Agnès Varda, the celebrated “grandmother of French New Wave” likes to introduce herself as a potato. “I see myself as a heart-shaped potato—growing again,” she explained to her fans who gathered at French Institute in New York City on Feb 28.
AgnÃ¨s Varda, the celebrated â€œgrandmother of French New Waveâ€ likes to introduce herself as a potato.
â€œI see myself as a heart-shaped potatoâ€”growing again,â€ she explained to her fans who gathered at French Institute in New York City on Feb 28. The 88-year old director of such films as Cleo from 5 to 7 and The Gleaners and I, says that like an old potato sprouts new leaves, her recent turn to contemporary art is a kind of creative rebirth.
Born in Brussels, Varda has gone through several reinventions in her life. After changing her name from Arlette to AgnÃ¨s, Varda moved to Paris at age 20 and worked as a photographer for a theater company. Soon after, she shifted her focus to filmâ€”writing, directing, and acting in a string of well-received movies, all without any formal training. Exhibiting at the 2003 Venice Biennale marked the beginning of her â€œthird career,â€ as Varda describes it. She created an immersive gallery, and made Patatutopia, a short film and creative manifesto about her beloved tubers, the centerpiece.
â€œI have a formula. I switch from old female to young visual artist,â€ Varda joked. â€œPeople like definitions, and I like to feel that Iâ€™m everything.â€
(Genevieve Hanson/Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe)Her first solo exhibition in New York is not at MoMA or at the Guggenheim, but rather at Blum & Poeâ€™s elegant but rather small townhouse gallery on the Upper East Side. But Varda isnâ€™t complaining about her newbie status in the art world. Responding to a question from a Columbia University film student, Varda cautioned about using status, age or gender as crutches. â€œI started my story as a filmmaker, not as a womanâ€¦Young women would come to me and say they canâ€™t make a film because itâ€™s difficult for a woman. [To that] I say, â€˜go back to the kitchenâ€™.â€
This may be a strange statement coming from the ardent feminist who signed Simone de Beauvoirâ€™s Manifeste des 343 to campaign for legalized abortion in France in the 1970s. But Varda insists that when it comes to art, the competition for audiences and funding is a universal struggle. â€œItâ€™s true that itâ€™s difficult for women in the world, but everything is difficult for a filmmaker,â€ she says.
â€œI fight for womenâ€™s rights, like being paid the same or getting the same chances. For that, I fight like a tigerâ€”but not as a woman filmmakerâ€ she later explained to Quartz. â€œFilmmaking is a fight in itself,â€ mused Varda, explaining that she still struggles with fundraising for her films, despite her stature.
â€œItâ€™s not because Iâ€™m a woman, itâ€™s because I make films that are not easy to sell.â€
Like her 2008 CÃ©sar Award-winning film, Beaches of AgnÃ¨s, much of Vardaâ€™s art is self-referential and teems with the kind of strange, intellectual pleasure that lingers in oneâ€™s mind days after leaving the show.
Visual art, Varda explains, frees her from the confines of a movie screen to explore curiosities via three-dimensional objects and immersive installations. For instance, in a work called Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, Varda projects a film sequence in the center frame showing three people sitting around a kitchen table, like a live Flemish painting. As each actor gets up and exits the frame, a leaf of the triptych opens to reveal where that character travels to.
In La terrasse du Corbusier, Varda takes an old photograph she took in Marseille in 1957 and writes a fictional screenplay, fleshing out the backstory for each person in the snapshot. The three-minute film ends with a freeze frame replicating the original photograph.
La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) /Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012 (Genevieve Hanson/Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe)In the room-sized installation Bord de Mer, Varda brings the audience to her favorite beach. A large, photographic mural shows the water, a film sequence represents waves lapping on the beach, and the work tapers to a patch of real sand extending to the middle of the gallery.
Bord de Mer, 2009 (Genevieve Hanson/Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe)At the March 2 preview, Varda slipped into her directorial mode and requested tweaks to the lighting, noting that the sand was perhaps imperceptible in shadows. When the gallery assistant explained that theyâ€™d need more time to fiddle with the technology, Varda reached for her iPhone and deployed the flashlight feature to light the sand for the audience. â€œItâ€™s like editing,â€ she smiles. â€œYou can make it better and better.â€
Lights, camera. (Quartz/Anne Quito)
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