Life, decay and death are the elemental subjects of Anya Gallaccio's work. Her sculptures and installations, like traditional vanitas paintings, are metaphors for the transience and fragility of life. She has made works with apples and oranges, as well as flowers, that have been left to rot slowly in the Tate, showing how they turn from something beautiful into a fermenting mess.
Now she has filled one of the galleries at the Camden Arts Centre with the crown of a felled horse chestnut. Separated from the trunk it was cut into predetermined lengths before being transported to the gallery where, with steel pins and climbing ropes, it has been hoisted back together so that it now sits silent and forlorn, rigged up on pulleys, like a crash victim in a hospital ward, raising questions about how far we can push the boundaries of art before they collapse. A tree outside the gallery is, after all, just a tree, but, inside, it is a metaphor.
There is something both magnificent and pitiful about seeing this arboreal skeleton hemmed in in this white space. It is not just that the outside has been brought inside but that there is a sense of entrapment, of something free and natural having been tamed and diminished by culture.
The tree's brittle, decaying branches spread from wall to wall, while its thick knobbly bark is reminiscent of the hide of some prehistoric creature. To be this large the tree must have been quite an age and there is a poignant sense of history coming to an end. Children must have climbed in its branches and lovers embraced beneath its boughs. Quite literally cut off from its roots, it sits in the gallery constrained by the walls it pushes against. A broken fragment of something once whole; it might almost be a metaphor for our age.
Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou, 1965 the French film-maker Chantal Akerman attended film school in Belgium but then abandoned her studies in 1968 to produce her first short, Saute ma ville. Here, in her first solo exhibition in this country, she is showing two large-scale video installations alongside a single screen film, Hotel Monterey, from 1972.
Entering the main gallery is a mesmeric and moving experience. Text flickers across two curved screens to the strains of melancholy classical music. Fragile and ephemeral, the French words blur, as the viewer walks between the screens, then enlarge and dissolve like ghosts to become barely legible in the flickering light. Inspired by Akerman's family history, as a second generation Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, the words come from the her maternal grandmother's diary – miraculously discovered after she perished at Auschwitz.
In the next room, grainy black-and-white images show the artist talking to her mother about the diary. Lyrical, poignant and somehow very French, they discuss the mother's experience of the camps and her methods of survival, as well as her unrealised dreams to run an haute couture business after the war.
In halting, half-forgotten Polish Akerman's mother attempts to translate her own mother's salvaged words. Not only is this a testimony to the amazing power of individual survival but it explores the legacy of three generations of women. Chantal Akerman's mother, an elegant woman with an acquired French grace, tells how her own mother had been, before her death, a talented artist. Whilst the mother laments that she did nothing with her life except support Akerman's father, she expresses the belief that her daughter has inherited her grandmother's artistic legacy.
In contrast, the film Women from Antwerp in November (2007), uses two projections, a female face in close-up, and a cityscape. The highly evocative shots of women in dark streets, often lit only by a single light source waiting in solitary suspense amid curls of cigarette smoke, not only pay tribute to classics such as Hitchcock's Vertigo, but also draw on the edgy angst and emotional longueurs that are the hallmark of so many French films.
Anya Gallaccio and Chantal Akerman at Camden Arts Centre from 11 July to 14 September 2008