Chantal Akerman was a legendary avantgarde Belgian film-maker, screenwriter, author, and gallery artist.Read More
Much admired for her innovative projects, restless intellect, passion for women's rights, and uncompromising individuality, Akerman was constantly adventurous and pushing her audience into zones they might not normally enter.
Akerman disliked her films being placed into totalising categories (like 'feminist', 'Jewish', or 'lesbian'), yet within a wide range of projects she explored a surprising variety of identity-related themes. She made over 40 films, both documentary and fiction.
Akerman decided to be a filmmaker when, aged 15, she saw Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le Fou (1965). At 18 she attended INSAS, a Belgian film and drama school, but dropped out. Akerman funded her first film by trading diamond shares on the Antwerp stock exchange. Saute Ma Ville premiered in 1971 and that year she moved to New York, where many of her heroes like Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Yvonne Rainer, Michael Snow, and John Mekas lived. She always kept in close touch with her mother, who lived in Brussels.
Visually her films are associated with long tracking shots, no close ups, fixed cameras, and symmetrical composition with clean, balanced lines of sight in architectural interiors. Influenced by Snow, she was interested in real time and precise documentation of mundane activities with no metaphysical content.
Because Akerman regularly suffered from depression, and died from suicide, people sometimes think of her films as lugubrious, but humour and exuberant delight is present too. This highly complex, paradoxical director even made a musical entitled Golden Eighties (1984), with comedy and dance.
The greatly admired Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) made Akerman famous at 25. This long, precisely planned film presents the monotonous life of a widow who works at home parttime as a prostitute and baby-minder, while fussing over her unresponsive son. The repetitive quotidian tasks gradually build up to a shocking climax.
News from Home (1977) has Akerman amid New York streets reading aloud her mother's letters that describe her mundane activities in her Brussels home. However disruptive background sounds often deliberately interfere. Noisily speeding cars and a cacophonous racket from passing subway trains make us strain to listen to Akerman's dogged but at times mischievously inaudible performance. This daughter-mother devotion is the most conspicuous thread out of many personal themes she methodically explored. Other films, like La Folie Almayer (2011), examine paternal love.
Letters Home (1986) is a rarely seen film of a play Akerman wrote based on the letters between Sylvia Path and her mother, written in the years leading up to Plath's suicide. This elegantly staged production stars Jeanne Dielman actress Delphine Seyrig and her niece, Coralie Seyrig, and looks at Plath's frustrations with her marriage, motherhood, and literary ambitions—her struggles as a creative woman getting taken seriously. Akerman obviously saw many parallels.
Akerman's gallery installations usually feature short portions of film on multiple two-sided screens or rows of monitors, positioned within each white-walled room so spread out images and sound interact. They are different from the less immersive, longer, single-screen cinema presentations.
Chantal Akerman has been featured in both solo and group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include Chantal Akerman: Passages, Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (2020); Chantal Akerman, Museum Of Contemporary Art Toronto (2019); Chantal Akerman. Expended Time, Oi Futuro, Rio de Janeiro (2018); Chantal Akerman: Now, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris (2017) A Nos Amours: Chantal Akerman Retrospective, Institute of Contemporary Arts: ICA, London (2015); and Maniac Shadows: Chantal Akerman, Galería Elba Benítez, Madrid (2014).
Recent group exhibitions include Curtain, Rockbund Art Museum and Para Site, Shanghai (2021); Les Muses insoumises. Delphine Seyrig, entre cinema et video féministe, LaM, Villeneuve d'Ascq (2019); The Warmth of Other Suns, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (2019); Scenes from the Collection, Jewish Museum, New York (2018); and Intériorités, Labanque, Béthune (2017).
Chantal Akerman's work is held in the collection of Fondation Chantal Akerman.
John Hurrell | Ocula | 2021