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Chantal Akerman turns the everyday into the extraordinary

The Observer

Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space" at the Blaffer Gallery will quietly blow away just about any video installation you have ever seen. Organized by the Blaffer in collaboration with the MIT List Visual Arts Center, the Miami Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, the show includes a specially commissioned work.

Chantal Akerman is a filmmaker who creates video installations filled with cinematic power. She has been called "the most important European director of her generation." The standout of the show is From the East: Bordering on Fiction, (D'est: Au bord de la fiction). It's a 1995 film Akerman shot in East Germany, Poland, the Baltic States and Russia shortly after the fall of communism. It's not really a documentary, it's not fiction and it doesn't have much of a narrative. Akerman says she "filmed everything that touched me," simply turning her camera on the people and cities, but the results are mesmerizing.

The images in From the East are everyday but somehow extraordinary.
Courtesy of the artist and Mary Goodman Gallery, New York
The images in From the East are everyday but somehow extraordinary.

Details

Through March 29.
Blaffer Gallery, 120 University of Houston, Fine Arts Building, 713-743-9530.

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For the Blaffer show, Akerman has broken up her film into segments on 24 monitors. The monitors are set together in narrow rows, slightly below the viewer's eye-level. Strolling up and down the rows gives you an amazing panorama of images that are everyday but somehow extraordinary.

All the footage I saw on several visits was set on city streets or in train and metro stations in the midst of the Russian winter. Western clothes hadn't really infiltrated the Russian market in the early '90s. Men sport big square Brezhnev-era glasses. The coats, with the exception of the occasional brightly colored child's parka, are in drab grays and brown. Huge fur hats predominate (dead animals are warm). Children are bundled so thickly their limbs can barely move. One of them lies supine, stiff-legged and rigid in a stroller.

In one shot, a line of people stand side by side on the sidewalk, waiting to sell things. This is small-scale entrepreneurship in early-'90s Russia. One woman offers some sausage; another holds a carton of milk; a man displays some kind of vacuum-packed meat. Another woman cradles a two-liter bottle of then-still-exotic Pepsi.

Akerman pans her camera around the waiting area of a train station. People sit with piles of enormous rope-tied bundles and towering stacks of ancient suitcases. Lenin salutes over the heads of travelers. A legless man on a wheeled board rolls into view, and her camera follows him as he pushes himself along. He is one of the few to meet the eye of Akerman's camera. Aside from the occasional wry smile, or nudge to their companion, people seem to ignore Akerman's ­camera.

Other screens present tracking shots down Russian city streets, past rows of kiosks selling cigarettes or bread, past lines of people waiting for transportation. A shot from the back of a car window shows ancient Ladas speeding down snow-covered streets. It is dark, or dim, in practically every one of these images. Russia in winter seems like a land of perpetual night. But despite the cold and the dark, the images are somehow warm and intimate.

There's something comforting about all of these people waiting together, bundled against the cold. The lighting is warm in the interior shots, and you feel this shared sense of humanity. The work's sense of intimacy is reinforced by the way Akerman has arranged her monitors; their height and proximity draw you in. The slow, steadily moving camera imparts a sense of gravitas; you feel the weight of history. You look at these people going about their daily lives and think about them enduring communism and its upheaval. How many Moscow winters have they lived through? How many of them survived WWII? Survived Stalin? How many of their family members didn't?

The child of Holocaust survivors, Akerman and her family fled Eastern Europe in WWII. She addresses that history in a video shown behind the room of monitors. Against a tracking shot of a rain-covered street, Akerman reads a text she wrote about realizing how these images relate to the Holocaust. The suitcases, the waiting, the feeling of movement and displacement — you can imagine similar, if more chaotic, scenes as people moved through Europe, trying to flee the Nazis. The only audio with the multiple monitors is ambient noise. But this back room is where the Blaffer's acoustical problems first become evident. The monitor is set on the floor, and you have to lean down to try to make out what she's saying.

The acoustics are at their worst in Akerman's installation Down There (Là-bas) (2006). This is a more straightforward, single-channel projection on one wall. It was shot by Akerman in Tel Aviv when she was there teaching. Most of the film is shot through the windows of the furnished apartment she has rented. Her camera peers at her neighbors hanging out on the terraces of their ugly concrete apartment buildings. They have coffee; they seem relaxed and contemplative. The apartment Akerman lives in always seems dark; often, she shoots through the window's matchstick blinds. A rare shot shows a sliver of the sun on Akerman's own balcony, a beckoning, hopeful light. You feel a sense of depression, a sense of confinement and isolation.

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