Through minimal, hyperrealist films that examine the movement, structure, and pace of everyday activities, Chantal Akerman has secured a place as one of the most acclaimed directors working today. Her films encompass both the long passages of stasis and repetition and the moments of explosive movement that make up daily life. Her early masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), is a look at three days in the life of an obsessive-compulsive Belgian housewife. Akerman called it “a film about space and time … and about how you organize your life in order to have no free time at all so that you don’t let anxiety and the feeling of death come in to submerge you.”1 The 210-minute film includes segments of real-time representation, such as the cooking and eating of every meal during the three-day period—a device that gives viewers a visceral understanding of the routinized nature of domestic tasks.
In Jeanne Dielman, repetition feels hyperobsessive and manic; in the quasi-documentary D’Est (From the East), completed in 1993, Akerman explores its other face—stasis and inertia. She shot the film in Germany, Poland, and Russia, countries in the throes of massive social change during the early 1990s after the fall of communist regimes. Akerman has written, “While there’s still time, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe … [I’d like to film] countries that shared a common history since the war and are still deeply marked by this history, even in the very contours of the earth. Countries now embarking on different paths.”2 The explosive upheaval of political change translates, in her film, to immobility—empty shops, canceled trains, and endless lines. The citizens of Akerman’s eastern Europe make resigned, slow progress toward what they know to be unattainable. Trouble is impending, but perhaps it never comes. Still, they wait, because it’s all they can do.
Bordering on Fiction, Akerman’s first multimedia installation, is a deconstruction of D’Est into three components in three spaces.3 One enters a cinemalike room in which the entire film is being screened continuously; next, one encounters a large gallery containing eight triptychs of video monitors on pedestals, each showing a four-minute looped excerpt. The final space is an intimate chamber with one monitor that presents a single image from the film. As the picture gradually fades to black, Akerman recites two texts—a passage in Hebrew from Exodus and a selection from her own writing on D’Est. The viewer’s journey is a reverse tour of the artist’s working process—from the completed work to its individual shots or segments and ending with language itself, which is where Akerman always begins a film. The installation repeats and clarifies the structures that underlie the film, and yet is more than an analysis. Walking through it, one takes a version of the grand journey through Europe that Akerman made in the course of her filming.
Quoted in Kathy Halbreich and Bruce Jenkins, Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est,” exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 69. ↩
Ibid., 15–45. ↩
D’Est has its origins in the invitation Akerman received in 1990 to make an installation about the coming together of the European community. The project initiators were Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, then curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts; independent curator Michael Tarantino; and Susan Dowling of WGBH Television. Akerman made D’Est, then used it as the basis of the installation Bordering on Fiction. ↩