In Brussels, a portrait of Chantal Akerman

Belgium. With this impressive retrospective “Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)”, the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar) in Brussels shows that the filmmaker whose film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Brussels, Considered by specialists as one of the best of all time, is also a unique artist who has produced a rich and diverse body of work that transforms sound, image and speech into organic matter.

“Chantal Akerman. Travelling” is not an exhibition or a monograph on a filmmaker, but the portrait of an artist and a body of work in which writings, filmed images and installations complement and extend into each other. In Chantal Akerman’s world, the intimate responds to the social and the political, just as the local echoes the universal, documentary to fiction and where the burlesque is never far from the tragic and vice versa. This is the first major exhibition mounted in collaboration with Cinématek and the Chantal Akerman Foundation. Spread over 1000 m2 and a dozen rooms in the Palais des Beaux-Arts, it is more exhaustive and extensive than the one that will be presented in September at the Jeu de Paume.

In the Anna’s appointment, Made in 1978, it follows a filmmaker, played by Aurore Clément, who travels across Europe and meets people in search of happiness. About this film Akerman said: ” I believe that we are at the end, at the end of something and that we are going to start something else of which we know nothing yet.” Like a dancer on the edge of the abyss, the artist has sought, throughout her career, to explore this imperceptible shift that links the individual to the whole that makes up society. Her Jewish identity, a religion that prohibits the use of images and the repressed pain of her mother who never wanted to talk about her life in the camps form blank images in her corpus. As the title of the exhibition indicates, Chantal Akerman is an artist of movement, that of her camera first and then that which takes her on the roads from one city to another, from Brussels to New York via Paris and from her room to the desert, two places of confinement from which she has cleared a way out through her art.

In the exhibition “Travelling” there are screens of all sizes and different natures, numerous writings that can be appreciated for their content and for their plastic materiality, and of which one can also consult copies at a table.

What’s in the mind of an 18-year-old girl who wants to make movies after seeing Pierrot le fou ? These are the first carefree 8mm reels presented at his entrance exam for Insas, the Brussels film school, and recently found. It’s Jump My Citya daring first short film, made in total freedom where she shows herself as a young girl who locks herself in her kitchen for a methodical and burlesque destruction of her daily life. Her desire for freedom and her refusal of constraints were so strong that she left film school a few months after entering to follow a more personal path.

All of his short and feature films, side projects for television or unfinished works, are placed in their creative context with photos from the shoot, dialogues and scripts, from the first draft to the final text. His working method and the link with writing are revealed through indirect touches. The curators have chosen not to broadcast excerpts from feature films, reserved for cinemas.

Chantal Akerman.

© Adagp Paris 2024

A turning point in his career

From the East on the edge of fiction is an important marker of his work. This is his first installation, shown in 1995. 24 monitors, grouped in threes, present loops of images brought back from a trip from East Germany to Moscow, via Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. A flow of images and sounds that jostle, overlap and carry the eye away. The links and shifts between the colours, shapes and movements in the images that pass on three screens create a tension and an expression that goes beyond cinema. Tired, closed faces, waiting for the bus or another life, shopping bags, chapkas. The camera movements on the faces and bodies that have faded are echoed by “the cars in the night”. Women in their kitchen, a young girl putting on make-up or a cellist in concert. The always moving exterior images correspond to the portraits of interiors, both refuge and confinement. A 25th screen, set back, broadcasts almost abstract night images and the voice of Akerman talking about his project.

In the following series of installations: Woman Sitting after Killing, A Voice in the Desert Or Maniac SummerAkerman refines his own language which transforms the sound, speech and image composing the film material to develop another perception of time.

The tour ends with “Now,” his latest installation presented at the Venice Biennale in 2015. Five screens suspended at eye level, supplemented by two projections on the ground, broadcast images of the desert filmed in motion from a vehicle. In the soundtrack, the sounds of engines, bombs and bursts of automatic weapons mix with songs and prayers from different faiths, all of which give off a feeling of perpetual flight. Placed on the ground, two colored neon tubes and multi-colored aquarium lamps seem to ask us where reality is.

By browsing and stopping in front of the dense and plural works and images gathered in this exhibition, one can wonder why, deep down, this artist for whom writing is at the beginning of all work, turned towards the image and the cinema. An anecdote brings into play the vision of Pierrot le fou Godard’s answer, as an affirmation that another cinema was possible, a free cinema. But there is more to it than that. And in the answer also lies the reason why she began to make installations. The non-narrative combination of moving images and unsynchronized sounds produces in the spectators an emotion that exceeds the sum of its parts and gives rise to another view of the world.

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