By Andréa Picard
“We all sample, we all do covers, it’s a way of showing love.”—Moyra Davey, Hemlock Forest
“I’ve written all this, and now I don’t like what I’ve written.”—Chantal Akerman, Ma mère rit
“Le Grand Balcon” is the name of the brothel in Jean Genet’s 1957 play Le Balcon, where it serves as a “house of illusions” (as one of the characters calls it) rather than simply a house of pleasure or tolerance. It is also the title of this year’s La Biennale de Montréal (BNLMTL), curated by Belgian-born, Frankfurt-based Philippe Pirotte, whose curatorial statement gave a broad nod toward Genet’s radical theatrics, sensual forms, and transgressive politics. It was a grand mélange with a fair number of impressive works, many shown at the Musée d’art contemporain (MAC), eliciting both contrasts and ricochets amid highlights and lowlights, which ultimately and rather intelligently served up an unexpected dose of institutional critique. There were meta-gestures in themes and the usual relational, situational aesthetics of placement, but also a clever avowal of the entanglements between the establishment and the artwork, the bordello insinuation a subtext for crude economic exchange as well as teasing, chameleonic layers. The vital need for politically conscious art, especially in addressing residual colonial complexities, unconscious bias, and blatant racism was especially refreshing as Pirotte included work whose meaning and accounts were more inscrutable and slippery, ensuring one was encouraged to think beyond surfaces and didactics about the pressing social and societal issues that exhibitions are confronted with today. Thus, “Le Grand Balcon” felt significantly tethered to its time. It was intermittently playful and serious, and politically astute and probing, rather than politically correct.
The illusionary power of confined role-playing in the Genet, with its drama heightened and signified by revolution raging beyond the brothel, found parallels within the museum through a succession of works, which defied their own static nature by performing in direct address. Among these were Canadian artist Luis Jacob’s equally majestic and absurd Sphinx, a gleaming white sculpture prominently placed in the foyer rotunda—it could also be strategically viewed from the semi-circular landing balcony—a muscular, nude Greek or Roman antiquity lookalike gesturing above his headless shoulders, fingers conjoined to form the now ubiquitous sign for the frame of a camera. A play on kitschification as much as an overt reminder of both unchecked spectatorial expectations and selective subjective viewing, the sculpture also introduced one of the biennale’s most prominent and powerful leitmotifs—that of absence. The framed void could be seen as an invitation toward the unseen. The biennale’s overall highlights included striking, confrontational works by Nicole Eisenman—a series of 45 suggestive and compellingly detailed doodle-like monotypes and a duo of brash, in-your-face paintings of guns (Shooter 1 and Shooter 2), disarming not only in their frontality but also in their beckoning pop colours and broad contours—and a very strong showing from a number of young to mid-career Canadians like Shannon Bool, Celia Perrin Sidarous, Tanya Linklater, Nadia Belerique, Elaine Cameron Weir, and Chris Curreri. (Curreri presented Kiss Portfolio, a series of eight miniature, black-and-white silver prints of pressed male lips that look like lips, dicks, and labia, and amazing brown ceramic sculptures titled Sixes and Sevens which resemble deflated poo emojis!) There were also several new standout films, which impelled viewers to sit through their entire runtimes.
Lebanese multi-disciplinary artist Haig Aivazian’s new medium-length film Not Every Day Is Spring stems from an ongoing, ambitious project begun in 2014 titled I am sick but I am alive. Meditating upon the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise in nationalism concomitant with a drive toward contemporary innovation and rejuvenation, Aivazian has explored the history of modal structure in classical and modern Turkish music (i.e., “Oriental” music) as a sensual means of tracing systems of power amid historical fissures and change. Focusing on Turkish-Armenian oud master Udi Hrant Kenkulian, whose songs form a link between sites of music production and sharing within present-day Istanbul, Aivazian weaves into this mosaic a moving, parallel account of marble slabs removed from a defunct Armenian cemetery that once occupied the Taksim and Gezi areas in Istanbul (now its bustling centre and the site of the city’s radio broadcasting, which regularly airs Kenkulian’s music), which were dispersed around the city and integrated into its architecture. Like a cross between Amie Siegel’s precise, polished, and somewhat wraithlike Provenance (2013) and Quarry (2015), and Jumana Manna’s debut feature, her beautiful and sensitive delve into ethnomusicology A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2015), Not Every Day Is Spring is intermittently still and moving as it connects past and present and exhumes ghosts, both earthly and ethereal. With its static frontal portraits of a motley, charming crew of musicians and an emotional intensity wrought by the magnificence of traditional music equated with resistance (to time, suffering, extinction), the film also conjures the unspoken presence of contested histories and loss.
Similarly ruminative, peripatetic, and strung together by traces of lingering absence is Eric Baudelaire’s Prelude to AKA Jihadi, which updates and adapts revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi’s seminal and ever-unnerving feature A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969). Drawing upon the “landscape theory” (fûkeiron) that Adachi and other Japanese filmmakers and critics developed based on radical Marxist thought, A.K.A. Serial Killer explores the true story of a 19-year-old serial killer via observational location-scouting images, which comprise the entirety of the film. The “landscape theory” thus focalizes on the murderer’s trajectory through spaces traversed as evidence of conjunctive influence, especially where he lived and grew up, and offers a demonstration of sociopolitical context (including class) and environmental psychology at work (not to mention a sly indictment of media culture). Baudelaire’s film, handsomely shot in widescreen and grippingly cinematic, adopts the same methodology and retraces the itinerary of a young French man known by the name of “Abdel Aziz,” who travelled to Syria in support of the movement against Bashar al-Assad and allegedly joined ISIS. From an empty, suburban manicured football field through bustling, sun-soaked urban intersections and the gloominess of a simple hotel room with a sliver of a bed, the film searches not so much for its perpetually missing protagonist but for his motivations, intentions, quandaries, and perhaps even desires and needs. The quotidian nature of his trip—in its minutiae, but also diverse stimuli and intermittently inhabited and empty spaces that appear resoundingly human—summons suspenseful speculation and quiet moments of sympathy.
A chilling, topical topographic study, Prelude to AKA Jihadi continues Baudelaire’s active research into landscapes and their absorption of our political and conjectural hypotheses, as well as their status as stratified witness. It also pursues his ongoing dialogue with Adachi that began with The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011) through The Ugly One (2013). Both films experiment with fûkeiron and explore cinematic images as indexical markers and their capabilities for contemplating the idea of revolution that Adachi eventually enacted while in the Japanese Red Army. Here, a troubling voyeuristic intimacy is mediated by observational distanciation, which provides no answers, only indications and suppositions toward Abdel Aziz’s trek to Syria, which resulted in his arrest on terrorism charges and a subsequent nine-year prison sentence imposed by the French authorities.
Shot in France, Spain, Algeria, and Turkey along the Syrian border, the film is a riveting speculative catalogue of locations, beginning in the Paris banlieue where the jihadist grew up, and where one senses the weight of despair, rife with tension and foreboding. The film nevertheless avoids prescription and attempts to understand but also to track what is ultimately not understandable. The more closely one looks, the more blurry things can become; within confusion or obfuscation a form of clarity can potentially emerge or be posited, or as Baudelaire has quoted from Pierre Zaoui in relation to the film, “We are surprised to find ourselves understanding, discovering a subtle sympathy, telling ourselves that maybe monstrosity is our shared condition.” What is the condition of the revolutionary versus that of a terrorist? What defines a jihadist in the era of ISIS? Was Abdel Aziz a terrorist for going to Syria to join a fight against a dictator? Self-identified as a “prelude” in this gallery iteration (a cinema version is forthcoming), the film was accompanied by a grid of photocopied redacted transcripts from his trial, which took place mere weeks following the massacre at the Bataclan. During a terrifying time of rising white supremacy and stalwart police states, a time in which Islamism is too often blamed for acts committed because of the alienation, deep ennui, aimlessness, and general sense of despondency caused by capitalist and racist power structures, Prelude to AKA Jihadi dives directly into the void.
“To live one’s life or to tell it?”—Jean-Luc Godard, Adieu au langage
Perhaps the biennale’s most disquieting work was Canadian artist Moyra Davey’s Hemlock Forest, which could not be more aesthetically different than Baudelaire’s film. Featuring the artist perpetually pacing back and forth in an apartment as she recites in the driest of monotones a wordy text, Hemlock Forest is raw, lo-fi, and exceedingly cloistered but is likewise structured around the contours of absence and the distressing threat of emptiness. It’s also in dialogue with a previous film, Davey’s own essayistic video Les Goddesses (2011), which draws a connection from the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, specifically her three daughters (the eponymous goddesses), to Davey’s sisters, whom the artist has often and consistently photographed over the years. Very similar in style and tone to Les Goddesses in its mixing and matching of fiction, history, and autobiography, Hemlock Forest harbours the paradoxical characteristics of free association and meandering movement on the one hand and rigorous construction and choreography on the other. Davey is a prolific photographer, filmmaker, and writer, and each of these disciplines is on rapt display in Hemlock Forest: a personal archive of her moody black-and-white photographs is pasted to her wall; the monologue spoken is a perspicacious, confessional text, both private and expansive; and her camera knows to find the shafts of soft light and compositional angles that transform performed reality into cinema. The work is marked by lucidity, recitation, and a sort of suffused yet constant agitation of mind and body; its incantatory nature transforms affectation into emotion and empathy.
Ostensibly about Davey herself as a mother grappling with her son leaving the nest as he sets off to school, Hemlock Forest is fundamentally about risk-taking, the pressures of making art that is meaningful, of finding truth for oneself in a noisy world, of forging a path less travelled, and of seeking solace in complicity and shared company. News of Chantal Akerman’s tragic death came as Davey was writing the film’s text, and the meditation on motherhood and making took an immediate detour, finding its foundation but also seeing it crack wide open. Hemlock Forest begins in a moving car, the camera looking out onto the open road but also up into the passing landscape of leafy trees. In voiceover, Davey muses on the notion of “low-hanging fruit,” of work, art, gestures, or anything that risks little, that is easy or requires no effort or sacrifice. Her teenage son is the opposite of low-hanging fruit, his very being the epitome of a mother’s love and motivation in the world. Thoughts of filiation, legacy, blood ties, and deracination commingle in a restless mind as Akerman, the most restless of us all, provides the ties that bind.
As Philippe Pirotte gave a curator’s tour of the biennale in English, then in obligatory French, he twice made a fascinating slip-up. As he pointed the crowd toward the door leading into the beautiful grey room in which Hemlock Forest was projected, he said it was a beautiful homage to Chantal Akerman’s famous film, News from Anywhere Home. Of course he was referring to News from Home (1977), Akerman’s brilliant and heartrending experimental feature in which the filmmaker reads letters written by her mother over 16mm extended takes of long shots of New York City, where Akerman was living at the time. Davey’s methodology is one of fragments, collected quotes, written notes, and epistolary missives to herself, but also one that fluidly switches in and out of first-person narration as if to keep a safe distance. She builds through reading, viewing, thinking, and pushing herself to the limits of exhaustion and self-criticality. Davey’s need to “make, make, make” resonates with Akerman’s fitfulness, the latter’s constant need to create in order to suppress pain, uncertainty, her increasing unease in the world, and her lack of home. The “anywhere” that fleetingly (and subconsciously) crept its way into the title was made doubly ironic by the BNLMTL press materials for Davey’s film, which cited Chantal Akerman’s News from Nowhere Home…
Home can be anywhere or nowhere depending on one’s frame of mind and experience. No Home Movie (2015), Akerman’s final film, is a devastating example. Davey quotes Akerman saying, “Don’t be afraid to make films that aren’t beautiful,” and indeed both No Home Movie and Hemlock Forest share an arte povera aesthetic as if to authenticate their diaristic, torn-from-life impulses. Neither are low-hanging fruit. And neither are home movies, though both bare intimate details and thoughts, and invoke the pain of others—that of Natalia Akerman, the filmmaker’s aged mother in No Home Movie, and Davey’s sister, who, since Les Goddesses, has suffered what is typically referred to as the worst form of pain, that of losing a child (her daughter died of an overdose, and she resumed drinking in order to cope). No one has been left unscathed. In an interview for Artforum, Davey commented on the title, that she liked how Hemlock Forest “suggested two things, the forest as a beautiful refuge, but also hemlock as a poison. In the film there’s a lot about opiates and alcoholism, poisons that we humans gravitate toward.”
There is also an addiction to work as both a life force and one of destruction. Fassbinder, whom Davey has often evoked throughout her 30-year career, used to say, “I only thought I was existing when I was working.” His binges and disregard for his own body, his raging appetites—sexual, creative, food, drink, and drug-related—also yielded a succession of brilliant works. Davey both plays into and disavows Romantic notions of creative genius and inspiration as pure euphoria, and always brings it back to the personal, again invoking Fassbinder’s dictum that to make personal work is to approach the universal. Akerman made the exact same claim: “I haven’t tried to find a compromise between myself and others. I have thought that the more particular I am the more I address the general.” Davey concedes that she is so consumed that she cannot eat or shit or sleep. She quotes a review of her work by fellow artist Iman Issa, who identified Davey as desperate, and she confronts this statement, impressed by Issa’s forthrightness.
The concave thinness of her body, the manic repetition of movements (like the dusting of a window sill), the constant repeating of the film’s text—which is pre-recorded and prompted by a single earbud, allowing her to listen and recite with a slight staccato delay—all contribute to an enthralling performance. Davey draws from her own family history, her own capacious mind, and her serendipitous discoveries. Hemlock Forest is indeed a beautiful homage to Akerman; Davey re-enacts Je, tu, il, elle’s famous powdered-sugar binge scene (less absurd in cake form), and punctuates the film with shots of a New York subway that replicate the ones from News from Home. But she admits that she was too shy and nervous and intimidated by authority to shoot strangers on the subway—an illegal act—and had to engage a friend to do it for her. The scenes are great, just like Akerman’s, providing a kaleidoscope of colours but also the fascinating lack of interest of strangers just living in today’s clothing, a slice of melancholic monotony.
The film concludes elegantly, like a formal essay, with a “works cited” as if the quelling of anxiety, self-doubt, and neuroses can always be found in the comforting words and images of others. Whether biographical or not, Davey’s enigmatic idioms and visual and verbal codes draw from a constellation of creative energy though the ages, from troublemakers, misfits, and beautiful losers, too.