By Brittany Stigler
Agnès Varda is a gleaner. Like the potato-collecting subjects of her documentary The Gleaners and I (2000), Varda takes notice of otherwise discarded material and infuses it with a second life by casting her gaze toward the unobserved. What wasn’t captured in the frame of a photograph or a film? How does the very material of film—the stock on which images rest—change in purpose over time as the reels become increasingly unused? From a three panel video triptyque to a miniature greenhouse constructed from strips of super 8 film, these questions fill the gallery space of Blum & Poe, where a selection of her work from 1949 to the present is on exhibit for the first time in New York City until April 15th.
But as much as Varda is a gleaner, she is also a potato, as she declared recently at the French Institute and the Alliance Française de New York (FIAF) during a discussion of her work as a visual artist. Likening herself to the heart-shaped potatoes she collected and observed in Gleaners—watching with her characteristic curiosity as they aged, budding eyes and taking on the promise of a new life—Varda, too, continues to sprout. “People like definition, and this or that. I like to feel like I’m everything. I have three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist.”
Considered to be the “grandmother”—or as Varda joked, the dinosaur—of the French New Wave, her foray into the visual arts is a relatively new adventure for the director. And, yet, the move seems fitting for the artist who, after all, began her career as a photographer. Calling attention to this history, the photographs on display at her Blum & Poe show represent a selection of images from an exhibition Varda held in the courtyard of her Paris home in 1954. Their current configuration, arranged in a straight line that wraps around the room, prompts the viewer to circle around the photographs—some of which include familiar images found in her films. Purposeful or not, the effect replicates the precise cyclical feeling that resonates through her depiction of time in other works.
This understanding of the past as it relates to and makes up the present marks a defining quality found in Varda’s films and visual art alike. “I’ve been crossing the time for years,” she said when asked about her use of time as a theme. To be sure, however, her relationship to the past is not born out of nostalgia. “The past doesn’t mean too much to me because it’s always there. Not as a memory thing. As making it alive again,” she clarified. “The past is there. You take it and bring it on the table. It’s still alive.” For Varda, the past is always present.
Cinema, she explained, lends itself to this rearranging of time. “In film, the cinema language accepts that you go from one place to another…Sometimes, you can put the time, shut the time together and say, ‘hey, that went before’ and install…and it’s still alive” This is demonstrated in her film, Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which focuses on the life and work of her late husband and fellow Left Bank director Jacques Demy. Screening at FIAF on March 14th, the film blends documentary footage of an elderly Demy with clips from his films and reimagined footage about his childhood shot by Varda, showing that the past can come before and after footage from the present and still create a reality that makes sense—even if the parts are out of order. Her films, in this way, replicate how life is actually experienced: a constant blend of what has happened and what is happening.
Now, in her visual art, Varda expands her concept of time along a new axis to include moments that happen simultaneously in the present. Take, as an example, her current triptyque video installation at Blum & Poe, Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, which features a central video flanked on either side by two separate videos that seem, at first, unrelated to the centerpiece. Projected onto three independent wooden panels, the triptyque can be closed down to show only the central image—what you would see at the cinema—or opened up to enlarge the frame of reference to include the two other panels. As the piece progresses, figures from the main video come in and out of the center panel, emerging or leaving the scenes on the side panels. Here, Varda grapples with the question of what lies beyond of the privileged space of the traditional cinema screen. What do you miss when you restrict the field of vision? What can’t cinema show?
When I attended the Blum & Poe show on a chilly Saturday afternoon following its opening, I stumbled upon Varda in the gallery, speaking to patrons about her work. In the room containing Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, she demonstrated to us how to properly open and close the triptyque, noting at what point the “action really comes”—which happened to, of course, be when the characters take on lives both outside and inside the center panel. As she opened the panels of the triptyque, she extended the horizon of the film to reveal a beach and a china cabinet, expanding up the lives of her characters in the process. In that moment, the action seemed to echo her promise in The Beach of Agnes (2008): “If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes. If we opened me up, we’d find beaches.”
FIAF: Agnès Varda: Life as Art
Jacquot de Nantes: Tue, Mar 14 at 4 & 7:30pm
FIAF: Agnès Varda: Life as Art
Lola: Tue, Mar 21 at 4 & 7:30pm
Jacques Demy’s first film,
Blum & Poe: Agnès Varda
March 2 through April 15