s still time” (“tant qu’il en est encore temps”). In one sense, she meant that she had to finish the project before it was too late… But, given the choices she made of what to record, “while there’s still time” is also a way of saying: while there is still a world of time-in-common, a world sustained by a collective inhabiting and sharing of time and its rhythms, in the older sense of the word “quotidian.”’
This time-in-common is summoned up in the gallery with its banks of monitors seeming to queue like the people queuing on the screens themselves. Akerman has dismantled her film and re-constructed it as a social experience. As if socializing with the images, one works one’s way slowly from screen to screen, from one trio of screens to another. Unlike in the cinema, the experience is more of participating in than observing the social time of the film’s subject. This is made particularly acute as there are some images that draw you in more than others, some screens you pass over and some at which you linger. The act of watching becomes an act of choosing, the viewer is amidst the film and not apart from it. What’s more, there are some screens where, unexpectedly, the faces look back at you with a smile of acknowledgement. Uncannily, I felt as if I was sharing this moment with the person on the screen, despite the obvious gaps of history and geography between us.
At the back of the installation there is a room with a single screen and an accompanying soundtrack of Akerman talking about the film. ‘Without getting too sentimental,’ she says, ‘I would say that there are still faces that offer themselves, occasionally effacing a feeling of loss, of a world poised on the edge of an abyss, which sometimes take hold of you, as you cross “the East” as I have just done.’ Walking through the installation is a version of ‘crossing ‘the East,’’ and it is dotted with moments just as she describes. By fragmenting and re-ordering her footage across an idiosyncratic space, Akerman is withdrawing her presence as a cinema auteur from the installation and encouraging the viewer to walk in her shoes, cross the East and experience its collective quotidian as she once did. It is a remarkable opportunity to connect not only with the subjects of her film, but with Akerman herself and her creative process.
Four further installations are included in the show. Maniac Summer (2009) and Maniac Shadows (2013)are both projection installations that encourage a roaming attention from the viewer. In Maniac Summer, images from within and without the artist’s Paris apartment are presented raw, distorted and re-framed, scrutinized with an ugly digital zoom. The installation fosters an anxiety that stems more from the camera’s ability to record and process everything than from the artist herself. Akerman is heard in the background, blithely getting on with life and her pottering about serves as counterpoint to the paranoid visuals. Just because technology enables us to record everything, the installation suggests, does not mean that there is something symptomatic to be seen in every captured moment.  
Maniac Summer (2009). Photo by David Freeman.
Maniac Shadows is a more lugubrious and domestic experience, although no less concerned with the effect of a given situation on the subject enmeshed within it. It consists of a wide and ambiguous three-part projection showing, simultaneously, a number of cramped interiors and the fleeting details of a trip outdoors. The viewer moves past a dark image of the artist reading from her memoir about her mother and towards a wall of photographs. These are all stills, it seems, from the projection that is now out of sight. Moving back and forth in search of recurring figures and repeating images, eking out correlates and strings of sense, one’s experience of the installation builds, just as one’s grasp of the details grows dimmer. One meanders within Maniac Shadows and starts to lose one’s sense of the details as they sink within the larger sense of time passing. As with Maniac Summer, Akerman toys with our attention. The installations edge towards the oppressive: the texture of our attention, as it roams and flickers, becomes the primary effect of the piece. The two Maniac installations are evocative contributions to one of Akerman’s guiding concerns: the specific sensations of inchoate experience. Together they conjure within the viewer those sensations—intrigue, impatience, anxiety, nullity—that escape narrative and representation and yet are central to how it feels to be caught within a particular arrangement of time and space, be it a small Brussels apartment, or a discomfortingly arranged gallery.  
Tombee de nuit sur Shanghai (2007) is less easy to engage with. It is a single channel video projection, flanked by two Chinese lanterns, that documents the transformation of Shanghai, from daylit to neon-daubed. Any piquancy of detail is lost to the wide horizon of the image and the long timescale of its projection. Situated at the end of the corridor flanked by the other installations, it is nearly impossible to attend to. Nevertheless, as I passed by the projection, moving from space to space, I was struck by the admirable insistence upon the single perspective in a context that made contemplation difficult. It carries with it the same aura of bearing witness that constitutes the integrity of a film like Jeanne Dielman… and the profound melancholy of News From Home.  
NOW (2015). Photo by David Freeman.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Akerman’s Venice Biennale pavilion piece from this year, NOW.  It is also the culmination of this particular exhibition, its raison d’etre and the piece by which the others are measured. The entrance to the room is up-lit by two mis-colored fluorescent bulbs. Inside are five screens, arranged in a receding V. Filled with blurred images of rapid transit through a desert region, the overlapping screens create a chaotic sense of perspective and a startling sensation of traveling left. The furthest screen is also the most cleanly projected, the blues of the sky are deeper, the ochre of the rock looks drier. It serves as the vanishing point of the screens’ arrangement and is also showing a loop different from the others. On left and right, screens holding tight zooms overlap with frames taking in entire mountain ranges. Although the sequences loop, no two screens show the same thing simultaneously. Everything seems to have been shot out of the window of a traveling car, one that is only ever still for a brief second. This second of stillness recurs across the screens, tantalizingly suggesting a pattern, a relationship between the loops, that either doesn’t, in fact, exist or simply can’t be mapped out. From the ceiling, two further projections throw flickering light onto the floor, ramping up the sensation of speed and movement. Finally, the soundtrack—booming out in tangibly spatialized surround sound—plays the noises of a war zone: animals in distress, shouting, occasional gunfire. Nothing within the installation can be anticipated, save for the onward rush of movement. The images do not repeat in a legible fashion, the installation has no beginning or end.  The intensities of the soundtrack change depending on your position in the room.  
NOW is an abrasive and unsettling succession of present moments. It is a highly credible portrait of panic and flight and as such broadens our powers of empathy. Rather than identifying with a person in crisis, NOW immerses us in the crisis itself.  
Within the context of the show the immediacy of NOW comes as a bracing tonic to the more attention-dependent pieces. It demonstrates how all of Akerman’s installations—and indeed her films—are immersions, varying only in degrees of intensity. By battering my senses so thoroughly, NOW enlivened me further to the sensations of immersion as they played out in the other installations in the gallery and in Akerman’s masterful use of duration in the cinema. This is an awareness that I carried with me, out of the gallery and into the street. Akerman’s immersive installations are critical rehearsals of how the real world makes its demands upon our perception. Not only should they help us re-encounter her films in new and intriguing ways, but also they should help us mediate our immersion in everyday life. 


Chantal Akerman
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