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On the right: Miek Bal. Photo: Liina Luhats

Madame Bovary of Today 0

Interview with Dutch video artist, Mieke Bal, about “Madame B: Emotions and Capitalism” video project

Annika Toots

Photos: Liina Luhats

Michelle Williams Gamaker & Mieke Bal. Madame B: Emotions and Capitalism
Vaal Gallery, Tallinn, Estonia
January 10 – 30, 2014

The video exhibition by Michelle Williams Gamaker and Mieke Bal at Vaal Gallery is part of the 4th Winter School program of the Estonian Graduate School of Culture Studies and Arts, which took place January 20-24. The Winter School focused on our relationships with the past, raised questions about ‘distance’, ‘absence’ and ‘presence’, and invited the participants to debate what does it actually mean for something, or someone, to be ‘in the past’. During the intensive program, full of great lectures by many established scholars, Prof. em. Mieke Bal gave a lecture titled “Long Live Anachronism! Preposterous History and the Past of the Future”, which explained the motivation behind the film and exhibition project, “Madame B”, which was created by Michelle Williams Gamaker and Bal herself. The lecture was followed by a screening of the film. Mieke Bal was kind enough to answer a few short questions about the concept of the exhibition and the film.

Could you tell us about the concept of the exhibition “Emotions and Capitalism”? How is it connected to the film “Madame B”? And where did the inspiration for this project come from?

We wanted to draw themes and aspects from Flaubert's novel, “Madame Bovary”, that are still relevant in terms of today's social tensions. We considered that the intertwining of the lures of romantic love and of capitalism are two forms of seduction that promise something impossible: permanent excitement. But the form in which we wanted to offer these reflections had to be suitable to encourage understanding and thinking with a critical sense, but without moralistic finger-pointing. This is why we first made a series of installations that would immerse the visitors into a world where these combined lures trap people, especially women. We made the film after the installations. We have the full exhibition currently on view at the Muzeum Sztuki, in Lodz, Poland. For the exhibition at Vaal, which had to be smaller due to limitations on equipment, space and finances, we selected separate elements and re-edited these, so that the narrative disappeared and a presentation of a situation remained. 

Flaubert’s novel, “Madame Bovary”, dates back to 1856. How similar, or different, are the problems of today compared to those in the novel? Are they still relevant in today’s society?

They are still relevant because Flaubert described his time and culture critically, but with a prophetic foresight. His character, Emma, was discovered decades later, by Freud. The destructive consequence of ruthless capitalism is only now showing its destructive face. This is why we reject the historical costume drama that emphasizes the historical remoteness of the novel. Almost all other films based on this novel do this. It is as if they are afraid of the similarities with today. They think that historicizing the novel is being faithful to it, but it is the contrary – it is a huge betrayal. Flaubert wrote a contemporary novel. Historical costume drama puts Emma's mistakes and tragedy at a safe distance, but it is just around the corner.


The videos are largely based on quotations and inter-textuality. What is the purpose of these quotations? What is the effect of this on the viewer?

Working by means of quotations is a way of affirming the enduring relevance of the old text. It is also a way of making the original author both a collaborator and a participant of the process. Moreover, Flaubert's novel itself consists of quotations "without quotation marks": of gossip, rumors, commonplace things he heard around him. This makes things recognizable. We don't expect every spectator to know the novel. But they will know that kind of discourse.

The exhibition at Vaal Gallery consists of fragments – things happen simultaneously, and as a viewer, you feel divided between them. I feel that this also might be related to Bergson’s notion of time – that time is not spatial, and that there is no time-line?

Yes, that's totally on the mark. I have studied Bergson and find his ideas - some also over a century old - completely relevant for today. The simultaneity of the videos serves as a foreground for his ideas on the indivisibility of time. This also relates to your earlier question about the relevance of the old text today. The fragmentation of the videos, juxtaposed without continuity, is an instance of what Bergson wrote about the materiality of memory and the present tense of the image. The seeing of  an image happens in the present; but the act and experience inevitably carries along memories, both fragmentary and non-chronological, that each viewer brings along.

According to Zygmunt Bauman’s short, but accurate, analysis of the film at the Winter School (and I suppose this also applies to the exhibition), it is about rethinking ‘time’. Why do you think it is important to rethink ‘time’? Does it make us understand the present better?

Oh yes, I was so impressed by his analysis! I wish it had been videotaped. This rethinking of time applies even more to the exhibition than to the film. It is important because, in our thinking, chronology and the linearity of time are so dominant. This is why filmmakers turn the contemporary novel, “Madame Bovary”, into a historical drama, as if it didn't concern us anymore; as if, by the virtue of evolution, we are inevitably better, and better off than Emma. The current economic situation, and the terrifying ecological one, have made it crystal clear that we are not "getting better" than our forebears.

How would you describe your creative process? Is creating a film similar to writing a book?

I have written many books and still do, with much pleasure. But it is a lonely process. Making a film is a collective process. The collaboration with Michelle Williams Gamaker, a brilliant British artist and researcher, has been a profound joy for – oh, eleven years now. The actors, equally brilliant, both professionals and non-professionals, are totally committed to the project. As a result, it is a truly collaborative process.

What are the benefits of integrating scientific research and art?

I have never learned so much than when I started to make films. I am a thinker and an analyst of culture. For many analyses, like my colleagues, I go to the library. But so much, especially of contemporary culture, is not, or not sufficiently, documented. When making a documentary, as we have done before, we learned from the people we filmed. In the fiction films, we learn from the actors, who sometimes interpret their characters differently from what we expected; we learn from all participants. The fact that the process is collective greatly increases the complexity and depth of the result.

Madame B official film trailer 2014

Where can the audience see the exhibition/film after it leaves Estonia?

We only recently began distributing the works; in fact, we are still working on details. The exhibition in Lodz came as a gift from heaven, for it forced us to finish the pieces and think about how to exhibit them in more detail. Estonia is the second public presentation. This weekend, we're opening an even smaller show called “When Love Fails Us”, in Zürich, Switzerland. Then, in May, on Åland, in a fabulous historic building where we also filmed some scenes, the full exhibition will be shown – but displayed in separate smaller rooms. After that, also in May, the full exhibition will be shown in Bogotá and Medellín, Colombia. In September, “Emotions and Capitalism” goes to Malta. So, we have a rather busy program already. We are very eager to find contacts that would show it in France, Finland and the Netherlands, and then, everywhere on the globe; the issues are global ones, as the invitation to Colombia demonstrates.