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The Long Journey Home

Griselda Pollock accompanies Chantal Akerman’s image journey through memory

Griselda Pollock  |  Autumn 2008  -  Number 211


A bit of reinvented truth. A child with a story full of holes, can only reinvent for herself a memory. Of this I am certain. Therefore the autobiography in all of this can only be reinvented.  Memory is always reinvented in a story full of holes as if there is no story left. What to do then? Try to fill in the holes — and I would say even this hole — with an imagination fed on everything one can find, the left and the right and the middle of the hole. One attempts to create one’s own imaginary truth.
Chantal Akerman

In her 2004 comedy, Tomorrow We Move, Belgian-born filmmaker, Chantal Akerman created what has been termed a ‘Marx Brothers film made by Erich Rohmer’: Charlotte, a writer of erotic fiction, finds herself constantly interrupted by her newly widowed mother, who has come to live with her. Realising that they need a bigger place they are forced to open their cluttered, private space to a flow of potential new tenants. During the course of this invasion a diary belonging to Charlotte’s grandmother is discovered in a cupboard. Mother and daughter read its contents and are put in direct touch with the generation destroyed in the Shoah. In a moment of tenderness the mother turns and kisses her daughter.

The transmission of trauma in this case the Shoah, is a dominant theme in Akerman’s work. Trauma is passed via ‘the sacrificed generation’ (who, having survived, then had to sacrifice their own dreams to ensure the continuity of often desperate daily life) on to the second/third generation who, like Akerman herself, often became creative people haunted by the presence of a past not their own. These third generation creatives inherit stories with holes which they must fill with invented memory. Intergenerational transmission of trauma was recognised in the 1970s and was explored through art, literature and film in the 1990s: Gila Almagor’s The Summer of Avia, David Grossman’s See Under Love, the paintings of Bracha Ettinger in Israel, and in Britain Judith Tucker, Barbara Loftus and Lily Markiewicz are just a few artists we can name working with what second generation theorist, Marianne Hirsch¹ has named ‘post-memory’.

Tomorrow We Move relates intimately to the video at the heart of the installation To Walk Beside One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge², also created in 2004 and shown this summer at the Camden Arts Centre. The viewer approaches by walking through a double spiral structure of transparent tulle on which projected words stream too fast to read but leave suggestive traces of the artist’s thoughts. Passing through this curving, broken space into the next room, a transparent tulle scrim hangs across it on which is projected a portrait of a young woman of the 1920s. A page of handwritten Polish text wanders across the scrim, through which can be seen a double-screen, out of focus, video projection. At the heart, literally, of the installation, is this video of Chantal Akerman’s personal story. In it, the viewer actually sees her bringing the notebook/diary to her mother and asking her to read it. As her mother translates from the Polish, she realizes that it is the writing of her own mother as a teenager, a mother who was murdered in her thirties in 1942 in Auschwitz.

Having struggled with the poignant text that begins ‘I am woman!’ and tells the diary that she is, therefore, alone with the book as her only confidant, the mother falls silent and reads. At this stage the viewer cannot know what she is reading. Its effect is, however, to make her turn, weeping slightly, caress her daughter’s cheek and kiss it. 

What Nelly Akerman has read is her own inscription in 1945 to her lost mother when, barely alive herself, she received the diary as the only relic of her. But the diary was then found by each of her own daughters, who themselves added their compassionate, childish inscriptions to their bereaved, motherless mother.

When I first saw this work, in Berlin in October 2007, I was entirely undone by this moment of the video, this wordless, pathos-laden gesture that Akerman would introduce into her fiction film, the invented story. It felt to me as if an entire cinematic journey had been undertaken by Akerman, and her viewers, to arrive at that moment with her mother in front of the camera’s discovering gaze. Somehow this work made it necessary to review Akerman’s entire oeuvre within the context of this moment. In a long and now truly appreciated career as one of Europe’s leading filmmakers, Akerman has explored marginality and displacement but only in this video has she finally found a means to confront the unspoken history of one death — the death that is her and her mother’s own personal heritage of historical rupture as private loss. 

This is not a sentimental resolution. The spontaneous gesture — the kiss — does not repair the rupture or erase the past. It is the moment that the past becomes memory by allowing a movement into narrative that fills the holes. The mother later acknowledges the momentousness of this event: ‘I am glad that I lived to see this day.’ The filming gives access to that impossible space of mourning and compassion for the parent, the painful relief of sharing an unspoken history. The physicality of her hitherto unshed tears and her touch allows the living-surviving body to speak, enabling the narrative that releases silence into common memory. Afterwards, mother and daughter begin to talk. They discuss her mother’s story, experiences in the camp, making a new life afterwards, and the process which allowed Chantal Akerman to become the artist neither grandmother nor mother had been allowed to become. They talk about her father’s resistance to what he saw as a vulnerable career in film-making for a young woman. They mention the first screening of Saute Ma Ville on television when her father was alive. (A young girl sings, dances, cooks and gasses herself, blowing up her whole town Such invisible and illogical violence was not critically received at the time as an inscription of trauma, and certainly not related back to the burden of family history. I would contend, however, that the film registers  a strongly traumatic inflection in this gesture of absolute destruction, as if Akerman had succumbed to a sense of inherited destruction which she felt compelled to act out). She avows that she never again managed this perfect combination of tragedy and the comic that she relentlessly sought, a combination that, she suggests, is itself symptomatic of survivorship.

Was it conceivable in 1968, when she made Saute Ma Ville — an eleven-minute homage to Chaplin and Keaton inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) — that Chantal Akerman would become one of the most creative, consistent and important artists to reflect on the legacy of silences borne by survivors of the Shoah? As Bracha Ettinger³ writes in her Notes on Painting: Matrix Halal (a) Lapsus in 1992:

My parents are proud of their silence. It is their way of sparing others and their children from suffering. But in this silence, all is transmitted except the narrative. In silence, nothing can be changed in the narrative which hides itself.

To Walk Beside One’s Shoelaces directly brings us face to face with the artist’s mother, the deepest referent of all her films. It is here that the acclaim Akerman received as a feminist filmmaker, exploring the mother-daughter relationship and domestic life, melds with her films about dislocation and otherness. The key to everything lay in the pages of her grandmother’s fragmentary diary, which alone persisted in the chasm across which her own mother’s post-Auschwitz life was strung. Chantal Akerman tells us: ‘I have talked so much about my mother in these films. Have I really worked so many years around her, about her? ... I even went to film her one Sunday with Renaud Gonzalez … it was Renaud who filmed her, filmed us, my mother and me. It was during the filming of Tomorrow We Move and it was the first time that she and I were together in front of a camera, even if it was just a little digital camera.’

Griselda Pollock is an art historian and cultural analyst at the University of Leeds where she directs the transdisciplinary Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History. 

1Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames; Photography, Narrative and Post-Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)

2In French, the phrase means ‘to be out of it’, but Akerman also suggests that it refers to her own habit of walking with shoelaces undone. The empty fridge refers to her mother’s anxieties about lack of food which pressured Akerman to overeat as a child.

3Bracha Ettinger, (Matrix Halal (a) Lapsus: Notes on Painting, Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p.85.

All citations of Chantal Akerman are from written materials by the artist kindly provided by Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris.

All images from Women From Antwerp in November (Femmes d’Anvers en Novembre), 2007 Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

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