PRINT November 2008


A CRUCIAL TERM FOR CHANTAL AKERMAN is that of evocation, which she regularly uses to describe the thinking underlying her various projects. Speaking, for instance, about her powerful 1999 documentary, Sud (South)—for which the artist and filmmaker traveled through a swath of rural America stretching from Georgia to East Texas, where she found herself confronted by the recent, horrible lynching of James Byrd Jr.—she observed: “[The film is] neither an anatomy of James Byrd’s murder nor the autopsy of a black man lynched by three young white males, but more an evocation of how this event fits into a landscape and climate as much mental as physical.” To seek real veracity in images, in other words, is a futile affair; better to reflect on and negotiate the ways in which they—like the physical world around us—may be both richly and utterly suffused with the past, historical and personal, inviting scrutiny and projection at the same time.

Similarly, Akerman says that Children’s Book, an original project for Artforum appearing in the pages that follow—and one that will likely serve as the basis for both a future gallery installation and feature film—is not so much based on Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), as it is an evocation of it. True, Akerman loosely adopts the book’s plot: Set along the coast of the largely colonized Malay Archipelago, the story follows Dutch clerk Kaspar Almayer as he reluctantly marries the adopted Malayan daughter of Captain Lingard, an explorer and entrepreneur who has promised the young man vast wealth from hidden gold deposits in nearby Gunong Mas. (Almayer starts a family, yet his promised riches never materialize, leaving him with a loveless marriage and, more important, a daughter who, to his horror, eventually turns away from Western traditions and leaves him for a local rajah’s son.) But Conrad’s tale—wherein the abstract forces of colonialism are wrought in the most intimate terms of filial and erotic love—is nevertheless set at a kind of prismatic remove, as Akerman illustrates the different chapters mostly with images from her own previous films.

For example, Almayer’s daughter, Nina, begins here by saying, “I hope to tell a story,” but knowledgeable readers cannot extract her visage from Akerman’s newest work, Femmes d’Anvers en novembre (Women of Antwerp in November, 2007), commissioned for the filmmaker’s current traveling survey; Almayer himself appears wearing a bow tie in an image drawn from Akerman’s Hôtel Monterey (1972); Nina’s lover, Dain, awaits her arrival, but he is playing bass in a scene found in Sud; and it is the swamps of Louisiana that create for readers an impression of Indonesia, while one suspects it is a fateful road in East Texas suggesting the real, highly personalized stakes underwriting Conrad’s colonialist drama. All these images drawn from Akerman’s oeuvre suggest that she embraces the notion that it is the reader who inevitably provides the world with its readings, bringing his or her own history to any image, grasping meaning only while also pushing it away; and it is within that distance that her work operates, and where her audiences are asked to dwell.

To explain that dynamic here, Akerman, in conversation, recalls her mother viewing a desolate scene in De l’autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002): “I showed her a picture of someone entering the United States from Mexico and I asked her what the image made her think of, and she said, ‘The camps.’ So, you see, what I love about pictures is that each one can evoke many things—historically, physically, philosophically, and also artistically. It is your own phantasmic world.” (Indeed, Akerman has drawn directly from her experience for this project as well: One grid of images, for instance, was created during a recent hospital stay in France—though, the filmmaker hastens to add, it is her life as the daughter of a concentration camp survivor that has, for her, prompted a kind of madness.) No doubt this self-reflexive understanding provides some explanation for Akerman’s repeatedly taking border situations as her subject, whether behind the fallen iron curtain in D’est (From the East, 1993), or along the fences of immigration control in From the Other Side, seeking to inhabit—and, in her films and installations, as well as in the project that follows, produce—that interzone occupied by numerous spheres of influence, whether cultural or narrative, personal or historical, entwined even while at variance.