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When Akerman finally leaves to go to the beach, the sudden burst of light and sun is shocking, as is the proximity of other people walking on the beach. The shots can be interminably long, but the piece really is a psychological portrait of the filmmaker. She is revealing herself in her isolation and boredom, and her occasional narration gives us precious clues. But the problem is, you can't freakin' hear those precious clues. Akerman is a French-speaking Belgian, and her English is heavily accented and spoken with the rhythm of French. Her accent itself is understandable, but with the crappy acoustics it becomes almost completely unintelligible. You have to strain to follow her, and I had to stand right next to one of the speakers on the screening to really hear her. With such sparse but intentional information from the artist, it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to make out what she's saying.

Thankfully, Women from Antwerp in November (2007), the work specially commissioned for this exhibition, is free from audio. It's all about smoking. (Akerman is an enthusiastic smoker.) One screen shows sensual close-ups of a woman's face and mouth as she draws on her cigarette and exhales, the smoke rising up from between her lips. On the opposite wall is a video comprised of five separate scenes. They each show women smoking, some sitting together in a café and some standing alone on Antwerp's streets. The images, in color and in black-and-white, have a film noir quality. The women seem to be waiting, or on their way home from a big night, or ducking out from a party. Smoking seems seductive, thoughtful, glamorous and elegant. It's a dangerous film for ex-smokers.

When she's dealing with subjects she relates to personally, Akerman's work is incredibly strong. The least successful works in the show are her films about the American South and the Mexican border. South (Sud) (1999) began as a meditation on the South by Akerman, a fan of Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. Then the James Byrd dragging death happened, and Akerman found herself in Jasper. She juxtaposes scenes of the humid green landscape with interviews with a local reporter, a sheriff and scenes from a memorial service for Byrd at a black church. Her tracking shot down the road where Byrd died is quite moving, the verdant landscape at odds with the horror of his death. Circles spray-painted on the asphalt seem to mark where parts of the victim were found.

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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But the film seems very much made for a European audience, filled with stereotypical images of the South. Rural poverty is aestheticised; aside from some trailers alongside the Jasper road, most of the film could have been shot in the '30s. There are no crass strip malls, no fast-food franchises. The sheriff is interviewed wearing his broad-brimmed hat; black people are interviewed on worn wooden porches; stray dogs with sagging mammaries wander down country roads. Akerman got a guy to play blues on his front porch and even found black prison work gangs wearing striped uniforms. African-Americans speak to her about their experience with racism; their stories are moving, but Akerman somehow makes them seem like stock characters rather than individuals. Her shots in the black church service seem invasive. At least you can hear the audio in this room, although the projection, or maybe the film itself, seems blurry.

Her film about the border, From the Other Side (De l'autre côté) (2002) seems even more superficial. Like From the East, it is segmented and shown on a series of monitors. There are aerial shots of border patrol helicopters spotlighting migrants huddled under a mesquite tree. There are images of the dusty landscape and cars waiting in line at the border. An occasional migrant speaks to the camera, but it seems like Akerman could never find a way to relate to her subject matter. The film seems clinical and distant, but even at her worst, Akerman is still pretty good.

The Blaffer has always been a difficult space; in general the acoustics are terrible. A tremendous amount of effort went into arranging this exhibition, including Akerman's commission. I wish more effort had gone into mediating the acoustic problems. Luckily, there isn't a tremendous amount of dialogue in Akerman's work, but when it does happen, it's usually pretty meaningful and comes as a welcome break. It's all the more frustrating, then, not to be able to understand it.

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