AGNÈS VARDA with Alexandra Juhasz
Sitting together in the often bustling offices of Blum & Poe, New York, Dr. Alexandra Juhasz met with Agnès Varda, grande dame of feminist film, to discuss Varda’s current exhibition of video installation, photography, and sculpture—her first in New York. Highlighting works spanning more than six decades, the show is a rare amalgam of various epochs of the prolific artist’s lifetime, each embodying an ever-evolving and ever-intimate investigation of image. Varda, in her new role as a “young visual artist,” elaborates on her continued celebration and interrogation of cinema and its many expansions: to walls, photos, sculptures, Skype, and iPhones.
Alexandra Juhasz (Rail): One of the things that seems most exciting to me about your exhibition is the conversation I felt you were generating with earlier ideas of “expanded cinema,” first articulated here in the United States by Gene Youngblood in 1970. He wrote a book by that name in which he proposed that an expanded cinema would be required for a “new consciousness” that would be right for that time—which certainly made sense in the 1960s! But I believe you’re engaging in a project of expanded cinema here, for our time, for now. I want to know what kind of expanded consciousness you think is relevant for today, one that works, as you do here in your show, to expand cinema off the wall and into the gallery.
Agnès Varda: The answer could be on two levels, because consciousness brings us to think that the world is a mess, and we are conscious of it. But also that happiness is everywhere, and justice, and no justice. The recent huge phenomenon of migration all over the world—it always happens, but in the past few years it became dramatic and pushed people from one place to another—made them believe they’d be better off elsewhere. They go elsewhere; it’s worse. I think there’s an incredible unhappiness in the world, and injustice. People on the right all over the place are gaining power—not to speak of what is happening in this country. The hopes and beliefs that we had when we were young are little by little beaten. We could be in despair.
As an artist I refuse to be in despair. If we can share emotions, visions, a way of showing life that can be acceptable, agreeable, we could reconcile them with the world—the image of the world. But I don’t know what you mean by “expanded.”
Rail: That’s Youngblood’s word: that the cinema needs to expand into other technologies, as you do here, into video, installation, photography—so we can see anew.
Varda: But all these special-effects films do that already. I don’t like them so much. I think we have to be minimalist. For example, even a small event, if we're able to understand it, we could reconcile a little bit of the world. I just finished a film with the street artist JR. We made a documentary together about people in the country—goat herders, fishermen, factory workers. We spoke with them, gave them the right to speak. We made huge images of them. By meeting ten, twelve, fifteen people, we supported them and gave them value. It’s a way of being alive in the world: sharing and allowing other people in theaters to meet them, the same way I did with The Gleaners and I (2000), allowing people to meet gleaners and others who they might not have spoken with otherwise.
So I try to keep that in my life also, as a photographer, filmmaker, visual artist. I try to reconcile my own past with now: black-and-white with color; film with digital; the past and the present; the theater with the gallery. Bringing what I know how to do with another content and another approach to today’s viewer. In a theater, there are 300 people seeing the same film. But here [at Blum & Poe], people come in twos, or threes, or tens, and they are more directly in contact with the work.
Rail: Expanded cinema leaves the constraints of the movie theater and its celluloid film projected on a wall. Your vision of expanded cinema, paradoxically, seems to hold the very small and the very intimate.
Varda: In Le triptyque de Noirmoutier (2004 – 05), the middle scene is shot in old-fashioned 35 mm film, by the Director of Photography, Éric Gautier. But what I’m interested in is, what is in a shot? If the people in the shot go out, where do they go? So I made a triptych that the viewer has to open for themselves to see that the old woman leaves the kitchen and goes to the closet, or that when the man exits he goes to the beach. It is a structure that is classical; there is always a side show. But then, I use the three-screen projection differently, to make one huge ocean. I give myself rules, and I break the rules, and it’s beautiful: three screens and one seaside. Allow yourself to expand your vision and technique so it’s surprising. It’s not special effects, not action, not surprise in the sky. It’s a surprise for the viewer to have three screens of the ocean, and then it folds again, and there’s only three people in the kitchen. It’s that kind of experience that I try to share with people who see the show.
Rail: In the wall text for that piece you quote Raymond Queneau, the poet.
Varda: He made poetry where you could change a line and make another poem.
Rail: Yes, he was interested in producing constraints from which new artistic visions and versions emerge—and you also used the word constraint for that piece. What would you say is the logic, the new logic, or the constraints that structure that piece for you, or for others in the show?
Varda: I think we have to use logic and escape it. In La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), I’m referencing a snapshot. One day I was sent by a magazine to see Le Corbusier’s famous architectural work. I went there and arrived at the terrace; I arrived, I saw people there, and I made a snapshot. O.K. Then I went and did other things, but that photo remained in my mind—I kept looking at it and asked, “who were those people?” I think they’re beautiful in the space. It’s the right place. I didn’t do anything but take the snapshot. They were there at that instant. Maybe five minutes earlier or two minutes after, one of them would have been gone, or somewhere else. Then, I questioned that image, questioned all snapshots in the world—who are they? Why are they at that place at the time? From where are they coming? Years after, I took that question and thought, let’s imagine—I quoted Queneau because that’s one possibility—maybe they didn’t know each other; none of them ever spoke to each other; or maybe they were the same family; or one was a passerby. I decided to make a possible screenplay, aleatory. I shot for three minutes and it leads us to the photo, and then there is also something after. We have the before of the photo and the ten seconds after. It’s a game. It’s a play, a proposition, like Queneau. What do you think you’d have thought of that image if you hadn’t seen my little film?
Rail: I’m not sure I would have thought so hard about that one little image. Contemporary image culture is defined by an overabundance of images. We receive images all the time, but we never have quiet moments of contemplation: the love affair with one image; or the attention and curiosity for one image that that piece, in particular, evokes.
Varda: We are bombed with images, and not just in the news when they say this “shocking news” or “startling news,” when they show images in the papers and magazines, plus then on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. So much is happening with images, and as you ask: do we have time to just look at one of them quietly? There’s one image I took in 1954 called Ulysse, an image of a child on the beach, with a naked man and a goat. Years later I questioned that image so much I made a film about it, Ulysse (1982), half an hour long. I asked, what was happening that day in the world? The world was discussing, in Geneva, the end of Vietnam and the Indochina war. I asked about my own life. I went back to see the child. From one image, I could build half an hour of questions about images of the time, building a world that could explain the one image. If you have two pages of explanation but no one looks at the explanation, it’s dead. If you’re done looking at the image, it only represents: a child, a man, a goat, a beach.
Rail: To me, this is one of the reasons why your show—and the production of art exhibitions to hold images, whether moving or still—is particularly important right now, that “new consciousness” we might need. Because, in the context of the oversaturation of images that we live in, and the oversaturation of texts via social media, I think we need to start to put walls, or similar constraints, around time and space—so we can sit quietly and ask questions of images, just as you do here. Because right now, I think it’s simply an onslaught that produces a new way of engaging with images. Part of what I see in your show is the building of new contexts to enforce, or produce, or suggest quiet questioning—
Varda: —Looking. There are fourteen images in Evocation d’une exposition de 1954 (1949 – 54). They are vintage silver prints mounted on cardboard, and each image has pages of explanation. Each image has a story. It means something. The Ulysse story, for example, has a relationship to the film I made, and to what it is to look at the ocean. That’s what you do in the other room [Bord de Mer (2009)], if you sit and look at the seaside. What is it to look at the ocean? To look at the beach, the sun, the seaside?
Rail: That piece, for me, felt like a playful conversation with Georges Méliès and his formative work on the illusion of cinema based on the magic of the cut. But you actually build the illusion out into space, so that we see the magic of the cut in front of our eyes.
Varda: You go from the minimalist, very subtle look, to the immensity of three screens; you feel like the whole world is here. Fighting between small space and big space; small spirit and big spirit; the time, not-existing on the beach, but the time of my images of sixty years ago, and I’m still alive and I can speak about them. It’s a big reconciliation story: the past and the present, black and white and color, digital and mechanical, cinema and video, you and me. Is it possible as an artist in my own life—which is a small life but my own life—can I reconcile my time?
Rail: In this project of reconciliation, your reconciliation with your own history and your own life, one of the things that is so profound is that it’s neither melancholy nor nostalgic; it’s very celebratory.
Varda: It’s bringing the past to make it alive now. I’m glad they picked my three self-portraits, when I was twenty, forty, and eighty. It’s nice to show it’s the same person; I aged.
Rail: It’s so beautiful to see you age, especially for women. The self-portrait of you at eighty in shattered glass is especially powerful to me [Autoportrait morcelé (2009)]. It embraces the elegance of your changing solid self.
Varda: I love to age. I now have bad legs, bad eyes, so my body is leaving me, abandoning me, but I can work and I love to work. I like that I have been through a lot of age, a lot of pain, a lot of joy, a lot of encounters; and I’m still here—a witness of my time.
Rail: Of many times.
Varda: Many times. My time. I knew the Bomb, I knew the war. I was on the road with my family escaping bombs. We came from far. I remember going to the École du Louvre thinking the Louvre was a temple; coming into New York thinking MoMA was a temple. Now I am here and I have a card at the MoMA because they bought one of my pieces, so I am a member. Can you imagine? This is the last part of my life: blessed with a lot of understanding, a world, nice people. I have a card to go to the MoMA. I have a card to go to the Louvre. This is a dream of my life!
Rail: Given the brilliance of the expression and manifestation of this dream of your own life, why does our patriarchal society restrict and minimize the power of older women so dramatically?
Varda: But we have older women that are so beautiful, remember Ms. Bourgeois?
Rail: Of course!
Varda: Old artists can have a strong position in society, but there are not that many—what can I say? Old Picasso became so much more a god—he’s a god for me because I love his work so much.
Rail: Do you believe it’s different for male and female artists?
Varda: Sure. But big artists remain big artists, no one discusses that.
Rail: It’s an incredible power! And a real responsibility.
Varda: You agree?
Varda: Niki de Saint Phalle, she was a feminist, she was against so many things and she did beautiful work. Annette Messager is doing a hell of a good job. French female artists have done a good job. In France we have a lot of women directors, and good ones.
Rail: I’m aware. But I think that the state of women in cinema is perplexing because even as our numbers grow across history, even as we can point to the incredible work and legacy of many female filmmakers, our numbers remain very small in proportion to those of men. That is why it is so critical to learn from the great women directors in our midst. From their stories and histories and images.
Varda: I want to show you something. I did a Skype with my kids. My son lives in California and he has kids. I couldn’t believe we could do something [so] beautiful; we did the Skype, and attend— I can see them. Let me show you. This is my little family. In California. On Skype, yesterday. This is the world of today. We spoke. We laughed. I took a picture of the Skype. And here it is, now.
Rail: Across your own career, your relationship to images, the nature of images, has changed radically.
Varda: Can you believe that I started with a camera like this [Mimes putting her head under a cloth], where you have a box with a view.
Rail: I can believe that. [Laughter.]
Varda: And now I Skype with my grandchildren, I take a picture with my iPhone 7, and I have them here. They spoke to me, I have it in video.
Rail: I started by asking you a question about a “new consciousness” around images that’s needed for today, and we’ve talked about your show in relation to building out a place of quiet and contemplation. Are there other thoughts that you have about a new consciousness around images in this world where you can show me an image of your family from yesterday, and you hold it on your lap, on your red phone?
Varda: You have to think about science. Can you imagine we can see through the body? We can cure people? Can you believe they do operations of not-yet-born babies with, I don’t know, images on the screen? They can operate on the heart of a baby not yet born! Can you imagine things like this?
Rail: This is you celebrating the power of images again! Which is what you’ve done for your whole career, even as the technologies change.
Varda: Oh yes. I do it in an intimate way. But it is also scientific, to mention the conquest—whether it is good or bad—of the world and the sky; new stars, new things coming, new ways of curing people. I remember the first people with AIDS—they were condemned to death. And then they started to cure them, not very well, but in the beginning they were just dying. I know because my husband, my lovely husband, died of AIDS.
Rail: My first body of work was about AIDS activism, I was what was called an AIDS activist video-maker at the beginning of the crisis; so this powerful relation between seeing and science is very intense for me as well.
Varda: You could help them but you could not cure them; they knew they were bound to die. Same thing with the first cancer. Now when they have cancer some die but most get cured. In the old centuries, when women had babies, out of four babies only one would live. They would die giving birth very often because it was difficult, there was no way to help.
I don’t think the sophisticated way of today is good, but we have gained a lot of things, a lot of knowledge through images. Being able to send an image of your kids, of your friends, of your love—this is so easy, so beautiful.
Rail: How does it feel to have them in your pocket?
Varda: I love it! When I have them in my pocket I can look at them every half an hour! We have come a long way from looking at books of Van Gogh and Caravaggio in black and white.
Rail: We have! I feel that is most clear in your triptych, Bord de Mer, that starts with a still image of the ocean, becomes a video, and then is sand.
Varda: These are the tools we have to express the seaside. I don’t care about swimming, sailing, sport, having a boat—not even the tempest, not even wind. [Laughter.] How could the quiet seaside be represented? It has the sky, the ocean, and the earth; this is the whole world. I do an image, a photo that has the sky and water. It doesn’t move, but you feel the movement. Then I do the film, cinema, the end of the wave, really moving, it’s not reality because it’s another image, but it’s a moving image. Then you have the real sand. This is reality, the sand. So just using two ways of representing and one real thing, it builds a real representation of the seaside. So I’m proud of that because you sit there and you are at the seaside.
Rail: And the family in your pocket is real to you as well?
Varda: It’s happiness. I could speak with them on Skype, take a picture, then I have it in my pocket. We were speaking about the history of images—my God, this is brand new.
Rail: It’s important to me, as a feminist artist, to ask you if you think there’s something uniquely female or feminist about your relationship to time and the image?
Varda: I feel proud to be a woman. I felt it strongly in my body, in my mind. I’m not trying to compete with other people, other men. But as an artist, I never think I should express that I am a woman. I remember my first film. They said, “you were the only woman in the French New Wave.” Not only did I start five years before, but my point was to make a radical film, not to make a woman’s film. I changed cinema with the film La Pointe Courte, in ’55. It’s a strong statement of cinema, not a strong statement of women. But I am a woman. When I did Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), it’s a woman’s story, but my real work was to find the time—the real time—ninety minutes, one minute after another, to have the real geography, not to cheat with editing. Fighting for a script of cinema in which there is a story of a woman who is afraid of dying, but also to see the structure of building cinema, this has been my concern.
I’m proud to be a woman, but it was not my point in terms of art. In real life, in terms of being a feminist, I walk in the street; I went to all the trials; I signed the Manifesto of the 343, stating that we had an abortion so they should take us to jail—Brigitte Bardot and Simone de Beauvoir and Catherine Deneuve and Agnès Varda all signed the paper that said they’d had an abortion and you have to take them to jail if you punish that girl. We were activists really. In my life as a citizen, I’ve been very feminist, but in my art I don’t know if it comes out. It comes out, but I don’t know if it’s my aim.
Rail: I understand, and yet I think the show—every minute a contemplation of the structure of cinema as it is—is seen through the vision of a woman whose sense of time, love, and how these interweave with the power of technology, is very female.
Varda: I guess it is, I’m proud if it is. But I’m not taking my flag and saying, “I am a feminist, I want to make a film”; that doesn’t make sense to me. But I feel as a woman. Got me? Merci beaucoup.
ALEXANDRA JUHASZ is the Chair of the Film Department at Brooklyn College. She makes, teaches, and writes about activist media, including Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video (University of Minnesota Press, 2001) and the documentary Women of Vision: 18 Histories in Feminist Film and Video (1998, 83 mins)