Who was Chantal Akerman? She was a renowned Belgian film maker. She was born in Brussels in 1950 and she killed herself in Paris a few weeks ago.
When a journalist from Village Voice asked Julie Christie, (the actress from Darling and Don’t Look Back and a name to anyone under thirty no doubt just as mysterious as Chantal Akerman) what film she would take to a desert island, Christie replied Jeanne Dielman.
Akerman made Jeanne Dielman , 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles when she was twenty five and the New York Times called it the ‘first masterpiece of the feminine in the history of the cinema’. It features the collapse of a woman’s routine over three days, as she attempts to look after her son, while paying for his upbringing through prostitution. The film critic John Coleman said that ‘the film’s time span covers Tuesday (stew and potatoes), Wednesday (wiener schnitzel) and heady Thursday (meat loaf and Jeanne has an orgasm and kills her client with a pair of scissors).’
The film was followed by Je Tu Il Elle, which is about a young woman who lives alone, writes letters and eats powdered sugar.
But this is all biographical information, it doesn’t answer the question…who was she? She had green eyes. Strong eyes. She was pretty when she was younger, a cross between Charlotte Rampling and Doris Lessing. She had a number of nervous breakdowns. Her mother died last year. She had been recently hospitalised for depression.
These are the major things, but we’ll never know the ‘almost nothings’ that made her day to day and together formed the backcloth of her life.
We know she was nomadic, the often labeled ‘Belgian film-maker’ found it difficult to settle down and stay put. She produced work in Eastern Europe, Mexico, China and Israel. She was Jewish and like all people born within its orbit, the Holocaust and its aftershocks were a constant presence in her life and memory. Her mother had survived Auschwitz, while her mother’s parents had perished.
The Holocaust influenced her work, how could it not? In her 1989 film ‘American Stories – Food, Family and Philosophy’ Akerman presents a patchwork quilt consideration of European Jewish culture. It was noted by the American film critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, that American Stories was dominated by exterior shots, which was not, Rosenbaum concluded, Akerman’s natural medium. Instead, the critic said, Akerman was much more suited to the constricting interior.
Akerman, the dweller of the concise interior? It is a charge that does appear to stand up to scrutiny. Her films often feature a dark constricted corridor or a small flat bedroom. But, if the physical appearance of her work on the screen is full of barriers and constraints, her narrative style, the way she tells a story and perhaps the way she lived her own life, is much more musical in style.
Every shot lasts as long as it should, nothing feels overwrought or overstretched. An image stays as long as it should stay and then, she cuts, and it disappears.
A sea breeze blew the music charts from a horseshoe of silver stands sending pages of yellowing staves and treble clefs slicing through the air.
I told Greta that clothes pegs might be needed but she begged me to stop concentrating on the tiny details and consider the larger picture. She ordered me into the undercroft of the hall to carry out several stone heads of musical notables that I had to arrange on a four tiered table top, each head facing a different direction, to create the impression of a gaggle.
Nothing is more disheartening than the giving of a concert to an audience that isn’t listening and as I weaved my way around the cabinets at the reception for the Governor of Barbados, the talk was of anything but the music.
Maria, leaning against the curve of the curved room, she said was only there because an empty Sunday would have left her with too much time on her hands and I said I was tired of working. So we took on our roles and she started to talk about flirting, while I adopted the style of a connoisseur, as the cable car ticked from tooth to tooth in the thin mountain air.
The air was cold, we sipped in the cold air, as the sculpted miracle, garlanded with fairy lights, was guided down the steps. The patriarch passed guarded by lines of green dragoons. The sensation in the flesh is never as fascinating as a sensation in the air and nearly everyone saluted as the man of the moment moved through the crowds.
It’s strange, but of all the things I learned that night, the fact that carousel means little battle in Spanish is what still sticks in my mind. The magic of life is in the skirmishes.
I am not an expert. I say that with all due consideration to you, the reader, who may well have found this page expecting expertise, thinned and straightened into horizontal lines, ready for you to take up your collective noses like Victorian snuff. We live in the era of the expert. The twenty four hour news media, to borrow an increasingly dreary phrase, screams for, day in day out, and thusly teems with, expertise, battalions of experts eager to validate any newspaper, any news network, any website with their considered meanderings into the anointed topics of the day.
Every statement needs validation. Every argument needs both sides. Two statements of fact. But with more and more statements being made, through countless platforms, mouthpieces and mediums, the clamour for authentication is prompting the bar for expertise to be lowered further and further.
Expertise is overrated. An expert can’t be trusted. Overarching statements and both subjects of Orson Welles’s recently re-released late-period film ‘F for Fake’. The film focuses on two notorious swindlers: Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving, one notorious recluse: Howard Hughes and a whole host of dubious experts.
“In the late 1960s Elmyr de Hory was the world’s most talented and most successful art forger ever,” says Mark Forgy, a writer from Minneapolis and one time assistant to Elmyr. Forgy is, you could say, one of the leading Elmyr experts still living, the holder of the deceased painter’s personal papers, he acted as de Hory’s confidant and bodyguard. When the painter committed suicide in 1976, with the law closing in, it was Forgy who found Elmyr dying from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Forgy certainly boasts all the trappings of the expert, he’s written a book (The Forger’s Apprentice – A True Story) that’s one peg up in the expertise stakes. The book has been turned into a play (directed by Sara Pillatzki-Warzeha, co written and co-produced by Mark Forgy and Kevin Bowen, first performed at the Minnesota Fringe in August 2013). Mark Forgy is even available for lectures. In fact at this juncture you might think it best for me to hand over to Mark Forgy to complete this brief lecture on Elmyr de Hory and the falling stock of expertise in our century, but, to paraphrase Orson Welles: “This isn’t that kind of article.”
Mark Forgy is not the only expert on the life and times of Elmyr de Hory, and he certainly isn’t the most famous, and fame counts for a lot these days. Clifford Irving (whose name you might have heard most often mentioned in regards to Howard Hughes – more on him later) was the first to publish a book on the great Elmyr after spending some time together with him on the island of Ibiza, where Elmyr planned to settle after spending years running from city to city avoiding the police. The book was Fake! and it told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, un-rumbled, into the most prestigious art collections in the world, where some of them may remain to this very day.
But Irving, the writer and momentary expert on Elmyr, had his sights set on becoming the authoritative source on a man even more fleeting and mysterious than the Hungarian born painter.
Howard Hughes was the great mystery man of his age, the Saran wrapped enigma, the man who engineered the uplifting brassiere and the grounded Spruce Goose, made movies and wooed Katharine Hepburn, before disappearing, to some top floor penthouse suite in Las Vegas where he kept bottles of his own urine, padded about with Kleenex boxes on his feet and saw no one. So the stories go. So the experts tell us. Sequestered in the Desert Inn, surrounded by a ‘band of mystery Mormons’, bemoaning that dago bastard Frank Sinatra who had stolen his girl, the world waited for the Hughes comeback, after all, nobody turns their back on celebrity, not in America, everybody comes back to the lights, eventually.
Cliff Irving erroneously believed Hughes had gone for good and should he, Irving, produce a book, an autobiography, a fake autobiography featuring fraudulent contributions from Hughes himself, then the missing billionaire would surely not stir from his rooftop hideout disturbing the desert sands covering his lair, in order to refute Irving’s fantasy. He’d been gone for fifteen years by then, could be dead for all Irving knew, or at the very least the Kleenex stories could be true and the old man would be too crackers to notice.
Hughes was a man desperate for his story to be told, said Irving, they had met in various locations around the world for interviews, including incredulously, on top of a Mexican pyramid, like a scene from a fake de Chirico painting. And why not a Mexican pyramid? Hughes was gaga, so the more outrageous the better. After all if there is one thing people hate more than anything it’s an unfinished story, think Kennedy in Dallas, Princess Grace in the hills above Monaco and Diana in the Alma Tunnel. An unfinished story leaves a void ready to be filled with bunk, scurrilous sculch, which people believe, if it gives meaning to a meaningless end, or in this case, something even more ethereal and infuriating (for the gossip hound) than death, an unexplained disappearance.
The world bought it. Time Magazine bought it to the tune of $250,000 for serial rights to the manuscript while Dell Publishing Company offered a further $400,000 for the paperback rights. But before money exchanged hands, Irving’s big book of lies had to pass muster with the experts. Hughes’s signature on the documents agreeing to the publication of the book had to be authenticated. The best handwriting experts in the whole-wide-world were summoned and pored over the documents like pigs over a trough of satsumas. They huffed and puffed and wiped their sweaty brows and concluded, after much study, that yes, this was the signature of the real Howard Hughes and with the approbation of the sainted experts given, Irving had his scoop, the scoop, bar the (phoney) Hitler diaries, of the century.
Hughes should never have had to stir from his stupor to dismiss the story, there should have been countless experts on hand to do that for him, people in possession of the plain facts. And yet that is exactly was he was forced to do, not physically though, instead his disembodied voice appeared over a phone line to a room full of invited journalists.
“I don’t remember any script as wild or as stretching of the imagination as this yarn has turned out to be,” said the supposed voice of Hughes. “I don’t know Irving. I never saw him. I never even heard of him until a matter of days ago when this thing first came to my attention.”
Despite the fact that it was known that Howard Hughes had used voice doubles in the past, the journalists, who were all supporters of Hughes, concluded that the voice did indeed belong to the dyspeptic billionaire, just as the handwriting experts had identified the hand of a Hughes in Irving’s phoney web.
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
When Adam scratched Eve’s name onto the Eden tree, its my guess he didn’t initial it, but for as long as that tree stood, way back in the BC’s I bet there was some knowing character on hand to point out the landmark, and I’m sure that when that etching was weathered off the bark, or the tree was felled, that someone was quick enough to whittle a replacement, so as not to loose the tourist trade.
“It’s pretty, but is it art” wrote Ruddy Kipling, a verse quoted by Welles in F for Fake. You could say that Elmyr’s fakes are pretty, but certainly not art, because of their carbon copy nature. But then again, can’t deception be artful? Irving’s bogus autobiography was certainly artful in its circumvention of the truth. Expertise is easy to fake if you are able to say something well enough.
Speak delicate untruths in an authoritative voice and you will most likely be believed in the heat of the moment. Anything jump out at you when you read earlier: “Fake! told the story of how some of Elmyr’s fake Picassos, Modiglianis, Reichenbachs and Renoirs made their way, undiscovered, into some of the most prestigious art collections in the world.”? Reichenbach? An artist who ranks with the greats? No such person. Francois Reichenbach, the producer of F for Fake, the more likely candidate here. But did you briefly believe in this new artistic master as you skimmed these paragraphs? Were you willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, just for a moment?
Perhaps the more pertinent question, in an age where news and celebrity have become intertwined is should we be more realistic about the outlets we turn to for truth? Anyone who looks towards a blog say, or a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Mail, for example, for hard, provable fact and then screams bloody murder when they are left disappointed is misguided. It is blatantly obvious that the purpose of the Mail, in its current form, is not to inform, but to entertain, in the same way as a Beano comic will.
A character assassination here, a sexing up of the facts there, from the ‘fascist den’ at the Daily Mail to the supposed ‘nest of Marxists’ that comprises the BBC, these aren’t sins against the public, but are the well-meaning acts of a new and fine breed of storytellers, currently residing in the one time impenetrable fortresses of truth and justice that once made up the media in the UK and the US. Ranks of Clifford Irvings, willing to put fiction before the truth for the sake of entertainment, backed by cherry picked experts frothing at the mouth to contribute. And what of it? Why not enjoy the hapless flinging of cream pies that constitutes our national discourse. Just don’t start believing everything you hear, the recorded voice of Howard Hughes appearing out of the ether won’t always be there to dismiss the inexactitudes of the experts. Today, that job is up to us.
And with that the writer drops his authoritative voice, takes off his mask and returns to civilian life.
Susannah? When did I see her last? We’ve been through all this. Haven’t we? Outside Peter Jones. We’d been to Cadogan Hall and she’d just been offered an international tour playing second cello in a Candide revival. We’ve discussed this. I set it up for her. You’ve got to be a fixer in this life, there’s nothing better to be than a problem solver, to take on other people’s burdens seamlessly, confidently, because you have all the answers.
I had all the answers. I scribbled them all down in a notebook. I was one of those insufferable people who kept a notebook, a diary. Chatto and Windus published it and the book topped the New York Times bestseller list. I was a bestselling writer. I sat on the set of The Tonight Show, talking to Johnny in my Brooks Brothers suit, smoking my Lucky Strikes, talking about how Henry Miller had considerably altered my perception of life, even though I’ve never read him. My publisher gave me a gold watch because I’d sold so many copies, all while Susannah was playing second cello in second-rate cities across America. She must have seen my face on the television, she must have, appearing through the static on one of those motel sets as a Missouri cloudburst rattled the metal blinds in her bedroom.
She used to take me to concerts, Mahler and Bruckner and Charles Ives, even though I liked rhythm and blues and only rhythm and blues she insisted that I gave these things a try. They played Mahler’s 5th Symphony and I hated it, apart from a couple of seconds, a bar I suppose, of the Adagietto, about eight minutes in when the strings made me feel like I’d stumbled into a universe full of pillows. So, tired, in other words.
We went to a Venetian coffee bar. After the concert. Did I mention we were in Venice? For her birthday. It was the Feast of the Redeemer, the Festa del Redentore, and there were fireworks exploding everywhere, coloured light licking the top of terracotta steeples and terracotta tiled domes, and it was too crowded. Oh, how I hate crowds, nothing beautiful should ever be crowded, don’t you think? Well, Venice was full that weekend, people were surging through the piazzas shouting and yelling and carrying colourful streamers and all the boats out on the lagoon were blaring their horns.
I said something meaningful to her, like, ‘I’ve never been so happy in all my life’, or some such thing, but she didn’t hear me. I can always say something meaningful amid a clamour, but I can never speak my mind in total silence. Strange that, isn’t it?
We kissed by the Lido. There was too much noise and someone kept tugging at my sleeve trying to sell me firecrackers. We made love in The Gritti Palace. We flew home.
A year or so later her depression set in and I arranged for her to get away and the last time I saw her was after that concert. At Cadogan Hall. Outside Peter Jones, remember?
Funny, every single vestige of that night that I had on my person when we returned to London Airport is still collecting dust on my writing table. The ticket stub for the concert, the receipt from the coffee bar and a couple of matchbooks from here and there, little pieces of a night that I had little recall of and didn’t even like all that much at the time. It all seemed to mean so little to me then, but means so much now.
I’m losing track of things. I can’t remember where I left my cigarettes, my loose change. The love streams of my life have stopped leading anywhere in particular. People still ask me to sign that book, its purple dust jacket increasingly battered in the copies I see these days. Please tell me I haven’t written something enduring, something abiding, I couldn’t cope with that, no, never. Time shows up all dishonesty in the end.
My eyes opened on Brandy Station, a fading white wooden building on a hillside that the sun was slowly removing from the glass greenhouse tiles. I remember Brandy Station as a labyrinth but everyone remembers things differently.
Washington Roebling and I escaped the Wilderness together and we wandered for miles, towards the Cumberland, with Roebling stopping to marvel at every bridge we came across along the way. He loved bridges and I’d get tired of him making a fuss over them. He’d swing from the beams and the columns wrapped up in a kind of child-like elation every time we came across one.
Roebling had a varying temper. His moods ranged backwards and forwards from a gentle good humour to a desperate depression, quicker than a ribbon of cold air moves through a heated room.
He was washed into the river and Nancy Weber fished him out of the Old Hickory lock. That was life in Seven Pines. But I was in Brandy Station.
I remember being chased by the Cheyenne through never ending forests while dreaming of 80p soup from the Vivienne Patisserie on the Goldhawk Road. I remember Fredericksburg, Shiloh, Antietam and Appomattox Court House. You can see them all still, in the glass of Aunt May’s greenhouse.
All I want to do now is get to the Albany Post Road. I’m going to stay steady, steadier than a military band on Decoration Day, and if I can’t, then I’ll crawl there.
Bill Henson is the maker of modern myth cast in available light. The distinctive Australian artist has a long history of creating dramatic images in the twilight, images that, although serious, are never harsh, but instead are always beautifully, if not glossily presented.
A collection of Henson’s photographs ‘1985’ has recently been released by Stanley/Barker, a fledgling independent publishing company based in London. Taken when the photographer was 33, the pictures present alternative images of human civilisation, shot at dusk in the suburbs of Melbourne and in the deserts of Egypt.
The jump between images of modern day suburban Australia and ruins from antiquity may sound jarring, but like remembrances from a vivid dream, they fall together on the page to create a fluid landscape of changing epochs.
The images were taken in the seconds before the light disappears, a time of day that can appear, to the more poetic observer, as particularly otherworldly, a time when sleeping senses are reawakened, reintroducing, Henson says, the disconnected with the “deep mystery of the world”.
While social commentary is purposely avoided, the photographs instead offer a glimpse into an imaginary past. Henson grew up in the suburbs and he can trace his earliest memories to the innocuous streets of Greater Melbourne. The images that we remember from our infancy are images that continue to influence our dreams for the rest of our lives and it is these dreams, the dreams of our earliest days and the imaginary landscape they unfold in, which Henson tries to recreate in this collection.
Our early interests also continue to influence both our real life and our dreamscapes as we age. Ancient Egypt, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the golden masks and ancient trinkets discovered by Howard Carter, were all things that formed part of Henson’s imaginary world as he grew up. His ‘1985’ photographs combine the two, his imaginary world with the physical world he grew up in.
Like dreams, these pictures are only partial. Sometimes a great deal of their detail is engulfed in shadow and it is up to the viewer to use imagination to complete the picture. Dreams rarely follow a narrative pattern, rather they are tapestries containing some images that inter link and inspire the next, while others are unusual, sometimes unsettling images from deep within the subconscious, images that appear to jar the pictorial pattern and push it in another direction.
When one considers the photographs separately from the personal stories that inspired them, it is possible to picture the brevity of human civilization in the grand sweep of time. It has been noted in the past that Henson’s work is somewhat inspired by the Romantic school of art and, in particular, the writings of the nineteenth century and their examination of the sense of awe, terror and melancholy that is prompted by the power of nature.
It is possible, in the comparison created by placing images of our complete and functioning civilization next to the defunct and crumbling civilisation of Ancient Egypt, to see the lines of Shelley’s Ozymandias reimagined, when, in the poem, the traveler chances across the broken statue of a fallen despot from ancient times and remarks:
“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
The Melbourne suburbs will, perhaps, a very long time from now, be the new Pyramids of another age. Civilisations come and go, not even the Earth herself is eternal.
Another Romantic writer Henson has sometimes quoted is Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenbergthe German mystic and poet who also went by the name Novalis. When just 27 he wrote ‘Hymns to the Night’, a book of poems and verse created in response to the death of his fiancee Sophie von Kühn. The book is a celebration of night as the entry point into a higher life. “Aside I turn to the holy, unspeakable, mysterious Night,” he writes in the opening stanzas. “The distances of memory, the wishes of youth, the dreams of childhood, the brief joys and vain hopes of a whole long life, arise in gray garments, like an evening vapor after the sunset.” Night is not the time to answer questions. It is the time to ask more.
The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s was, like seemingly everything in that era, a Cold War altercation between East and West. America and Britain refused to pay for the building of Aswan, which fans out into the blue Nile like the Art Deco proscenium arch of the Hollywood Bowl, its desert shades matching its parched surroundings. Nikita Khrushchev was willing to aide Egypt with the building costs though and the Soviet premier, performing some first rate Cold War posturing, appeared with President Nasser, cutting the red ribbon to open the first stage of construction with ceremonial aplomb.
Effat Nagy’s The High Dam is a depiction of the construction of Aswan and is featured in the first part of a showing of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The painting has a slight Soviet overtone, the scaffolding, which covers a steely industrial backdrop, bringing to mind the spiky edges of Kazimir Malevich. The initial impression is one of great might and muscle being employed in the name of an impressive undertaking, a symbol of the construction of a new Egypt, but look a little closer and the scaffolding appears frail, suggesting that this solidly built future may turn out to be flimsy.
Nagy and her husband Saad al-Khadem, were both pioneers of folk art in Egypt and she was invited by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to visit the gargantuan construction site at Aswan. The poor labour conditions and the forced relocation of entire villages played on her mind and the minds of others who painted the scene. The poor conditions are echoed in Ragheb Ayad’s Aswan, which depicts skeleton figures doubled over in toil, working in a seemingly endless chasm.
The Barjeel Art Foundation is a United Arab Emirates-based initiative established to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Thirty eight pieces of art will ultimately feature in the four part Whitechapel show, which will run in instalments into next year, charting the development of Middle Eastern art from Modern to Contemporary.
The seed that gives birth to this freewheeling collection is the Armenian artist Ervand Demirdjian’s Nubian Girl. Painted between 1900 and 1910, the canvas is beautiful and traditional, with the evident influence of Modern western and, in particular, Dutch and French portraiture. The painting bears a passing resemblance to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and is, perhaps, more mystical, her enchanting eyes seemingly outshining her jewels to become the brightest thing on the canvas.
Traditionalism is swept away when the exhibition considers art from another, more contemporary cause célèbre of western interference in the Middle East, Iraq. Kadhim Hayder uses the country’s rich library of myth and symbolism to critique more recent events, such as the toppling of the monarchy by what would become Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.
The Hayder painting featured in this exhibition is Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) a ghostly image of several white desert horses howling at a fiery sun. Though painted in 1965, the image is still searingly modern. The horses are in fact weeping, perhaps the first of millions of tears to fall on Iraq’s bloodstained sand, for Al Husayn, an important Islamic figure who was killed at the Battle of Karbala. He is still mourned on the Day of Ashura by Shia society, when it is said that a tear only as little as the wing of a fly will have the power to put out the fire of hell.
Hamed Ewais is another Egyptian artist present in the Whitechapel show. Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life) depicts a machine gun-toting fighter as almost a fatherly figure, protecting civilian lives by force of arms. It is again a modern image belying its fifty years and could easily be passed off as a 21st century example of propaganda. But the work instead elucidates the desire of a nation to look after and nurture its own citizenry, free of the interference of foreign colonialism. It depicts another desire too, a hope given voice by this entire collection, the artistic desire for unfettered self expression.
Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I runs until November 6th 2015. Images courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.