In 2008, Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston presented Moving Through Space and Time by Chantal Akerman, as the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in the United States. This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue were presented as a collaborative effort of four institutions: Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston; the MIT List Visual Arts Centre, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Miami Art Museum (a MAC@MAM presentation); and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. As one can imagine, this was a project of a very large scale which took more than two years to bring into fruition, as remarked by Terrie Sultan, the Director of Blaffer Gallery in the Preface and Acknowledgements of the exhibition catalogue. Sultan praises Akerman as “one of the most important directors in contemporary film history, yet her work has never been the subject of a survey museum exhibition in the United States” (8), and it is for these reasons that the Museum Director recognizes the need for this project. Moving Through Time and Space as a publication, explores Akerman’s pioneering work in the crossover genres of film and art.
The catalogue consists of five essays reflecting on five projects that comprise the exhibition; From the East: Bordering on Fiction (1993), South (1999), From the Other Side (2002), Down There (2006) and Women from Antwerp in November (2007), which was commissioned specifically for this exhibition. Each film, turned installation within the museum space, is explored in the publication by essayists who write about Akerman’s work from multiple perspectives grounded in research with a visual and sound analysis.
Since Moving Through Space and Time is a showcase of filmworks, relationships between image and sound are discussed throughout the catalogue both directly and indirectly. Akerman is known for her complex crossovers of film and art, and the relationships and overlaps between art and music, the visual and the aural, are all to an extent, unpacked in each essay. For example, Rina Carvajal describes Visions in Passing: From the East (D’est) as a “complex assemblage of images, sounds, and connected fragments” (12). The film’s movement has a hallucinatory quality due to its “atmospheric, contrapuntal arrangements of sounds, colors, and light that marks the nuances of feeling and tone” (12). Carvajal pays attention to disjointed fragments and temporalities within the film – by analyzing shifts between images and repetitions marked by duration and “sudden ellipsis”. Akerman’s work is understood to be “structurally rigorous” as her 1993 film From the East holds aesthetic tensions along with historical tensions of Eastern Europe. Sounds are described as ambient and contrapuntal, yet the moving images have an asynchronous rhythm, providing the reader with a compound impression of the exhibition, in written form. Essentially, the film is about “people and their lives in a changing and precarious time; it is also about memory and the renewal of connections with the past” (15). Influenced by minimalism and structuralism, From the East captures time and shows time both visually and aurally.
On the nature of sound in From the East, Akerman is cited as saying “I would like to record the sound of this land… A soundtrack only partially in sync, if at all. A river of diverse voices borne along by images. Voices that will tell stories both great and small, often very simple ones that we won’t always need to understand but can grasp anyway, like music from a foreign land, only more familiar.” The artist’s statement represents the opacity of the film, and was well chosen by Carvajal because the same effect is translated in a contrasting manner within the exhibition space, which by part is integrated in three gallery spaces. The entire film (107 minutes) is projected on a screen in a dark room of the first gallery. In the second, twenty-four video monitors are placed at eye-level, playing various looped sequences from the film, each four minutes long. In the third and final gallery, which is the most intimate, there is a single video monitor showing a single image with a pair of speakers on the floor. The image shows a scene of a Moscow street at night, slowly fading to black with a voice-over by Akerman reciting a passage in Hebrew from the Old Testament Book of Exodus with fragments of her own written synopsis in English (16).
South from 1999 is introduced by Claudia Schmuckli with a thought provoking quote by the artist that I think is important to mention in order to understand how she thinks about time, history, and culture:
“Some people have too much history, too much of a past, like the Europeans, and others haven’t enough, like the Americans. Some perpetrate murder and even genocide because of, or in the name of, this surplus history, past, culture; others do it out of a vague memory of a culture, of a place that they have left to go somewhere else, somewhere vast and new. This too leads them to repress the things that perturb them, that they are superfluous, perhaps too the things which seem to them inappropriate in order to fully realize the utopia of a new world” (Akerman 19).
In Akerman’s South, she questions America and its permanence of segregation in certain regions, where there are still suprematist ideologies that have a stronghold and “operate under the radar of authorities trying to maintain an appearance of integration” (19). Travelling through rural south, Akerman was inspired by the literary work of William Faulkner and James Baldwin, and stated that she wanted to go there “to know the price of the American miracle” (21). Beginning as a mediation on the American South, nature and memory, the film took a different turn when current events brought back history with the lynching of James Byrd Jr. by three white men in Jasper, Texas (20). Although the film is not about the anatomy of his murder, “the recent memory of his horrific death haunts the entire film” (21).
The relationship between sound and image is not directly discussed in relation to South by Schmuckli, but moving images are discussed in relation to observations of people in both private moments and testimonials spoken into the camera (22). “A slow rhythm becomes the backdrop for the interviews; it is established by long takes of a young man sitting on a bench in front of a convenience store playing with a bottle of water, a woman sitting on the steps of her house cleaning greens, a man sitting in a lawn chair in front of his trailer, and another singing a bluesy tune for the camera as he strums on his guitar” (22). The film consists of individual interviews with people of the South, encompassing human voices, but there is no linear or geographical narrative to guide the viewer, “only a sequence of loosely woven images that summarily build up to a powerfully atmospheric portrait of the South as an expansive region defined by similarities in nature, climate, and history (21).
Because there is no narrative, “images are strung together in their accumulation”, as described by Schmuckli. However, it appears that “the waiting is filled with dread and the nothingness is charged in anticipation of references to the story of Byrd” (25). Regarding sound, we hear from Ed Taylor Jr., an indirect witness to the crime, who describes the sounds made by the truck dragging Byrd’s body down the road, “which he mistook for drunk driving until he came across the remnants of flesh and bone the next morning” (23). Specific sounds are described in words, in voices – rather than directly heard. This adds another interesting element to Akerman’s documentary, as the description of sounds is layered onto memory. The sounds of witness testimonials are layered with time – reminding us of racial problems in the history of America. Focusing on socio and geopolitical problems in America and greater Europe, Akerman’s South is one such film that calls toward action, actions that “lead to the correction of fundamental flaws that condition the successes and failures of contemporary Western society” (27).
From South, Akerman lets us follow her camera work to the border between Arizona and Mexico in her film From the Other Side (2002). Shown on eighteen video monitors and two projection screens, in the formal principle of the tracking shot (Ottmann 33). In the exhibition catalogue, the essay accompanying this installation is written by Klaus Ottmann, who focuses on the structuralist and phenomenological style of Akerman’s work. Stating, “it is an inward, structuralist journey through time and space that interweaves meaning, subject, and object” (30) and citing Adorno’s comment that “history relentlessly drags into itself the enclaves of isolated inwardness” (30). Mentioning the definitions of phenomenology, structuralism, existentialism, and religion, Ottmann discusses the emotional layers of From the Other Side and how “God is evoked constantly in a space that seems for all time abandoned by any gods” (34).
Concerning the relationship between the visual and the aural, Ottmann describes From the Other Side as a formalist film of spoken language at the expense of the visual (35) with a multilingual soundtrack of Spanish, French, and English subtitles. Ottmann positions the interviews in this film within the framework of philosophical existentialism that is extreme because it goes beyond social realism, “insofar as it follows a path from the social to abstraction and transcendence” (26). The sounds of multiple languages and the capture of the boundaries of language are expressed in this film about borders and ethics. Transcendence exists at the boundaries and borders of language, be it visual or aural. Ottmann cites Levinas’ statement about transcendence not being a “modality of essence – not a safe room of solipsistic inwardness, but a site of responsibility for others” (36). Once we go beyond the transcendental, “we are ordered towards the responsibility of the other” which substitutes subjectivity for another and “becomes the other in the same”. From the Other Side is a film about mourning, loss, grief, and death, yet Akerman’s camera captures this with a “photographic ecstasy” as described by Barthes in Camera Lucida. In the catalogue, the affects are interpreted through philosophical concepts and are accompanied by several screenshots from the installation. However, I am not certain if Ottmann’s sophisticated writing and knowledge of philosophy enhances the exhibition or only enhances the aesthetic dimensions of the catalogue itself. Since the film goes beyond language, beyond transcendence, and captures “extreme existentialism”, I think the exhibition catalogue can only attempt to explain mourning, loss, grief and death to a minor extent in the material form of a published document.
Urged to make a film about Israel by her producer, Akerman found the idea to be wrong and “downright repulsive” (41), instead documenting her time spent in an apartment by the sea in Tel Aviv. In Down There (2006), Akerman contemplates her family, her childhood and her Jewish identity, while letting the audience view very little of Tel Aviv. In his catalogue essay, Bill Arning writes that “for a long period of screen time we see nothing of the city but those views of Tel Aviv that can be captured by filming through lowered matchstick blinds, so even when it has clearly already been made, the film itself seems to continually refuse its filmic job of showing” (41). Although the visual resists to “show”, the outside world is most present in the film’s soundtrack. Noise of traffic, muffled voices, and children playing are all captured in Down There. The phone rings throughout the film and we hear Akerman convincing others that she is okay and that she is working, “meaning that things are as they should be, but the film demonstrates otherwise” (Arning 41).
Because these visual scenes rarely change, there is a tension in the relationship between image and sound. Arning states that Akerman’s voice “informs, questions, and narrates, and rarely pauses for long” (43). Watching the world through matchstick blinds, hanging on the edge of the inside/outside, “we wish that she could leave the confines of this humble, efficient guest apartment, both so we can indulge our own curiosity and desire for fresh visual stimuli, but also because there is an aura of an emotional disturbance associated with staying inside for long periods”, according to Arning. I think this particular tension created by Akerman in Down There is a valuable example of how she pushes the boundaries of art and film.
The sound (in) art is represented as a sonic landscape of Akerman’s interior world and sounds of the street are simply reminders of the external world. The artist manipulates her camera in a way to show her point-of-view shots of “harsh Mediterranean daylight or murky interiors”. The language in the catalogue portrays the tensions and stresses of Akerman’s filmmaking. Words such as “disturbance” are tied to “emotional”, and “desire” is tied to words such as “fresh”, “visual”, and “stimuli”, allowing the readers of the catalogue get a glimpse of the way they may feel whilst seeing and hearing Down There in the exhibition.
In the article, Ears Have Walls: On Hearing Art, Steve Connor outlines the paradox of sound art turning the gallery inside out, “exposed to its outside, the walls made permeable, objects becoming events”. And yet, Connor reminds us that the gallery or museum seems to provide what he calls “a kind of necessary framing or matrix” in which art can fulfill its strange contemporary vocation to be not quite there. Akerman’s film are events documented, turned object, and then turned into events/installations in the gallery or museum setting. Although the films exist, and can be experienced in a conventional movie theatre or in the comfort of one’s home, the gallery or museum activates the artwork. The films, with their sound, create an extension of what has been documented and further permeate the walls of the exhibition space. The catalogue is also an extension with its own aesthetic dimensions. The collection of essays not only reflect the exhibition experience but extend beyond into the world of interpretation and interpellation.
As an exhibition, Moving Through Space and Time presented Akerman’s new work Women from Antwerp in November as a commission. Terri Sultan, the Director of Blaffer Gallery, spoke of the work in the exhibition catalogue as a five-part, split-screen projection in which Akerman collages twenty short stories – equal in number to the twenty cigarettes in a pack – that play out over the course of a twenty-minute loop (52). Why cigarettes? Because Akerman smokes and according to the gallery director, “it is deeply ingrained in her persona, a basic part of her everyday routine” (51). Thus, the commission work is a monumentally scaled, two-channel video installation that delves into the social, psychological, and emotional connotations of smoking.
Akerman’s camera records women smoking at night, maintaining a fixed location as it records in color and black and white. This project is silent, there is no sound to speak of but much can be said about time. In Women from Antwerp in November, Akerman explains that time goes both vertically and horizontally. This notion of horizontal time is related to chronological time, the Greek concept of kronos, a “quantifiable, sequential time in which individual actions merge into an overall cumulative momentum that stretches across the totality” of Akerman’s film (55). Vertically, the Greek concept of kairos is an abstract, qualitative concept of time that “cannot be measured because there is no beginning, middle, or end” and this concept pays a different role in the film with iconic portrait close-ups of women smoking. Once again avoiding a linear storyline as with her previous films, Akerman focuses exclusively on women engaged in mundane, everyday activities but without the aural component. As mundane as this film can be imagined to be, Sultan writes about it in a language that turns the mundate into the divine. Referencing other films and describings scenes in fine details, Women from Antwerpin November is a work which is illustrated as “alluring” both in language and format in the exhibition catalogue. According to Sultan, the film “leaves us with more questions than answers” and challenges “our inquiring eyes and minds to roam free” (58). I wonder if the elimination of the aural is what makes it more alluring and “compelling”? Thinking about relationships between sound and time, divinity and sound, power and sound, women and power, the final essay in the catalogue leaves me wondering about Steve Connor’s article Ears Have Walls: On Hearing Art. As he writes about pathos in sound art, he states that sound has power and yet, without literal sound I think that experiencing Akerman’s Women from Antwerp in November can leave a person sound, or remind a person that she is sound.