Directory of World Cinema, Belgium: Là-bas (Akerman, 2006)

What a pleasure to receive this publication in my mailbox this week.

9781783200085

It was also a pleasure to contribute a number of short-form essays to it.

I wrote:

an overview of Belgian Surrealist cinema,

and of the short film analyses the book contains, I wrote on Chantal Akerman’s Tout une nuit (1982) and on her magnificent directional tetralogy of the 1990s and 2000s: D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2002) and Là-bas (2006).

To celebrate, my text on Là-bas (2006), reproduced here below, and an excerpt of the film in accompaniment.

LA-BAS

Director: Chantal Akerman

Producer(s): AMIP, Paradise Films, Chemah I.S., Le Fresnoy

Cinematographer: Chantal Akerman, Robert Fenz

Sound: Thierry de Halleux

Editor: Claire Atherton

Assistant Editor : Fabio Balducci

Duration: 78 minutes

Year: 2006

Là-bas concludes Akerman’s series of films made between 1993 and 2006, based on the themes of place and displacement, physical and emotional space. While D’Est (1993), Sud (1999),  De L’Autre Côté (2003) and Là-bas (2006) are frequently grouped as a foursome of essay films, a pairing of two and two seems more apt. D’Est and Sud examine a socio-historical event of the recent past, showing the wake it has left in the lives of local inhabitants. In them, a major transition has taken place, and the films’ subjects must find a way to remember and rebuild. De L’Autre Côté and Là-bas are about the presence of containment and isolation in the everyday; the subjects in these films must themselves become transitory in order to cope with chronic problems or unmoving obstacles.

Là-bas takes place in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the film is never directly about Israel or its culture. Nor is it directly about Akerman, herself; viewers catch only a fleeting glimpse of her, and her rough and sensuous smoker’s voice is only heard intermittently in voiceover. In one of these voiceovers, Akerman gives a wry description of her project: “I stay here in the apartment, and I eat what my landlord has left, and I read very complicated books about the Jews. I take notes, I reread them, I try to understand. Sometimes I understand. Or I get a whiff of something, something that is already there inside of me, but I can’t express.” At the beginning of the film, she juxtaposes the suicide of her aunt and of the mother of Israeli author Amos Oz, the former in Brussels and the latter in Tel Aviv. “Was it for both of them a sort of exile, wherever they were?” she asks. These diaristic soliloquies and the partitioned images which accompany them evoke the difficult negotiation of exile and return that Akerman and others touched by the Jewish diaspora must undertake.

Là-bas is comprised almost entirely of static long shots. Most of these are of the high-rise apartment buildings directly opposite Akerman’s own vacation apartment, seen through the rattan window blinds. Twice, we see footage shot outdoors at the seashore. The first sequence is a welcome release from the confines of the apartment, but by the second sequence, this watery expanse overwhelms the senses, triggering a desire to return to the familiar, dark living room. In the last four minutes of film, the camera pans and zooms rapidly across the open sky. The montage provokes anxiety and a dizzying feeling of disorientation, the same emotional states Akerman has been describing, perhaps suggesting an ontological state of Israel itself.

At first, it seems Akerman is spying on her neighborhood. The subject matter, the fixity of the camera, the medium of digital video and its generic deep focus immediately calls to mind surveillance footage. The film’s ambient noise, however, complicates this interpretation. Sounds of street traffic and hollering children mingle liberally with sounds coming from the unseen interior of the apartment, like the click of a gas burner on the stovetop, footfalls, objects moved around on a counter or table, or the tapping of computer keys. There is a profound ambivalence between what can and cannot be seen. The gaze of Akerman’s camera is not all-seeing and impassive, but rather unseeingly subjective in nature. This, too, she supposes, is linked to Belgium and her past, as she spent much of her childhood gazing out the window at children she was not allowed to go play with. “Now I’m in the habit of looking out the window,” she says. “I look and I get all up inside myself.”

If, amidst these dark meditations on personal and national prisons, Là-bas also affirms life, this affirmation is found in Akerman’s devotion to creative work, in many senses a direct result of and an antidote to her non-belonging. The man with a balcony and a rooftop garden directly opposite Akerman’s window embodies this devotion, suggesting that Akerman’s work as a Belgian Jew reconciling herself to Israel is in many senses collective work. The man tends restlessly to his potted plants, watering, inspecting and repositioning them as a contemporary Candide would, cultivating his garden. Akerman does the same, learning through her filmmaking to “put down roots in space.”

Subversion des images

Here below: the photographs that Paul Nougé took between 1929 and 1930 that were published as a series by Marcel Mariën in 1968. (Click to enlarge.)

These are from a little treasure file of scans I’ve made that I keep for future research inspiration. For some reason I only have 17 images of a supposed set of 19. I’ll have to figure out which ones I missed. “Subversion of images” indeed…!

La jongleuse

La jongleuse

Les profondeurs du sommeil

Les profondeurs du sommeil

La naissance de l'objet

La naissance de l’objet

La vengeance

La vengeance

Femme dans l'escalier

Femme dans l’escalier

...les oiseaux vous poursuivent

…les oiseaux vous poursuivent

Le bras revelateur

Le bras revelateur

Le grenier

Le grenier

Les vendanges du sommeil

Les vendanges du sommeil

Manteau suspendu dans le vide

Manteau suspendu dans le vide

Femme effrayée par une ficelle

Femme effrayée par une ficelle

Table aimantée, tombeau du poete

Table aimantée, tombeau du poete

Cils coupés

Cils coupés

Mur murmure

Mur murmure

Les buveurs

Les buveurs

Linges et cloche

Linges et cloche

Le lecteur

Le lecteur

The set is conventionally interpreted in terms of its photographic self-reflexivity. Frédéric Thomas suggests that what Nougé subverts is documentation, the representative real.

It’s true that the zaniness of these photos lies in missing or irrational objects that are literally being “signed” or “indicated” to viewers. In this sense, the indexicality of analogue photography is repeatedly exposed as all indexing, no “thing itself.”

However, I like the idea that Subversion des images is less medium-specific than it may first appear.

Mariën suggested in 1968 that the series was the starting point for Les images défendues (1943), Nougé’s theory of René Magritte’s paintings. In this sense, Nougé’s interest in subverting images overrides any category of image in particular. He stresses process, instead. His statements that accompany this photographic series explain his intent to make spectators “play at perverting objects” (Nougé 17). In Subversion of Images, making and looking are part of the same subversive “methodical exploration,” which consists of:

Choosing an action performed through an object or on an object and modifying this object while perfectly maintaining the gesture or attitude of the chosen action (Nougé 1968: 19-20)

I find this to be a very rich and very intermedial artistic project. Subversion of Images is like a wrinkle in art historical time, an artwork that arrives at Surrealism by way of Fluxus.

Further reading on Subversion des Images:

Ana Gonzalez Salvador, “Nougé et l’action photographié: la pensée faite corps,” Francofonìa 13 2004, 53-70.

Frédéric Thomas, “Towards a Minor Surrealism: Paul Nougé and The Subversion of Images” Minor Photography: Connecting Deleuze and Guattari to Photography Theory, ed. Mieke Bleyen. Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2012, 125-144.

Freud’s “House Beautiful”

Some scans of Sigmund Freud’s home and psychoanalytic practice at Berggasse 19, from the book The Surreal House (ed. Jane Alison, Yale, 2010).

The first two are photographs from the famous series that Edmund Engelman made just before Freud had to flee Vienna in 1938. Of particular interest to me, amidst the mixed statuettes from China, Greece, and Egypt, is the mirror hung from the crossframe of Freud’s window. The id juxtaposed with the ego?

After that are selections from a series of velvety graphite and charcoal drawings of Engelman’s photographs by Robert Longo. The last two are outside of the interior. They are meant to be displayed as a diptych. Longo’s drawings uncannily translate the photographs (indexes of Freud’s psychoanalytic practice) back to the work of the hand, perhaps the metonymic subject of psychoanalysis itself.

I imagine Freud will soon be the focus of another round of scholarly inquiry (perhaps artistic inquiry, too). It seems that there are many more opportunities for turning his schemas and theories on their head in the way that feminist scholarship did in the 1980s and 1990s, aided in part by translations and compilations like Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Freud on Women

Sigmund Freud's apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the writing desk in the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud’s apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the writing desk in the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud's apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Sigmund Freud’s apartment, Berggasse 19, Vienna, View of the study, 1938. Edmund Engelman. Photograph.

Untitled (Viennese porcelain stove (stretched), consulting room, 1938), Robert Longo, 2000. Graphite and charcol on mounted paper. 274 x 86 cm.

Untitled (Viennese porcelain stove (stretched), consulting room, 1938), Robert Longo, 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (open door, consulting room to study, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (open door, consulting room to study, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych--Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych–Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych--Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

Untitled (Diptych–Exterior Apartment Door with Nameplate and Peephole, 1938). Robert Longo. 2000. Graphite and charcoal on mounted paper.

L’Invention Collective

This image was the header of the Belgian surrealist journal, L’Invention Collective. The journal was short-lived; only two issues were published. Nevertheless, appearing as it did in the winter of 1940, it constituted perhaps the sole voice of surrealist creation during the Second World War. Paul Nougé was the journal’s editor.