Chantal Akerman

Like the proverbial Spanish inn, Chantal Akerman’s installation “D’Est: au bord de la fiction” (From east, bordering on fiction, 1994) allowed visitors to feast on what they brought with them, from thoughts on the biblical prohibition of images to notions of history without a capital H, by way of the Holocaust, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the art of cinema, and cinema as art. Akerman has been a kind of one-person New Wave in European cinema since the ’70s, and those who were familiar with her films could immediately recognize her signature style and subjects in this first museum piece: the real-time, real-life approach of her classic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce (1975), the perpetual displacements of News from Home (1976), J’ai faim, j’ai froid (I’m hungry, I’m cold, 1984), or Portrait d’une jeune fille des années 60, à Bruxelles (Portrait of a young girl in the ’60s, Brussels, 1993), the Eastern Europe of her own family in Golden Eighties (1985) and Histoires d’Amerique (Stories from America, 1988). What was “installed” at the Jeu de Paume (the show originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveled to the Walker Art Center) was also a film: D’Est, 1993, literally “from East,” or “about East,” has the same truncated resonance in French as in English.

Shot for television in Super 16, D’Est is a 110-minute distillation of a long journey eastward, from Germany through Poland to Russia. Devoid of commentary or interviews, it flows from one setting to another like the sequences of a dream. The seasons, light, landscapes, and clothing change over time and space, but the unwitting actors in this human drama—filmed in their streets, their fields, their train stations, their kitchens—are almost always involved in the same activities: waiting, walking, riding by in their cars.

This stream of images and sounds “bordering on fiction” (because, Akerman explains, “it allows the viewer to tell stories”) constituted the first part of the installation: a continuous presentation of D’Est in a darkened space equipped with a projector, movie screen, and rows of chairs. But in the absence of fixed screening times, visitors almost inevitably wandered in after the film had begun, and tended to wander out sometime before or after it actually ended.

What awaited them behind the screen, as it were, was a further breakdown of film logic, space, and time: 24 video monitors playing three-minute segments from D’Est on tape loops. The monitors themselves, assembled into eight “triptychs,” loomed out of the darkness like so many electronic altars. The video images were grouped by color, tone, and rhythm rather than subject; ever more disembodied from any documentary reality, they reinforced the archetypal underpinnings of the film: waiting and wandering, the fragility of human existence—its sameness, its mystery. And by the very act of circulating around the banks of monitors, stopping here or there to watch a particular segment, or waiting for a set of blank screens to start up again, whether they thought about immigrants, exiles, refugees, or the deported (in Europe, even today, the image of a crowd, any crowd, waiting for a train is inseparable from the memory of the concentration camps) museum visitors became one with the sea of people before them.

At the end of this oneiric promenade in time, space, and darkness one found a lone video monitor placed unceremoniously on the floor of a small side room. A mix of transcendence and technology, it endlessly repeated a band of quasi-abstract images—enlargements from the film—to the sound of a cello and Akerman’s own voice, reciting in turn the Second Commandment (in Hebrew and French) and all of the reasons for a filmmaker like herself, confronted with a situation like that of Eastern Europe, to continue making images: “. . . Yesterday, today, tomorrow, there were, there will be, there are at this very moment, people whom history which doesn’t even have a capital H any more. . . comes to strike down, and who wait there, piled up in heaps, to be killed, beaten or starved, or who walk without knowing where they’re going, in groups or one by one. There’s nothing to do; it’s haunting, and that haunts me. In spite of the cello, in spite of the cinema. Once the film was done, I said to myself, so that’s what it was; once again, it was that.”

Miriam Rosen