Let’s undo the movies

Chantal Akerman plays with your mind at MIT’s List Center
By MICHAEL BRODEUR  |  April 30, 2008
LOOK ALIVE: Akerman’s films demand an atypically active approach to viewership.

“Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space” MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St, Cambridge : May 2–July 6
At the movies, you know your place. Despite lacking any overt ritualistic rigmarole, a visit to the cinema remains one of the most cooperatively ordered experiences one can have with a piece of art. (Tell that to the jerk with the Nextel down in front!) As viewers, we accept the proposed duration of our stint in the seats; the gleaming rectangle gathers our visions; the strategically plotted arc of the story guides us through the surrounding darkness; and the dawn of the credits adjourns us back into the unordered world. We know our parts more deeply than the actors we gaze upon; and though together we form a kind of narrative construction crew, we actually have very little work to do.

If those collective behaviors inspired and demanded by the cinema of its witnesses are, in essence, its very boundaries, Belgian-born filmmaker and video artist Chantal Akerman could be considered a smuggler — stealing the visual vernacular and experiential physics of the movies and repurposing them into wholly and newly spatialized forms. Sound like fun?

This week, the first museum survey exhibition of Akerman’s work comes to the MIT List Visual Arts Center, and as nondescript as the title “Moving Through Time and Space” might appear, it provides a solid theoretical foundation from which to approach the often unsure footing of her work. Conceived somewhere between the poles of the cinema and the ever-burgeoning field of video installation, her work has the benefit of many familiar canonical reference points to help you keep your bearings: the inter-subjectivity of Dan Graham, the epic structuralism of Michael Snow, the filmic portraiture of Cindy Sherman. Still, it’s Akerman’s knack for making strange our engagement with time and space (or, loosely transposed, film and visual art) that makes this collection of works a must-see.

Not to mention a must-stay.

“When you see Akerman’s films, they are demanding in a very particular way,” List curator Bill Arning tells me. “There may, for instance, be a shot that’s held long enough to lead to very uncomfortable feelings. She’s even been called violent — and yes, there is a degree to which she takes control of your time, and it is aggressive.”

Of course, Akerman’s aggression isn’t reliant on her viewers’ passivity — if anything, the works require (or, at least, deserve) an atypically active approach to viewership. The two single-channel pieces, Sud|South (1999) and Lá-bas|Down There (2006), run more than an hour each; they’ll be shown according to posted start times at 90-minute intervals. Although you certainly have the option of strolling unfettered through each one at your leisure — as you might with the multi-channel works (D’est: Au bord de la fiction|From the East: Bordering on Fiction, 1995; De l’autre côté |From the Other Side, 2002; and Femmes d’Anvers en novembre|Women of Antwerp in November, 2007), this isn’t about your leisure. The selection, arrangement, and timing of these pieces is such that the dedicated and/or curious can enjoy a meaningful experience of the entire show in three hours — and Akerman has made single films longer than that.

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