A COMPARISON BETWEEN "THE DESTROYED ROOM" AND LA CHAMBRE
THE DESTROYED ROOM (Jeff Wall, 1978)
LA CHAMBRE (Chantal Akerman, 1972)
Both Jeff Wall and Chantal Akerman began making their major works in the 1970s, Wall working with photography and Akerman working primarily with film. Wall was producing highly constructed original images at a time when photography was primarily a conceptual outlet; the major works of the time being re-photographed images exploiting Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra. Akerman was highly influenced by American experimental filmmakers like Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, exposed to many examples of the materialist (or as Sitney would put it, structuralist) films being produced at the time. Both artists were well aware of the ideas behind the art being made at the time, but went about exploring these ideas in a manner opposed to the norm. Many of Wall’s photographs are often described as “cinematic;” they are completely fabricated and often seem to imply a larger narrative (which is of course dichotomically opposed to the completely anti-narrative re-photographic work). Akerman was also often using narrative to exploit concepts and techniques pioneered in the experimental work of the time. However, in the case of Wall’s “The Destroyed Room” and Akerman’s La Chambre, narrativity is used to do something other than tell a story. Both artworks establish a visual representation of a physical space; a bedroom apartment. The reason that Akerman’s film and Wall’s photograph work the way they do is due to the fact that both pieces establish and then deny the spaces they present as a performative space.
From the point of view of narrative, Wall’s constructed space clearly implies the result of a dramatic action. From some event that has transpired, a bedroom has been trashed, destroyed. But Wall’s photograph denies anything but the direct result of this narrative; there is nothing that signifies why or how the event transpired. It is arguable that the result of an action is enough to inspire a possible narrative, but Wall’s refusal to contextualize the room within a larger space (as explored in more detail below) means that the viewer cannot do this. The isolation of the room means that there is nothing from outside affecting the action, which takes away any presumed possibility of narrative. Akerman’s film works in a similar way, existing as what is essentially a ten minute establishing shot, revealing all aspects of the bedroom but having absolutely nothing occur within it. Akerman’s film even takes what is presented a step further, by placing a human character (in this case, Akerman herself) inside of the space. But once again, any narrativity is denied due to the character that Akerman places in the space doing absolutely nothing. The character may as well be another chair or lamp or object that simply exists in the room. Spaces are presented, and as bedrooms they are undeniably spaces where action happens, but no action is present.
The first step the artists take to deny the performative space is to subvert the expectations of the medium each is using in terms of temporal relevance. At the time Wall produced his photograph, the art world’s idea of the photograph was remarkably different from that of the medium's history. At the time, the photograph was primarily a tool for documentation and a conduit for concepts. But photography also holds the inherent concept of being a tool to “freeze” time. Wall manages to take both of these ideas and subvert them: Wall is not documenting an art piece or an event, rather he is building a construct for no other reason than to photograph it; the constructed room is not the art work, the photographic transparency displayed in a commercial light box is--he is not documenting anything. Rooted in traditional painting, he is also not merely presenting a concept, he is depicting a space with the medium of the camera. He is also subverting the idea of “freezing” time by not allowing any temporal signifiers into the photograph–the image that the viewer looks at could also be presented on film stock at 24 frames per second and the image would be exactly the same. There is an absence of anything living, and within it’s artificial construction, there is a total absence of life–-time has disappeared from the world of the photograph. There is nothing present in the frame that could indicate any sort of progression; the sun will not set because the light in the image is artificial, there are no people present in the frame to progress from point A to point B, and there is nothing organic that can decay. The image isn’t necessarily frozen, it never existed as a temporal space in the first place. Akerman’s subversion of the expectation of the medium also holds a reliance on time: film itself is a time-based medium; the primary reason one would create an image with motion-picture film over another medium is due to the fact that the medium allows a progression of time: painting, photography, and drawing all can present only what is essentially a single frame of motion-picture film (from here on out referred to simply as “film” for convenience). But there is ostensibly no progression in Akerman’s film. Rather, Akerman’s camera simply pans around the confines of a room: once again no temporal signifiers are present. Arguably there is a horizontal movement, but that is irrelevant to what Akerman is presenting. The camera examines the room in the way a viewer would look at any three dimensional artwork, circling the image to view all sides. There is no progression implicit in the artwork, rather the progression is only in the viewing of the art work. Akerman herself exists as the only character in the film, but she simply lies on her bed, staring blankly at the camera. She does nothing but pick up an apple and take a bite (which is arguably the only event in the film that contradicts the idea of no progression; but the element is so minute that it is largely inconsequential).
Both artists, in an attempt to deny the performative space, insist on denying a location of the “space” they are presenting in the context of an outside world. Wall’s photograph is an entirely fabricated space, and the image shows he has gone through great pains to reveal that. There is a remarkable signifier that reveals the space as a fabrication, there is no chance that the viewer can read the image as an actual room. This significantly present signifier is the bedroom’s doorway. Through the doorway the audience can see not only the wooden supports that allow the structure to stand, but also a clinical brick interior that dislocates the room from a placement in an apartment complex, hotel, house, or anywhere that a room would generally be located. The artificiality is also revealed by the lighting. While it would be possible for there to be two light sources invading a bedroom, natural light (the sun that would be permeating from the window) and artificial light (the light from the presumed “hallway” of the entrance) produce different color effects even in the most successfully color-balanced photograph. Akerman’s film also denies a relationship to the outside world in a more straight-forward manner: the doors of the apartment are closed, refusing to let anybody “outside” come in. Akerman disconnects from the outside world by overexposing the light coming in through her windows; masking any details of the outside world in a cloak of blinding white. She also presents the viewer with signifiers of artificiality; there is a breakfast that has been cooked and made, but the one character in the film refuses to interact with the breakfast. This lack of interaction elaborates the artificiality that is present. This refusal to create a larger context that the performative space exists in denies possibilities of narrativity; the rooms themselves are self-contained.
Note: I wrote this for an art history class that I'm currently in, and I'm not 100% sure that it fits the general Esotika criteria, but I haven't posted anything about film for a while and I'm tired of seeing my mug at the top of the page, so I thought, "Why not!"