Chantal Akerman turns the everyday into the extraordinary

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.

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.


"Chantal Akerman: Moving Through Time and Space"

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

Through March 29.

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.

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.

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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