Happy birthday Chantal Akerman - 60 today. Having been much influenced from an early age by Jean-Luc Godard, she’s been a maker of films, often experimental, for most of her life. In the mid-1990s, though, she began creating installations for art galleries as well. One of her more recent works, one that has been installed in galleries round the world, is called To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge, and was developed around a diary Akerman found in her house - the diary of her grandmother who had died at Auschwitz - and a conversation she had about it with her mother.
Akerman was born on 6 June 1950 in Brussels, Belgium, to Jewish parents from Poland. Her grandparents and her mother had been sent to Auschwitz, but only her mother survived. Akerman says that she decided to be a film maker aged 15 after viewing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. At 18 she started to study at a Belgian film school, but soon left choosing to focus on making her first (short) film, Saute ma ville (Blow up my town), which premiered at a film festival in 1971. That same year she moved to New York, where she stayed until 1973, and in 1974 her feature film Je tu il elle, starring herself, received critical recognition.
Akerman has made over 40 works - from 35mm features to video essays to experimental documentaries - many of them considered to be ‘hyperrealist’, the most famous of which is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. According to the European Graduate School, where she is professor of film, Akerman began experimenting with video installations in 1995 and exhibiting her work in museums and galleries as well as in art-house cinemas. These installations, it says, ‘display an intensive personal gaze’. There is a biography of Akerman on the EGS website, but it’s mostly about her films, as is Wikipedia’s article. A community Facebook page also has some information.
One of Akerman’s more recent and widely toured installations - To Walk Next to One’s Shoelaces in an Empty Fridge - was focused on a diary written by her maternal grandmother who died at Auschwitz. It was developed in 2004, and installed at the Galerie Marian Goodman in Paris before being shown in, among other places, the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Camden Arts Centre in London, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The website of the latter has two photographs of the installation.
Scott Macaulay described the work as it appeared in New York for the FilmMaker blog. At its heart, he said, this is a ‘tremendously moving and unexpectedly funny piece in which Akerman uses her artmaking tools to journey back through her family history to trace the desires and ambitions of three generations of women’. One main part of the installation is a film in which Akerman and her mother, Nelly, discuss the contents of a diary found in their house - her grandmother’s diary. ‘I am a woman!’ the diary begins. ‘Therefore I can’t express all my feelings, my sorrows and my thoughts . . . dear diary, onto your sheets I will write them. And you will be my only confidante.’
The conversation then leads to a discussion of the Second World War, Nelly’s experience in the concentration camps, her feeling thereafter that she never regained her life, and her support of Chantal’s early career as an artist.
Saul Austerlitz, writing for the Jewish daily, Forward, described the installation in Tel Aviv as follows: ‘The exhibit includes a spiral wrapped in tulle, covered with quotes from Akerman about her work as a filmmaker, and a short film of her mother reading from her grandmother’s Holocaust-era diary and talking about her own wartime experiences - a conversation, Akerman says in the show’s catalog, that brought a sense of closure to her work for the past 30 years.’
Adrian Searle wrote about the work as it appeared at the Camden Arts Centre for The Guardian as follows: ‘In a large space, a text in French, by Akerman, is projected on two large arcs of white material. We wander through while a mournful violin plays. The text is an autobiographical gloss on the footage projected in a second room, a conversation between Akerman and her mother, who she presents with the diary of her maternal grandmother: along with the rest of the Akerman family, she perished in Auschwitz. Nelly Akerman struggles with her mother’s precise handwriting, and with the Polish, which she fears she can no longer read. Together, she and Chantal go through the diary entries of a young girl who proclaims on the first page ‘I am a woman!’, and who writes for a diary she imagines no one shall read. She writes that she cannot tell her secrets and her hopes aloud; they would otherwise have died with her. Sometime after the war, finding the journal in a drawer, Nelly added a few words to the mother she had lost; later, Chantal wrote in the diary, too.’