Hedi El Kholti on Chantal Akerman and Homes Loved and Lost

‘Each hypnotic frame of No Home Movie lasts just long enough to allow our minds to wander, summoning recollections of domestic spaces’

Part of frieze magazine’s 200th issue. Read more from the landmark issue here.Chantal Akerman’s last film, No Home Movie (2015), opens on a barren and windy desert landscape with what looks like an olive tree in the foreground. There’s a car disappearing down a dirt road in the distance. We’re presumably in Israel, a place of impossibility. The film intersperses beautifully composed, long static takes of the tidy bourgeois apartment where Akerman’s ailing mother lives in Brussels with casual conversations between mother and director at the kitchen table, about the practice of Judaism and their family history: exiled from Berlin to Brussels and deported back to Poland in 1939. Akerman’s mother is reluctant to talk about the trauma. The information she imparts is incomplete, which makes these moments tense and poignant. No Home Movie, as the title suggests, could be about statelessness, being made to live in the country that has betrayed you. (The Belgian government’s official apology for their complicity in the Holocaust came only in 2007.)

Akerman makes us stare long and hard at these tableaux, ones she wants us to remember. The shots are so perfectly still that I wondered if they weren’t photographs. Almost all the stimulation is auditory: the flow of traffic, the sound of sirens. Life occurs just outside the frame, with footsteps and groans and fragments of conversation on the soundtrack. Each hypnotic frame lasts just long enough to allow our minds to wander, summoning recollections of domestic spaces. In this way, the film operates as a time machine.

Places I remember in the 1990s: the first thing I notice after passing the threshold of Channa Horwitz’s condominium in west Los Angeles is how the living room has been indexed as an art studio. There is a drafting desk holding a work-in-progress opposite an easel where a finished piece is displayed. There’s an island worktable in the centre of the room that doubles as a flat file and storage space. The room is a testament to Horwitz’s complete commitment to her art, though the work was not shown in a gallery until the following decade. The room also reflects the beautiful relationship she shared with her husband, Jim, who never felt that her work had cannibalized their home.

Taking a lesson from Peter Berlin’s performances, the artist Eli Langer used his home in east Hollywood as a stage to showcase his wildly inventive handmade outfits. Langer greets me in the lobby in a denim sailor outfit as if Georges Querelle’s ship had moored in the neighbourhood. Every inch of his small apartment is filled with aesthetic pleasures: the chairs he made with scrap wood found on his daily walks, stacks of drawings to be perused, paintings that reveal their secrets under black lights, metal lamp cut-outs, reflective surfaces from freeway signage, plants growing inside hollowed lightbulbs. The room distantly echoes Guy Debord’s dream of a fully integrated artistic life. Langer has since moved to Toronto and I miss those visits. 

Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie, 2015. Courtesy: Icarus Films

Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie, 2015. Courtesy: Icarus Films

I think of Penny Arcade’s touching efforts in the late 1980s to preserve Jack Smith’s apartment in the East Village as a work of art. For a while, she kept the landlord at bay, flirting with him and trying to convince him to maintain the space as a museum. I remember watching a video she made to document it: hand-held footage, forensic in nature. In Chris Kraus’s essay ‘Posthumous Lives’ (1999), Arcade describes the apartment as ‘a room that, by its very construction, would expand your consciousness and make you weep. The layering of paint, the tile, the Arab minaret around the bathtub […] The walls were imbued with living meaning that resonated whether he was there or not.’ 

John Boskovich was one of my teachers at the Art Center College of Design; it was at his unforgettable apartment on North Orange Drive that I first met the writer Gary Indiana. I’ve kept the summer 2002 issue of Art/Text that features Laurence A. Rickels’s essay on Boskovich’s work, and I’m looking at a full-page photo of his living room in the spread: the black and red penta-gram rug; six rows of plastic honey bear jars lining a vitrine lit by blue neon (from the ‘IT’ series of the mid-1990s); a panopticon convex mirror above the fireplace; statues of Hindu gods fashioned into lamps with serigraphed quotes from T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ (1941) on their pedestals. A series of photographs made from screenshots of twirling dervishes from Madonna’s ‘Bedtime Story’ (1995) video also appears here: a tribute to his deceased partner, Stephen Michael Earabino, who styled the video before dying of AIDS in 1995. Outside the frame, at the entrance, I remember Boskovich’s painting that faithfully reproduced the cover of October magazine’s special issue from winter 1987, ‘AIDS (Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism)’. The title of the 1999 artwork, Signifiers for Being Smart #1: Disco October, may be ironic, but that doesn’t make the quotation any less sincere or wrenching. 

As Rickels writes: ‘When, in the late 1990s, Boskovich began setting up his home as an ongoing art project, he was less concerned with the aesthetization of his life […] and more committed to an open-house showing (and surveillance-camera recording or quoting) of the conditions of his artwork.’ In an email Boskovich sent me in 2002, he describes his studio/residence ‘as more akin to something like a John Cage or a fluxus performance where there is a non-narrative structure with a beginning and an end point. The art lies in the ensuing theatrics or, as one might put it, […] its “highly fetishized” design concept recalls a Fassbinder set where no movie ever occurred […] but, nevertheless, drama flourished abundantly […] The documentation exists only in the still photography of Toshi Yoshimi and in my memory and in those that live, work and play there.’ After Boskovich’s death in 2006, his niece, Krista Montagna, was instrumental in helping to preserve some of what remains of the work.

During the last couple of years, I’ve monitored the fate of my dead partner’s home in Mar Vista. The two-storey, 1920s Spanish-style house was demolished six months after it was sold. Someone posted a photo on Facebook of the bulldozers tearing it down. Everything was flattened out, every tree and plant removed. For about a year, Google Maps hadn’t yet updated the street and the house remained as it was. I found the discrepancy oddly comforting, as if technology could postpone the inevitability of its erasure.

Main Image: Chantal Akerman, No Home Movie, 2015. Courtesy: Icarus Films

Hedi El Kholti is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles, USA. He is the co-editor of Semiotext(e).

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

June - July - August 2019

frieze magazine

September 2019

frieze magazine

October 2019