Ackerman exhibit

Snuck out of conference at lunch to go see 2 exhibits at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (fuzzy but kinda fun phone snaps below). An installation of Chantal Ackerman began disappointingly, with her recent Les Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre (Women of Antwerp in November). Like all the work at this exhibit, it was an installation-ization of traditional films, explorations in moving cinema into a visual arts mode. So there was one 4-minute black-and-white loop of a woman smoking projected across a wall; on the facing wall were several smaller cinematic excerpts or ‘short stories’ projected simultaneously in an adjacent row like a collage. The narratives of the short stories weren’t really apparent, so the effect was basically a wall of color footage of women smoking across from a monumental video of a woman smoking in black and white. The gallery text explained that Ackerman smokes. So, it’s a whole lot of smoking and sure, you can riff on that however you like as allegory or whathaveyou, but it didn’t really send me.

Part of the reason was that, although beautifully shot, the collage projections were displayed with poor focus and the entire installation was washed out with ambient light that some simple black curtains could have fixed. Also this installation, like all in the show, had terrible acoustic design, with the music and multiple-language soundtracks of all the installations overlapping and bleeding into each other confusingly. Again, some more AV-savvy exhibit design would’ve helped the work a lot.

However, two other installations were quite powerful. D‘est: Au bord de la fiction (From the East: Bordering on Fiction) from 1995 was a meditative journey through post-Cold War Eastern Europe. Ackerman's signature horizontal pans and lateral camera movement swept across cold nights, bleak faces, emptying elevators in what, at the end of working on the project, she realizes in retrospect was about the Shoah. (Ackerman's parents were East European Jews.) Her narration concludes, in a tiny monitor isolated in the corner, showing abstract, frame-by-frame pixillation of a fade to black, "So. That's what it was. That again."

De l’autre côté (From the Other Side) was a 2002 documentary on the Arizona/Mexico border and illegal immigration. A similar multi-screen installation of segments from a linear film, the cumulative effect was quite moving even if the narrative specifics got lost. More lateral camera movement along fences and border walls juxtaposed with interviews and surveillance footage. I'm sure I'm not the first to think about this, but the horizontal camera movement seemed an effective strategy of resisting the aggression of the classic cinematic 'gaze.' By not moving the camera forward, and denying the viewing the opportunity to look ahead into space by keeping the camera moving, there seemed to be a respect for the subject by avoiding a more penetrating, probing, viewing relationship.

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