A landscape expresses a mood. Such “expression” says exactly what we intend by the term “empathy.”
– Theodor Lipps 1
[The way] I would like to film . . . corresponds . . . to the idea that the land one possesses is always a sign of barbarism and blood, while the land one traverses without taking it reminds us of a book.
– Chantal Akerman 2
Chantal Akerman created a unique landscape of images that traverse various artistic spaces as she travelled freely between fiction and documentary film and also exhibited work in the art gallery. The celebrated director and writer, who pioneered a new form of cinema in the 1970s, began in the mid-1990s to engage in the expanded field of film-based installation art, in advance of the cultural movement that propels today’s filmmakers and artists to exchange roles and work increasingly between media. It is work that challenges the canonical separation between different genres and forms of visual art, for it not only moves back and forth between different kinds of cinema and moving-image installation but interchanges these modes. 3
The hybrid screen space that Akerman constructed is a landscape that comprises images of places, perceptively and empathetically explored from both the inside and the outside. Cities, lands, and homes are portrayed in long takes that enhance duration, capturing the unfolding of everyday life, especially the life of women, and the flow of temporality and memory. Forms of passage take place on her screens as, held by the steadiness of the long takes, we are led to explore sites of transit and separation and instances of cultural movement. In this durational way, we are given the opportunity to reflect, in particular, on the inner workings of displacement, migrancy and diaspora. 4
This style of durational filming dotted with minimal or even casual action, which defined Akerman’s long-standing signature practice, transferred well from the film theatre to the art gallery, where the work found a new dwelling place. The way Akerman always liked to film fit perfectly well into the meandering itineraries of contemporary forms of viewership. It accords closely with the digital era’s nonlinear streaming and is in tune with the performative, subjective, roaming fashion of imaging that has come to inhabit our screens. Her itinerant way of filming appears especially suited to the peripatetic mode of reception that exists in the art gallery, where visitors wander in space, interacting with screens that enhance not only displacement but also forms of encounter and liminality.
Whether in cinema or installation form, the fabric of the screen always functions in Akerman’s work as a porous material that mediates an intense sense of projection: a relationship between inside and outside, physical and mental space. This fluid geography of wandering states of mind, with a fixed yet transitive topography, was first established experimentally on the screen of Hotel Monterey (1972), an architectural survey of the random presences that populate a hotel lobby and elevator. It took further shape in News from Home (1976), in which a primarily stationary camera records the movement of New York City while exploring the intimate etymology of metropolis, the “mother-city” across which we travel to the rhythm of the letters that Akerman’s mother sends her.
Although the geography of Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) is rigorously composed of trains, train stations, cinemas, car interiors and hotel rooms, this moving panorama, structured by a railway trip, tracks for us an intimate journey. The protagonist, a filmmaker on tour with her film, meets her mother in a hotel room and, away from the family house, tells her about her lesbian life. A family or personal history can only be displayed in a virtual place of transit – the railway or the hotel at that time, the smart phone or the laptop now – a site inhabited each “night and day” by different stories, as the title of a 1991 film by Akerman further suggests.
This geographic porosity that interweaves internal and external space, endlessly reconfigured in Akerman’s work, found new ground for expansion in the art gallery through the installation work that Akerman began to produce. The moving-image installation Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre (2007), for example, gives further shape to the filmmaker’s recurring creative interest in the screen as a site of passage. The very space of this installation, which chronicles moments of life in the city, threads through the ground of her film Toute une nuit (1982), in which a series of disconnected stories intersect on the urban pavement. This film enters and exits the lives of several urban dwellers as they come together or split up, kiss or fight, in Brussels’s cabs and cafés, homes and hotels, forming a narrative mosaic of love in, and of, the city. Like the installation, Toute une nuit is a nocturnal work that resides in the passageway. The film insistently takes place on the sidewalk or the steps of stairways, and halts by windowsills. It is suspended on the balcony and lingers in the corridors. Doors open and close as we are left to ponder at the doorsteps. Throughout these edgy urban encounters – atonal fragments of a city symphony – we always remain at the threshold.
As Akerman’s video/installation work extends the potential of her cinema of thresholds, it reinvents it in even more spatial terms. The installation Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre, in particular, reframes her cinema of transition and suspension in the very space of the art gallery. Here the artist makes use of the actual site of the gallery to construct an architecture of displacement in twofold projection. In the installation, short narratives are presented in long, horizontal, split-screen format, in the form of a landscape. In this way we are offered an urban portrait as we encounter a woman, a flâneuse, captured in a moment of suspended time, smoking at night in various street settings. The installation renews Akerman’s filmic sense of inhabiting a city, dwelling especially on those instants of pause and transition, reflection and anxiety, when women are on their own, ambling, walking in the rain, lingering, caught in an intermediate zone. The work is suspended between a before and an after, in the unsettling time of a transitory moment that we, the gallery visitors, can empathetically share, becoming flâneuses ourselves as we amble and ramble, stroll and stray, meandering in the gallery space.
The sequence of images in the installation functions as an actual landscape, unfolding in space as an urban panorama. In this sense, the installation contains a history within its visual space. It is layered with the historical representation of urban views and also carries within its format the history of the relationship of cinema to panoramic vision. Watching this installation unreel in an art space, we are reminded that the wide format of panoramic painting that historically portrayed the city is the precursor of the filmic screen. 5 At the onset of modernity, in fact, a panoramic visual architectonics was set in motion: as frames became distended and sites were set in moving perspectives, they expanded both outward and inward. Using the wide format today to make a contemporary urban panorama, Akerman’s installation recreates this particular experience in the art gallery setting. It remakes the kind of panoramic image that made the city into a landscape and the cityscape into a moving screen. In such a way, the precise time in the history of visual culture in which the panorama emerged as the generative site of cinema becomes a renewed screen and projective space.
Furthermore, painterly genres become connected in Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre as the face joins the landscape in the twofold urban portrait of female flânerie. In this work, the face itself becomes a landscape. We are reminded of the words of Gilles Deleuze, who spoke of the face as a surface, a landscape, a map:
The face has a correlate of great importance: the landscape. . . . Architecture positions its ensembles—houses, towns or cities, monuments or factories—to function like faces in the landscape they transform. Painting takes up the same movement but also reverses it, positioning a landscape as a face. 6
In this installation, as the face becomes the landscape it turns into a screen. Akerman paints the surface, and in the process highlights the root of the term surface. In exhibiting that hyphenated form which is a sur-face, the artist remakes it into her own screen surface, showing the layers of depth that this surface may contain. 7
In Akerman’s world, we are held on the surface of things. And on this surface-screen, more depth of imaging is inscribed. The installation of Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre, insofar as it is a portrait, works at joining art forms as the texture of the art of painting transfers to the art of film. Furthermore, the woman in this portrait-installation emerges from a multifaceted filmic landscape of specific urban portraits. 8 The scene evokes in particular the urban landscapes of Michelangelo Antonioni, with their own metropolitan ramblings and temps morts, that is, their display of nonaction and times in between, textured gaps and ellipses. This is a portrait of absorption in self-reflection à la Monica Vitti, and it is rooted in previous forms of cinematic portraiture. The installation celebrates the aesthetic attraction of a woman’s face in close-up, veiled by the nuances of a cloud of smoke. This face in black and white shows a layered textural history, for it also appears to surface out of the history of early film. This is a typical silent-cinema image of vaporous beauty. An ode to the subtlety and haziness of the waxed world of celluloid, the aesthetic of the installation furthermore recalls the texture of American film noir of the 1940s, with its own particular use of diffuse lighting and nebulous visual effects.
As the hazy ambiance of Akerman’s installation becomes an elegy to cinema’s own fascination for vapours and haze, it leads us to reflect on the fabric of imaging itself, and its transient nature. Immersed in a smoky, misty world, we are absorbed into a vaporous aesthetic. This misty, cloudy, rainy, and foggy atmosphere offers us a visual pleasure that is pneumatic in nature. And as pneuma becomes the core of the installation, the very breath of the moving image is felt upon our skin.
The pleasure of Akerman’s work is not simply visual but synesthetically tactile. Moving fluidly between moving-image installation, fiction film, or documentary form, Akerman haptically takes us into a world of images that become laboured, textured and nuanced as they float in a specific and precise way. In her work, we travel through an architecture of atmosphere, a formally rigorous aesthetic of frontal long takes with stationary and moving camera, often made of symmetrical compositions. With these frames fixed as if to seize motion, Akerman constructs a geometry of passages and a relational form of screening that empathetically includes us. By virtue of the camera position, which often refuses to move with the characters and rolls independently, remaining steady in time, we cannot pry. We are simply there. Witnesses, we are made to exist in the space, and asked to stay overtime. This “being there” in time enables us to make a psychic leap, to go beyond mere attendance toward a more intimate involvement. Refusing voyeurism and reaching for a closer spectatorial position, the work allows us to become participants. As an affective atmosphere unfolds in slow time-space, we can let ourselves slide in. We can absorb what is in the air and partake in a mood.
By articulating this atmosphere, Akerman can allow both character and spectator to experience the ambiguous architectonics of thresholds that characterises the act of screening. Visitors to her world can be at the same time in their own physical and mental space and in the space of her voyage. The position of Akerman’s camera sometimes indicates where the author stands in all senses, since it even includes the measure of her slight height. It is a position that marks her presence there, never so close as to interfere or so far that her presence as a fellow traveller is not felt.
In holding to her rigorous point of view while crossing the borders of different visual art forms and genres, the “borderline” work of Chantal Akerman thus transgresses boundaries of various natures. She is so attracted to the threshold that she often “sites” her work on actual border zones or in borderline situations. This is most effectively exemplified in the installation From the Other Side (2002), in which Akerman records the history of illegal Mexican immigrants and their stories of dangerous U.S. border crossings. A sense of social diaspora also appears in the installation South (1999), which captures the landscape of the North American South, highlighting the history of racial tension.
However far away Akerman journeys, her work always appears to house the memories of someone who is not quite a stranger to the places she visits. This is a function of the intrinsic empathy one feels for the cultural and social landscapes the artist puts us in touch with. It should also be noted that Akerman’s artistic journeys often end up revisiting places close to her own history: the various sites of a Jewish diasporic geography. 9 Writing in an exemplary way for the installation that grew of out of her film D’Est (1993), Akerman speaks clearly of a journey that is a personal geography. For this installation, From the East: Bordering on Fiction, she engages the closeness of the exploration as she speaks of the “moving” nature of moving images:
I would like to make a grand journey. . . . I’d like to shoot everything. Everything that moves me. Faces, streets, cars going by and buses, train stations and plains, rivers and oceans, streams and brooks, trees and forests. Fields and factories and yet more faces. Food, interiors, doors, windows, meals being prepared. 10
In Akerman’s grand journey for the installation, motion becomes emotion as it touches the space of everyday life. She designs a world of faces and food, windows and streets, buses and rivers, trains and doors, oceans and rooms – a map that incorporates the nurturing architecture of the interior. This inner world is composed of still lifes and pictures of side rooms, which are framed and reframed in the monitors of the installation as if they were landscape paintings. It is also made of endless tracking shots in which the emotion of motion itself is captured. In this movement of dwelling, we abide. An atlas of life, it is quite a grand tour.
As an atlas, this is a cumulative experience. As Akerman decomposes her film D’Est into the form of an installation piece, she gives particular attention to the interior architecture of the installation. We access a space in which the film “resides” in twenty-four video monitors, arranged in triptychs. Here, as it remains still, circles 360 degrees in a train station, or tracks streets independently of the objects that enter the frame, the camera collects images, which accumulate in the space of the installation. Their impact grows with both awareness of and obliviousness to the camera’s presence. The video monitors become a storage space for this mnemonic itinerary, turning into an archive. In this place of collection that is recollection, in time, we are transported. With these motion pictures archivally housed on screens spread across the museum space, the gallery viewer is furthermore offered the spectatorial pleasure of physically and imaginatively entering into a film, and of retraversing the language of montage. The final effect is that cinema itself becomes dislocated in the art space. This kind of viewership ultimately signals a passage between art, architecture and film, predicated on shifting notions of exhibition and forms of screening.
In Akerman’s viewing chambers, as the threshold is architecturally materialised, the screen itself takes centre stage, becoming its own border space. In reframing the screen while fluctuating between experimental cinema, fiction and documentary, and moving to work in gallery installation, Akerman especially cultivated the projective side of the act of screening. She made the fabric of the screen into an object for fashioning the self and interiority in light of manifold times and traces of memory. Her use of scrims came to enhance the actual architecture of the screen, giving form to the fabric of the projective fabrication. In Marcher à côté de ses lacets dans un frigidaire vide (2004), Akerman dwells on a diary in which both her grandmother and her mother wrote, and that also bears marks from the time when her sister and she found it as children. In one part of the installation, a spiralling wall made of a white, diaphanous material evokes the properties of a screen or scrim, into which one can walk, and in which words from the artist as well as the multi-layered diary are inscribed. In another room, a flat screen made of the same diaphanous material becomes the site of a three-part simultaneous projection and inscription of the writing of the women at different times. As the traces of the past are materialised in the present, the scrim holds a polyphony of projective experiences in sartorial fashion. It fabricates a shared psychic fabric.
Akerman’s use of projection reconnects us to an important layer of screen history and design. In the archaeology of the screen, the history of the word projection is itself entangled with the display of psychic processes. The concept of projection joins cinema to psychoanalysis, for at the time of film’s invention Sigmund Freud developed the notion of projection as an instrument that is essential to the formation of the subject and the understanding of boundaries. 11 Analytically speaking, projection is a mechanism that regulates the establishment of the boundaries between subject and object, and thus regulates the sense of what is internal and external. As Melanie Klein developed this notion further, insisting that forms of projection inward and outward are related to oral functions, she spoke of projective identification with the first object, the mother’s breast. 12 In her view, projection is the motor of all object relations. From the beginning of the life of the subject, object relations are molded by an interaction between introjection and projection, a transfer between internal and external objects as well as situations.
On her screens, Akerman activates a mode of projection precisely in this way, for the screen for her is both a boundary and a threshold. It is, indeed, a place of dialogue and exchange between the internal and the external. Such a screen is fundamentally an architecture of psychic transfer and tracing. It is also a space haunted by the maternal. On Akerman’s screen, projection becomes a notion that holds not only an attribute of subjectivity but also contains the mark of the memories and unconscious relations that inform the transitive environment of experience.
In Akerman’s moving-image installations, as in her cinema, the art of projection is thus practised in the widest sense as a transfer that engages the material world and the transformations that occur within its space. Her particular use of the screens of projection as an architecture of becoming involves a fashioning of imaginary space – that is to say, the kind of projections that are forms of the imagination. As Akerman exposes those projections that are mental, psychic processes, exhibited in the material world as space, she also works with a particular form of projection: Einfühlung, or empathy. Her work, in fact, goes to the root of empathy, which is, literally, the act of “feeling into”. Let us recall that, as defined by German aesthetics in the late nineteenth century, Einfühlung is a dynamic conception that accounts for a material response to an object, an image, or a spatial environment. 13 This act of “feeling into” is a notion sensitive to the surface of the world. It depends on the ability to sense an inner movement that takes place between the object-space and the subject. This means that one can empathise with the expressive, dynamic forms of art and architecture – even with colours and sounds, scenery and situations, surfaces and textures – and these “projections” include such transmissions of affects as atmospheres.
Chantal Akerman’s screens offer precisely this kind of “feeling into” that engages the landscape and the streetscape and various matters of spatial construction, including formal arrangements and even fabrics, shapes and shades. Her work is, indeed, about this particular affect: a psychic atmosphere that transpires on the surface. Shot in what I would ultimately call a distant intimacy, her images are formally arranged to allow for the kind of reserve that is needed to engage us closely. They enable, that is, the kind of analytic detachment – the form of screening – that is necessary to create real empathy.
This is particularly evident in the video installation Là-bas (2006), which makes compelling use of the screen as an architecture. Là-bas chronicles Akerman’s trip to Tel Aviv, during which the filmmaker, interestingly, mostly remains inside an apartment. Static long takes enable us to wander around the interior of the place and observe a scene of little action inside. We can see out the window, although not clearly. We are made to peek through blinds that are made of loosely woven reeds, which filter the light, and our vision. What is portrayed here is nothing but a screen, and it is deliberately positioned between the world outside and us. Such a screen-partition forms a delicate physical boundary between inside and outside. It also serves to both reveal and obscure our view of the city, and particularly of the neighbourhood. In such a filtered way, through the fabric of a screen, we get to know the neighbours. Observing the unfolding of their daily chores, we begin to imagine their conversations, which we cannot hear. Meanwhile, off-screen, we hear Akerman’s voice, speaking in diaristic fashion about matters of daily life, (family) history and filming, and never failing to answer her mother’s calls.
Dwelling on the architecture of the screen, Là-bas articulates an elaborate geography of thresholds. By focusing our attention on this window that is a screen, “dressed” to resemble a scrim, Akerman asks herself and us to engage into a subtle act of screening. We sense a resistance to filming a world for which the artist has ambivalent, even conflicting feelings of belonging, and that is marred by traumatic histories, including her own family history of diasporic travails. 14 It is precisely by exhibiting such resistance, and materialising it in the physical form of the screen partition, that Akerman is able to make a film that is otherwise impossible to make. This screen is not a barrier but a threshold, for it not only marks passage but enables actual access.
A complex material fabrication is felt here, inscribed in the very fabric of this imaginary screen. The diffuse “feeling into” of the screen-shade empathetically involves us in a rich act of interpretation. As we come up against the reedy material of the screen, we too negotiate a textured boundary. The screen not only functions to filter the outside world and to experience layers of history and memory but also “curtains” the space inside. It offers Akerman the shelter she needs “down there” to look out and see inside herself. Such a screen makes a process of introjection possible within its boundary, which can be crossed. Over time, then, the straw-like screen becomes a textured space that holds complex forms of projection within its fabric. In the end, the material of the interwoven screen enhances the fabrication of intimacy, for it tangibly “suits” Akerman’s experiential perspective and filmic point of view. This screen is tailored to hold in its very fabric her particular version of empathy: a position of distant proximity.
We go out with Akerman into the world only to look inward; we remain inside to look out. In this way, we plunge into the depth of the artist’s own psychic, subjective space and personal history. Regardless of the distance we have travelled, the journey of discovery inevitably turns out to be an inner journey, not too far removed from self-analysis. We recognise this particular chamber. We know this curtained world, filtered through the screen of the installation of Là-bas, for we have been asked with regularity to dwell in this room. Travelling the architecture of the interior in films such as Saute ma ville (1968), La chambre I (1972), Je tu il elle (1974), or even Demain on déménage (2004), we have visited a textured geography of interiority, a scene that is both familiar and familial. As Akerman herself has put it, “I want to film in order to understand. What are you going there for, someone asked? . . . I’ll find out when I get there. . . . It’s always your mother and father you run into on a journey.” 15 Despite the different media employed, as we step into any of Akerman’s viewing chambers we access rooms of projection that consistently envelop us empathetically, for in these chambers we sense the depth of an intimate experience that we can share. Resting on the border of the screen of projection, this particular “feeling into” the space can become a mutual boundary to cross. And thus, safely positioned at a distance, we too can engage our own perilous history of projection: a voyage to – and a view from – home. Until, abruptly, Akerman’s journey reaches an end, the door of that chamber closes for her and for us, and we are left with No Home Movie (2015).
- Theodor Lipps, “Empathy and Aesthetic Pleasure” (1905), in Karl Aschenbrenner and Arnold Isenberg, eds., Aesthetic Theories: Studies in the Philosophy of Art (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965), p. 405. ↩
- Chantal Akerman, unpublished text for an unrealised work titled Of the Middle East (1998), p. 4. I am grateful to her for offering me this text, and for the many conversations about her work over the years of our friendship. ↩
- A previous version of this text was published in Chantal Akerman: Too Far, Too Close, ed. Dieter Roelstraete, exh. cat. (Antwerp: Ludion Press and M HKA, Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, 2012), in conjunction with the first major European solo exhibition of her gallery films. ↩
- See, among others, Chantal Akerman, autoportrait en cineaste, exh. cat. (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma and Centre Pompidou, 2004); and Terrie Sultan, ed., Chantal Akerman: Moving through Time and Space, exh. cat. (Houston, TX: Blaffer Gallery and the Art Museum of the University of Houston, 2008). ↩
- By presenting multiple, mobile perspectives and suggesting a mobilised observer, the urban views exhibited a protocinematic attempt to expand the field of haptic vision. It was this cartographic mobilisation of perspective, inscribed in the movement of urban imaging, that led to nineteenth-century panoramic culture, with its metropolitan transit, arcade life, and railway travel, eventually becoming the “transport” of motion pictures. See Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2002). ↩
- Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. and foreword Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 170–72. ↩
- For an extended treatment of surface materiality, see Bruno, Surface: Matters of Aesthetics, Materiality, and Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). ↩
- On Akerman’s cinephilia see Dominique Païni, “Chantal Akerman” in Chantal Akerman, file note # 32, published to accompany the exhibition of her work at the Camden Arts Centre, London, 2008. ↩
- For a reading of Akerman’s work in terms of its revisitation of Jewish sites and forms of wandering see, in particular, Janet Bergstrom, “Invented Memories” and Ivone Margulies, “Echo and Voice in Meetings with Anna” in Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, ed., Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), pp. 94–116, and pp. 59–76, respectively. See also Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); and Veronica Pravadelli, Performance, Rewriting, Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Postmodern Cinema (Turin: Otto, 2000). ↩
- The text was displayed on the wall of the exhibition and is published in Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est,” exh. cat (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), pp. 17–18. This compelling exhibition originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and was on view at the Jewish Museum in New York, 23 February–27 May 1997. ↩
- See Mary Ann Doane, “The Location of the Image: Cinematic Projection and Scale in Modernity,” in Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon, eds., Art of Projection (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2009), pp. 151–66. ↩
- See, among other works, Melanie Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, no. 27 (1946): pp. 99–110. ↩
- See Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou, eds., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873–1893 (Santa Monica: Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1994). For an overview of the history of Einfühlung see Juliet Koss, “On the Limits of Empathy,” Art Bulletin 88, no. 1 (March 2006): pp. 139–57. ↩
- See Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, “Interior and Interiority: Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas,” Einunddreissig, no. 14-15 (Dec. 2010): pp. 139-46. ↩
- Akerman, unpublished text for Of the Middle East, p. 4. ↩