PRINT October 2005


Chantal Akerman

“I MUST PHOTOCOPY THIS because soon there won’t be a trace,” says Chantal Akerman to her mother, Nelly, in the double video projection that is part of the daughter’s piece To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge. (First shown at the Centre Pompidou in 2004, the installation was at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York this past summer.) The object they are perusing—the daughter having drawn her chair close enough to put her arm around her mother’s shoulders as they sit at Nelly’s kitchen table—is the diary of Chantal’s maternal grandmother, Sidonie Ehrenburg, who was murdered at Auschwitz in 1942, along with her husband, father, and brother. In 1920, the teenage Ehrenburg had written in Polish, “I am a woman! Therefore, I cannot express all my feelings, my thoughts, my sorrows. . . . It is to you my dear diary that I will confide them.” In 1945, eighteen-year-old Nelly, liberated from Auschwitz, found her late mother’s diary (she says she can’t remember where or how) and wrote in it a few sentences about how much she loved her. Later, Chantal and her younger sister added messages of love addressed to their own mother.

This diary, with entries written by three generations of women, is the Rosetta Stone not just for this piece but for Akerman’s entire body of work in film, installation, and performance. As the filmmaker explains in her conversation with her mother, she is compelled to speak because her grandmother and mother were silenced, first by the traditional Jewish culture in which they were raised, then by the Holocaust, which left one dead and the other “broken.” It is this maternal bond—the primal connection—that gives her formally austere work its emotional power. Jeanne Dielman is, after all, both a mother and a whore.

To escape the shadow cast precisely by Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the 1975 film masterpiece the artist made when she was twenty-four-years old, and to shrug off the burden of financing “art films” in an increasingly hostile marketplace, Akerman found a second home in the art world, where she has made at least three extraordinary works: D’Est: A bord de la fiction, 1995, a multimonitor video installation about the Eastern European diaspora created by the collapse of the Soviet Union; Une Famille à Bruxelles, 1998, an autobiographical text about the death of Akerman’s father, in which she writes in the first person as, alternately, herself and her mother—one of the most moving “slippages” in contemporary literature; and To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge.

Akerman’s method in this strangely titled work is as dialectical as ever. The piece is nakedly autobiographical but physically presents itself through veils. It is as directly personal as the films Je tu il elle (1974) and Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (1996) while being more explicitly referential in relation to other artists’ work than anything she has made before. The installation was set up in two rooms. In the first, one encountered a version of a Richard Serra Torqued Spiral fabricated in white tulle. A printed text, recorded by a moving video camera, was projected onto the semitransparent surface of the spiral from two directions so that the structure was covered with coils of words. But because the projectors were placed at oblique angles to the tulle surface, which itself was curved, the letters went out of focus as they moved around and upward, making it difficult to follow more than a fragment of the text at a time. As one walked into the interior of the spiral (looking at the text from the inside), the words became fainter and even more unfocused. The movement of the text and the spiral structure calls to mind that seven-minute metaporn film, Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, 1926, made by filming two alternating sets of disks bearing spirals. (In motion, one set of painted disks gives the illusion of undulating three-dimensional spirals; the other revolving set are covered with spirals of words.) Hilariously confrontational, Anemic Cinema frustrates the viewer’s twin desires to read and to get off. Akerman’s spiral evokes a more elusive experience—chasing words through the corridors of memory. (And here’s a memory of my own: At the opening of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1973 Duchamp show, I was standing in front of the spiraling Rotary Demisphere (Precision Optics) of 1925 with a group of artists, among them Serra, who remarked somewhat sadly that, after all this time, the work seemed rather “lightweight.”)

On the back wall of the second room was a card printed with excerpts from Ehrenburg’s diary. In the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling, was a tulle rectangle onto which was projected a video of the pages of the actual diary. On one of them was an elegantly sketched self-portrait of young Sidonie, a girl with lively eyes, wearing a rakishly angled hat. Looking through the images on this tulle screen, we saw projected on the front wall a double-screen video of Akerman talking to her mother about the diary and about her memories of the camps. The video lasts for twenty-two minutes of real time before looping back to begin again. The combination of real time with the rudimentary, sometimes out-of-focus, black-and-white double image evokes Warhol’s double-screen talkies of the mid-’60s. No Warhol film, however, not even the recently restored Mrs. Warhol (a 1966 portrait of the artist’s mother), has the stunning intimacy of this home movie, not to mention the weight and necessity of bearing witness to an unspeakable history. “My dear girl, I am so happy to have lived to see this day,” says Nelly, embracing her daughter at the end of their conversation. And very much so was I.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.