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The third life of Agnès Varda

Agnès Varda: Love, death and potatoes

Wedding's Silent Green opens its space to the facetious multiverse of the French legend – the first exhibition of this scale since her death in 2019.

Photo: Agnès Varda by Julia Fabry © Cine Tamaris

Agnès Varda was in love with life – all of it, indiscriminately, with a special fondness for its mishaps and its outcasts. 

The protagonists of Agnès’ work form a diverse cast: misshapen potatoes, Mona the vagabond, Zgougou the cat, the gleaners, Jaques Demy, Bavarian villagers, Noirmoutier widows. All of these can be found in a new show on display at Silent Green – an exhibition unexpectedly ambitious in its scope and sheer creativeness (especially considering it only lasts six weeks). From the ex-crematorium’s peaceful grassy outdoors to its subterraneous Betonhalle, the visitor is taken on an immersive journey through 20 photo/video installations that vividly intertwine the many layers of Varda’s work. It’s so well done that you’ll leave on first-name terms – having come to see Varda’s work, you leave immersed in Agnès’ world.

This is surely thanks to the personal involvement of two Varda familiars – longtime friend and film scholar Dominique Bluher and Julia Fabry. The latter served as Varda’s closest collaborator, fixer and friend, across 13 years until Varda’s death in 2019. Fabry likes to joke it’s actually “more like 26 years”: her time with Varda spanned night and day, with work and personal life blending together through the force of Varda’s endless inventiveness. In fact, towards the end of her life Varda’s passion for work only grew: asked about her “future” by a French journalist she pragmatically answered that at 80, one doesn’t have a future, only projects. “She was moving so fast, it was really hard to follow!” remembers Fabry. “It was a constant work in progress… once she had an idea, we’d have to find a way!” 

Varda was always ahead of her time, an eternal pioneer, even unintentionally.

This could mean providing Varda with a naked man who could sustain an erection in the biting cold for a scene of Beaches of Agnes (2008) or organising a crane to be brought to Zgougou’s grave in the small offshore island of Noirmoutier – at a time when drones weren’t available (a replica of the resulting piece, now owned by Paris’ Foundation Cartier, is on Silent Green’s lawn as part of Zgougou’s mausoleum shack).

The Third Life of Agnès Varda. Cinema Shacks. Estate of Agnès Varda © Bernd Brundert

“Sometimes it was too much in one day, too much in one week, just too much… but you’d just race along with her, because it was so rich and so fulfilling.” When prompted to sum up her all-consuming and often “demanding” time with Varda, Fabry is unequivocal: “Amazing”. Looking at the work, you can’t help thinking what fun it must have been.

Varda’s love affair with tubers

The exhibition starts with Patatopia (“Spudotopia”), the installation that inaugurated the then 75-year-old filmmaker’s “third life as a young visual artist”. It was Hans Ulrich Obrist who famously offered Varda a participation in the Venice Biennale. She showed up with a heart-shaped potato installation consisting of a video triptych and a 600kg display of real life spuds, herself in a potato costume. This was 2003, and the world-renowned filmmaker feared no one would be interested in her art. So she improvised, Varda-style.

Das dritte Leben der Agnès Varda. Patatutopia. Estate of Agnès Varda. © Bernd Brundert / Silent Green

This was the epitome of her fascination with tubers – an idea that sprouted with the 2000 documentary The Gleaners and I. Varda began to rescue misshapen spuds: heart-shaped potatoes wouldn’t make the “cut” and would be sent to waste after they were picked. She’d bring them home and have them breathe and age, sprout anew and regrow – a process she’d observe with “emotion and delight” and capture on film; the 11-portrait series Heart Shaped Potato displays Varda’s loving gaze for each one of her lady spuds. 

You can see why Varda is regarded as a heroine of food waste awareness: her early interest in modern gleaning practices and her aesthetic commitment to leftover vegetables which led her to find beauty in unexpected places – but Varda was always ahead of her time, an eternal pioneer, even unintentionally.

Nouvelle Vague feminist icon despite herself

She started making what would be later stamped Nouvelle Vague films – such as 1955’s La Pointe Courte – before any of the Nouvelle Vague ‘bros’ had picked up a camera, before developing her own brand of cinema, widely seen as feminist, something she might dispute. “She always saw herself as a filmmaker not a ‘female filmmaker’”, says Fabry. 

Films like the Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Vagabond (1985) are considered pioneering masterpieces taught in feminist studies and film programmes across the world (both form part of a retrospective showing at Arsenal Kino until July 17).

Agnès Varda was the first female director to win an honorary Oscar, but she met awards with a disarming mixture of sincere gratitude and amused irony considering the difficulties she always had funding her films. Or with facetiousness; in 2018, she sent several life-size cardboard cutouts of herself to an Oscar lunch she couldn’t attend. “Agnès always did her own thing. She followed her instinct to make the films she wanted to make…What interested her was to touch people.” Fabry believes this is what motivated her to move away from cinema and dedicate the last 16 years of her 60-year career to video and visual art. “Cinema is an industry: it requires a lot of money, time and energy. Visual art gave her the freedom she needed to share all the things she wanted, faster and without having to worry about the money…”

She never spoke about her own death, she was so much more interested in life. For her it was all about life…

Bicolour hair, overlapping lives

There’s a joke about Varda that she changed lives three times but never hairstyle – she sported a signature bowl cut throughout her career, from rural France to Hollywood’s red carpets, starting at the age of 19 (the story goes: she put a bowl on her head and said, “Cut around!” It wasn’t even fashionable at the time, which speaks for Varda’s punk approach to fashions and conventions).

The joke isn’t completely accurate: firstly because she did switch from single to bicolour hair and secondly because, though she seemed to live many lives, she never left the “old” Agnès behind.

The photographer

Varda continually moved playfully between cinema and photography, between movement and immobility. The lines became blurred and with Les gens qui marchent, a series of six B&W photos from 1950 on display at Silent Green, we see that Varda experimented with movement, even before she picked up a film camera. Set in rural Portugal, China and France, those “walking people” were later selected by Varda to capture what she meant by ‘photography in movement’ – when “photographs evoke the movement of cinema just as some images captured on film lead back to photography”.

The world-renowned filmmaker feared no one would be interested in her art. So she improvised, Varda-style.

All in all the Silent Green exhibition pays a large tribute to the photographer – not only the artist who made portraits of potatoes but also to Varda’s first life as a photojournalist. There’s a beautiful series of 24 B&W photographs from 1960, when the thirty-something Varda was on an assignment in the Bavarian village of Dinkelsbühl.

Das dritte Leben der Agnès Varda. At Dinkelsbühl. Estate of Agnès Varda © Bernd Brundert / silent green

These are displayed for the first time. Fabry dug the pictures out of Varda’s archives especially for this exhibition. And it’s all there: Varda’s keen eye for framing, that joyful, indiscriminate curiosity about people – children, old people, workers, and the way she engaged with them, her own fondness mirrored in her subjects’ gaze. Whether looking through a window or through a child’s eye, she’s totally immersed.

Life among the dead: a fitting venue

“Agnès loved cemeteries, she’d have loved this place!” says Fabry. Silent Green’s crematorium turned art/event space seems like an ideal playground for an artist who dealt with death, grief and mourning in the same playful, celebratory and creative way she dealt with life. “She admired the Mexicans for bringing joy and colour in celebrating their dead”, says Fabry. That’s how Zgougou-the-beloved-cat got her own private mausoleum shack, affectionately referred to by the Silent Green crew as  “Katzoleum”.

The Third Life of Agnès Varda. Cinema Shack. Zgougou’s Grave in Its Shack © Bernd Brundert

It’s a simple cabin of recycled wood that shelters a little burial mound on which is projected a colourful, poetic animation; as the camera zooms out and out, you’re brought to contemplate Zgougou’s grave from outer space – “an invisible dot, like each of us”, the string, brass and wind music Steve Reich adding to the contemplative charm of the place.

The most solemn exhibit is probably also the most moving: ‘Widows of Noirmoutier” is Varda’s tribute to her sisters-in-grief from the island of Noirmoutier – where she and filmmaker Jacques Demy, her companion of 30 years, had a house together. As you enter the room, you’re immersed in a complex video set-up comprising a 35-minute film of the widows on the seashore set up in the centre, and all around 14 monitors with 14 silent widows each linked to one chair – you take a seat and listen to the story of each one through headphones. Fourteen women speaking their “widow words” into your ears. Meanwhile there’s a simple violin playing. “You feel you’re alone with each of them, each time you take a new seat.” On one of the monitors at the bottom left you may recognise Varda sitting silent and motionless on a chair on the Noirmoutier beach staring away, and footage of a smiling Jacques Demy.

Das dritte Leben der Agnès Varda. The widows of Noirmoutier Estate of Agnès Varda. © Bernd Brundert / silent green

On the evening of March 28, 2019, the 90-year-old Varda was still busy thinking about her next exhibition. “It was opening the following day; she was tired, so we decided I’d go alone,” says Fabry. The next day she was gone. “She never spoke about her own death, she was so much more interested in life. For her it was all about life…”