Pioneering Belgian filmmaker and artist Chantal Akerman died suddenly on October 5, reportedly by suicide – a fact which can’t help but affect the way you view this exhibition. Of course, like any show that contains complicated, mostly multi-screen installations, it was scheduled and organised far in advance; and, to their credit, the curators don’t make much of the drastically altered context. Yet even so, it’s impossible to shake off the haunting awareness that the exhibition has become, quite unexpectedly, Akerman’s first posthumous retrospective; or that her most recent installation, ‘Now’, is the final gallery work she made.
And what an astonishing, intense piece it is. Five screens show various desert terrains, from mountainous vistas to rocky wastelands, rushing shakily past, presumably shot from a car window. The soundtrack, meanwhile, consists of snatches of singing or yelling in Arabic, bursts of gunfire and juddering explosions and other ear-splitting warzone noises. The sensation is one of demented, panic-stricken flight; yet also of cinematic manipulation, a demonstration of how the unseen, sonic elements together create a fantasy of danger. If classical music, for instance, were playing, the effect of the scrolling deserts would be utterly different.
The other six works, dating from the ’70s onwards, are generally more sedate, yet similarly explore various aspects of cinema as a medium. There’s its capacity for intimate, observational moments, in the fragments-of-a-life vignettes of ‘Maniac Shadows’ (2013); or its role in historical documentation, in the arrays of faces of Eastern Bloc residents just before the fall of Communism (‘D’est: au bord de la fiction’, 1995); or its use in technologies of surveillance, with an installation of multiple shots voyeuristically scanning the neighbourhood around Akerman’s Paris apartment (‘Maniac Summer’, 2009). The works are lengthy and ostensibly quite uneventful – yet the exhibition set-up in the vast subterranean space of Ambika P3 encourages you to wander, passing in and out of each evolving environment, and you can’t help but become mesmerised by their slow, almost incantatory rhythm.