Kanal’s Identity and Alterity: A film noir journey through essential gender-bending visuals

Downtown Kanal’s latest large-scale exhibition showcases a variety of photography and film, on representations of gender, the self, domesticity and refugees. It might make you recalibrate your relationship to the gallery space, or simply act as a reminder of the brilliance of art films from the 70s. Featured works include those from Assaf Shoshan, Martha Rosler and Ulay, and is on display at until 7th January 2019.

The titular and thematic centre of this exhibition leaves a lot to be desired – Identity and Alterity: Shifting representations seems generalising for a line-up that offers work from artists as disparate as Martha Rosler and contemporary photographer Assaf Shoshan. The show utilises the popularisation of identity politics, when in reality identity is such a bulbous, charged word; one not to be used lightly. There is a tendency in large contemporary shows to fall into millennial catchphrases – “this exhibition is about change” or “this exhibition is breaking down boundaries”. Such ideas flatten complex work that is deserving of its own time and space.

Despite susceptibility to these pitfalls, Kanal has a lot to offer in terms of honouring the roots of second wave feminist art films in an unusual and eery space. Walk into this section of the sprawling Citroën warehouse and you are hit with a chill; murmurs in the background and cold, white tiles on each surface. It offers an interesting context from which to view art, in the style established by the likes of documenta 14 in Kassel, where interiors of the town are merged with the art itself. 

I was largely alone in these quiet and sombre rooms – it felt not unlike a film noir set from the 50s or a highly alternative place of worship. If you tire of the white cube gallery format, the new and partially renovated Pompidou centre is an essential visit.  

Also playing calmly is Chantal Akerman’s monumental film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Taking a durational format and running for just under four hours, it offers the workings of one woman’s day in real time, classically emphasising the monotony of the feminine mystique. Most viewers will not commit to the full length of the film; in exhibition format it makes for the kind of visuals you can drop in and out of. The stony tiles that surround the viewer match exactly those in the opening bathroom scene of the film – viewing becomes an immersive experience. Three years after Ackerman’s death, the focus on this piece in its own room feels like an important homage to the influential Belgian director and artist. The piece was filmed not far from the Citroën building, and there is a presence and depth of thought that have gone into the desire to merge local life with the artwork; which feels positive for the opening of one of Brussels’ only large-scale contemporary art museum. 

Among the archive of films is the satirical Semiotics of the Kitchen, an early work by collagist Martha Rosler, which provides the viewer with a giggle or two. Also present is one of Joan Jonas’s early works Left Side, Right Side, which establishes her interest in experimenting with lens technology. Perhaps a remembrance of these second-wave works can remind us in the present day that the evolution of art as antithetical to conventional gender norms runs parallel to formal experiments with technology. Whilst net art flickers at us in quick succession, our eye is challenged by the endurance and focus required by these films.

No doubt, these are works that explore self image and identity, and together they have a certain solidarity in a domestic context. Look for longer, however, and notice there is far more happening in these films and photographs. Expect to be enlightened, challenged and cold.

Identity and Alterity: Shifting Representations runs until 7th January 2019 at Kanal Centre Pompidou in Brussels.