Monday, September 25, 2017

Chantal Akerman, NOW @ Marian Goodman

Chantal Akerman NOW, 2015


I found it difficult to see this installation without dwelling on the immense sadness of having lost one of the greatest filmmakers and ambassadors for the power of the image. However, too much emphasis on the loss of the brilliant mind behind the work has the danger of distracting us from its inventions and innovations. NOW Chantal Akerman’s HD video installation made for the 2015 Venice Biennale finds a use of sound and moving image that is both obvious and enormously complex. And it’s a use of sound and moving image that challenges us both to a new experience of the medium and a rethinking of our expectations about space, about Africa, war and the comfort of our living chair existence. Visitors to Marian Goodman’s Marais gallery re-installation of Akerman’s NOW will be confronted by the shelter of acquiescence behind which we lazily watch the world. At least I was.

Chantal Akerman, NOW, 2015
Installation View, Gallery Marian Goodman
Akerman has recycled footage from other of her films onto five screen projections of vehicles moving through desert landscape. The contours of the landscapes in each image vary from desert sand dunes to rocky vegetation, and the visions of the different landscapes move at different speeds across each screen. Similarly, the framing of the lateral moving image varies from screen to screen. Twelve speakers are laid out on the floor, issuing five sound tracks, and two monitors at the back of the gallery space show psychedelic fish moving across the face of the image. Thus, there is no sense of comfort or coherence to the immersive installation experience.

Chantal Akerman, NOW, 2015
Installation View, Gallery Marian Goodman
Within each image, the framing can be disturbing because we are often not given an establishing shot. Thus, we never quite know what is this land and its contours that we are looking at. Then when we hear the sounds of repeating rifles, vehicles accelerating, religious chanting, dogs barking, we start to wonder whether the formations of the land are man made or natural. Is the crater made by a bomb, or is it a natural erosion? Is the slicing away of a cliff face the result of mining? Whatever the cause of the sometimes unusual land formations, the speed of the moving footage, together with the fact that each landscape moves past us at a different speed, and the unquiet of the sound barrage makes the experience one of aggression, even violence. 

Chantal Akerman, NOW, 2015
Installation View, Gallery Marian Goodman
The general cacophony created by the clash of images between screens, the different speeds of moving images, the lack of anchor to the sound-image relations, makes us want to put our hands over our ears. Visitors are free to walk around, in between, and behind the screens, however, there was little incentive to do this. The confrontation of the sounds and images when our body is in the middle of the screens is too overwhelming, and visitors quickly return to the front. It is as though visitors are pushed to the front, to watch the five screens and try to make sense of the sounds as though seeing a film in a theatre.

Chantal Akerman, NOW, 2015
Installation View, Gallery Marian Goodman

I was not surprised to learn that Akerman created the soundtrack before the images, because it’s the incursion of the sound that gives the installation its depth of meaning. In addition to the repeating rifles, we hear police sirens, and other sounds of war—which may or may not be in our minds only. The dense and cacophonous sound track makes the installation about the violence and terror of war, and more generally, a widespread violation of natural landscapes by man made cultural inventions, and a challenge to our expectations of cinema, and of a drive through the desert. The landscape—like our imaginary vision of these places—is arrestingly beautiful, even if it is not shown as such.