Let’s undo the movies

By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 30, 2008

Apart from its own merits as a survey, “Moving Through Time and Space” serves as a worthy finale for the List’s three-part series addressing the expanding realm of video installations. Last year’s group show, “Sounding the Subject/Video Trajectories,” was an ample primer; the subsequent solo exhibition of David Claerbout explored his blurring of still photos and video. Here, Akerman’s installation work reveals not only an artist with an uncanny talent for wild (if subtle) experimentation via seemingly mainstream means but also a complete reconfiguration of the relationships among viewer, subject, and, most forwardly, medium.

What this selection does not represent (neither does it purport to) is a comprehensive examination of Akerman’s œuvre. It remains to be seen how an undertaking like that might even be accomplished.

“She’s really hard to pin down,” says Arning. “She’ll make a film that’s just a really long take of a hotel lobby, but then she’ll make a screwball comedy. One film of hers I saw [Golden Eighties, a/k/a Window Shopping] was a sort of a golden-’80s musical — all these people who look like they’re out of a Pat Benatar video, singing and dancing in a Belgian shopping mall. ”

As Arning’s paraphrased lore has it, a young Akerman got her start as a teenager: buying her own film, shooting scenes for the hell of it, and realizing, upon revisiting the development lab, that film was expensive — too expensive. The film stayed in the lab’s possession, undeveloped, for a year, until technicians alerted Akerman that it would be destroyed if she didn’t pay for processing. After she implored the lab folks at least to watch it, they did so, and one of them passed this auspicious, accidental 11-minute debut (eventually known as “Saute ma ville,” or “Blow Up My Town”) on to a friend who worked on a film program on Brussels television. Akerman’s career was born — along with a series of motifs she would keep returning to: domestic spaces, women performing repetitive tasks, and an intense focus on gestures that essayist Ivone Margulies refers to as seeming “to produce at once disarray and tidiness.”

Her unwavering attention to minute detail, the stillness of her shots, and the exhaustive voyeurism that characterizes much of Akerman’s work has a tendency to amplify nuances that might otherwise go unnoticed — or simply unfilmed. The work that is roundly considered her masterpiece, the three-hour-plus Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), fixates on young Delphine Seyrig’s middle-aged Jeanne, who, in between long uninterrupted stretches of cleaning, cooking, tidying rooms, and flicking lights on and off, turns tricks with random men to support her son. So little happens (until the end, when something does, and changes everything) that the smallest gestures — a tense furrow in the brow, the hard heels of Jeanne’s shoes echoing up and down the halls, the angle and flick of the blade as she peels a potato — convey a masterfully vague aura of dread. The banal becomes beautiful, as though we were witnessing a natural occurrence rather than a woman’s slow undoing. This and a number of Akerman’s other films (meant for theater viewing) will be hosted by the MFA starting May 21, and they’ll provide a worthwhile (honest!) counterpart to the List’s more spatially adventurous selection.

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