Chantal Akerman: Too far too close

In Antwerp's Museum of Contemporary Art, a retrospective spans over four decades of the Paris-based artist's career, taking in her early experimental work as well as her film-based installation art.

Too Far, Too Close is a major solo exhibition presenting the work of the renowned Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp. The work on view spans over four decades of the Paris-based artist's career, taking in her early experimental work as well as her film-based installation art. With particular focus on her installation work, the exhibition Too Far, Too Close serves as a guide to the evolution of her work and provides an insight into a diverse oeuvre.

Playing with the thin dividing lines between documentary and fiction, as well as those between experimental and narrative film, the works of Chantal Akerman masterfully play with the notion of time in cinema; the sense of feeling and witnessing the passing of time. Among the best known of her works, but not on show here is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), an extended examination of three days in the largely monotonous life of a "housewife" in the apartment in which she combines housework, motherhood and working as a part-time prostitute.

Akerman intertwines themes such as her own personal history and issues of gender, together with the aesthetics of everyday life, questions of language, and the importance of what is interior (i.e. inside the apartment, hidden or unspoken), as opposed to what is exterior or externally visible. Architecture provides a structure for Akerman's movies — from hotel rooms, apartments and corridors to train stations and other spaces of transit. This is a feature she has used from the days of her very first movie Saute ma ville (1968) which she begins by scanning the exteriors of apartment buildings. The use of unremarkable architecture without any particular special features emphasises the importance of the "everyday" in her work.
Top: Chantal Akerman. Above: Chantal Akerman, <em>D'Est</em>, 1993, video still
Top: Chantal Akerman. Above: Chantal Akerman, D'Est, 1993, video still
Her characters mostly remain undeveloped, and no keys are given to their personality. The viewer can only imagine the characters' personalities in caught glimpses of their daily habits and actions, moments in which they are seen dancing, cooking, eating, cleaning, singing, and reading or writing letters. The viewer becomes part of the moment, but can only contemplate. There is no single narrative; there are many narratives. Everything is open to the subjective perception and interpretation of the viewer. Some characters only appear in the form of a voice, as is the case in News from home (1977), where the voice reads letters sent by her mother back home in Belgium.

There is often a sort of loneliness that radiates in the shots that are set in the public space, something that seems to emanate from the interiors, or the personalities. Spaces are central to the framing of her filmsetting.

In Akerman's movies, the camera is often set at the same height and perpendicular to the scene, and many scenes are filmed as fixed shots in order to extend the sense of duration that is achieved by alternating tracking shots or slow moving cameras. The only narration is that provided by the movements of the camera. Akerman's camera scans architecture, interiors, streets, and faces. With these movements she creates a sense of suspense or anticipation of an event that seems to be about to happen (but never arrives).
Chantal Akerman, <em>La Chambre</em>, 1972, video still. Courtesy of the artist
Chantal Akerman, La Chambre, 1972, video still. Courtesy of the artist
Although the show also expands on a selection of her earlier work, the focal point at the centre of the exhibition is D'est: au bord de la fiction (1993) — Akerman's first installation and a turning point in her career which led to the later emphasis on installation.

D'est was the first installation that brought her work into the gallery and other art spaces. She divides the film into shorter extracts and formally brings the parts together by means of colour, for example, or though movements of the camera or characters within an installation of 8 groups of triptych monitors.

From this work on, we see Akerman start to reach beyond the limits of her movie and start to explore spatial features within the gallery space. Where Akerman's early movies gave her a great deal of control over how the viewer experiences the passing of time within the piece, this power is more limited in the installation pieces, since viewers can themselves more easily 'edit' how long they spend in front of the installation.
Although the show also expands on a selection of her earlier work, the focal point at the centre of the exhibition is D'est: au bord de la fiction (1993) — Akerman's first installation and a turning point in her career which led to the later emphasis on installation
Chantal Akerman, <em>D'Est</em>, 1993
Chantal Akerman, D'Est, 1993
This documentary is a starting point for another film on show at MuKHA: L'autre côté (3ème partie: Une voix dans le désert), a film made in 2002. The film shows a screen situated in the middle of the desert, set between mountains rising up on either side of the border between Mexico and the United States. Images shot at night of people trying to cross the border alternate on the screen with images of a bustling Los Angeles. When night becomes day, the projected images become invisible. Akerman switches between English and Spanish as she recounts the stories of migration.

Other works on view illustrate the course of Akerman's evolution. In her first movie Saute ma ville (1968), a young woman returns home to her tiny kitchen and literally locks herself away by taping the door shut, before starting to do the housework in a burlesque fashion, work that sees her cooking spaghetti, cleaning and doing the washing up in an exaggerated, overplayed way, and literally smashing everything on the ground. As in many of her later films, she questions feminine roles and domesticity.
Chantal Akerman, <em>De l’autre côté (3ème partie Une voix dans la desert)</em>, 2002
Chantal Akerman, De l’autre côté (3ème partie Une voix dans la desert), 2002
There is a lot of activity in her first film and the camera follows the subject in a way not typical of her later films, which are slower paced and involve a delaying or suspension of action that has the viewer expecting or anticipating events that feel like they might be on the point of taking place. In La chambre (1972), for example, she starts to make use of tracking shots: a long and slow panoramic shot revolves several times around the room and each time the camera passes, we see Chantal Akerman lying in a different position in bed.

The scanning of architecture and space becomes even more visible in Hotel Monterey (1972), where Akerman films from hallway to rooftop, in the elevator, and in the corridors, using fixed shots alternated with travelling shots. She sometimes focuses on people, but most of the time on empty corridors. There is no soundtrack.
Chantal Akerman, <em>Hotel Monterey</em>, 1972, video still
Chantal Akerman, Hotel Monterey, 1972, video still
We get a good insight into her work in Chantal Akerman par Chantal Akerman (1997), which forms part of the French television series entitled Cinéma, de notre temps [Cinema, of our time]. She reads aloud a letter about the making of her self-portrait, addressing what she thinks about the programme and about her work in general. A selection of "rushes" from the film is also included.

Akerman's work is both directorial and observational. The viewer often becomes part of the film installation; it's as if we are 'really there' because of the sense of inertia that some of the images impart. Some of her later films achieve the suppression of narrative with the absence of a beginning or an end.

In Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai (2009), we see static shots of a river, of ships, and the skyline of Shanghai. At first the scene shimmers (the ships have screens bearing screens bearing advertising signs), and then as it becomes dark, the skyscrapers themselves become screens showing animals, flowers and all sorts of images; the architecture disappears to make way for the advertising, or the architecture in turn becomes the screen. Random noises from the hotel and restaurant compose the soundtrack. There is often a comical notion present in Akerman's work and here she places two tanks of fake fish in front of the projection.
Chantal Akerman, <em>Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide</em>, 2004
Chantal Akerman, Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide, 2004
The installation of two silent video projections, Femmes d'Anvers en Novembre (2008), shows in a way that is typical of many of her movies the banal actions of women who stand central in the scene. Here we see portraits of women smoking cigarettes in two video projections. This work is juxtaposed with the earlier work, In the Mirror (1971), where a woman looks at her body in the mirror and describes it.

Further on around the exhibition is a work from 2009 called Maniac. This work presents a collection of moving images taken in Paris in the summer of 2009. It is a triptych without narrative, without a beginning or an end. Central fragments of the everyday are shown in the film, with elements from the central film isolated, edited and used abstractly in montage in the diptych. The film relates to Akerman's imagining of images of Hiroshima that have remained ever since in her longterm memory.

One of her more sculptural works is Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide (2004). This work is threaded around the contents of a diary kept by Akerman's grandmother. This rare document was found after the grandmother died in Auschwitz. Words from the diary are projected on a spiral sculpture. In the space next to this there is a projection of a conversation with Chantal and her mother regarding memory, camps and history, and what it is to be a woman. In most of Akerman's work her family history can be read between the lines, but in this piece she literally puts it on show.
Chantal Akerman, <em>Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide</em>, 2004. Photo by MuHKA
Chantal Akerman, Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans une frigidaire vide, 2004. Photo by MuHKA
Through 10 June 2012
Chantal Akerman: Too far too close
Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (MuHKA)
Leuvenstraat 32, Antwerp

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