Conference of the birds, the trees, the waves, Correspondences: Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami Untitled 1978 – 2003, from a series of 32 photographs, 122 x 93 cm.

Two of the greatest living filmmakers, but also just two guys, standing there out in the open air and looking at us uncommitedly, dispassionately. And then they each turn, and walk off down their respective paths. It's a casual invitation: the two directions take us down two sides or halves of the exhibition, one devoted to each artist. And at the end of these paths, the literal and figurative meeting point: the video-letters exchanged between Kiarostami and Erice in 2006 and 2007.

Correspondences, then, in many senses: two paths that sit side by side, and can be compared, interrelated; the back-and-forth of the letter format; biographical and creative echoes (shared concerns with childhood, landscape, folk tradition, silent cinema). Plus, no doubt, a more theoretical idea that informed the careful but elegant work of curators Alain Bergala (a great film critic-theorist) and Jordi Balló: the theory and practice of the poetic correspondence as elaborated by Charles Baudelaire, especially in the poem literally titled 'Correspondences' in 'Flowers of Evil'.

This poem – often cited today in studies of synaesthesia – conjures the way in which 'perfumes, sounds, and colours correspond'; the way in which symbolic meaning arises from natural phenomena in the world. In this history of aesthetics, Baudelaire's poetic revolution carried a particular force: it insisted on the prioritising of symbol over symbolised. In the terms favoured by Erice and Kiarostami, things in themselves – birds, trees, fruit, sea waves – matter, in their materiality, before they enter into the conference (the correspondence) of meaning.

Hence the rare achievement of this exhibition: it works as a whole, and yet each one of its pieces is detachable, and bottomlessly beautiful. Kiarostami and Erice are unlike each other in some crucial ways, but, in the Australian context, they are identical in their near-invisibility: no Erice film since 'The Spirit of the Beehive' (1973) and no Kiarostami film apart (briefly) from Ten (2002) have been plucked out for local cinema distribution; both filmmakers today enjoy (in many countries) a more ephemeral, dispersed existence on DVD and the Web, in Film Festivals and art events. So, for some of us 'Correspondences' was the most important, most eagerly awaited spectacle of 2008. It did not disappoint.

The exhibition, as proposed by Bergala and Balló to the filmmakers (on the same day, in different countries, no less) leans a great deal on the theme of time. Both men were born on almost the same day. Memory – especially the memory of childhood – is a prime element in both their oeuvres; through their frequent depiction of children (always free of professional acting training), they aim to reconnect with their own past childhood experiences and create an 'innocence of vision', however much it is edged by dark intimations of an often frightening adult society. The aesthetic of both filmmakers, as has often been noted, is an aesthetic of time more than of space: duration, the weight of passing time, deliberately uncertain ellipses between one scene 'block' and the next. Their films eschew conventional flashbacks, but open themselves up to a type of porous, indeterminate time: on the one hand, the seemingly timeless world of nature set against the starkly, rudely discontinuous epochs of political regime change in Iran or Spain; and the other hand, a temporality that is subjectively experienced, slipping between dream and wakefulness, past and present. And finally, there is a particular drama of time as unfolded in and by the video-letters: we note with interest how long it takes each man to respond, what month and season of the year they have arrived at &

Erice seems to have tried rather harder than Kiarostami to meet the brief of this exhibition. Erice embraced the opportunity not only to make a new film – the magisterial and unforgettable piece of personal memory and cultural archaeology titled 'La Morte Rouge' (2006) – but also to expose some of his artistic processes in the very conception and layout (as the French say, the 'dispositif') of his 'side' of the show. A large portion of his contribution is devoted to the genesis of the masterpiece 'El Sol del Membrillo' ('The Quince Tree Sun' 1992) – setting out over a series of eye-level monitors (which begin screening only as you approach them) video 'Notes'. These sketches or drafts – watching the painter Antonio López at work, comparing the locations in Madrid as he renders them to how Erice finds them years later, thus laying the groundwork and providing the 'underwriting' (in image, sound and word) of the eventual feature film – are placed in relation to the physical presence of a López painting (rarely has the sight of a conventional figurative – if hyperrealist – artwork in a gallery space seemed so strange!), itself 'dramatised' with cinematic lighting and a soundtrack mix.

Kiarostami, by contrast, seems to have thrown together his half of the show with whatever was to hand: some extraordinary photographs (of trees in snow, especially), his (barely) moving-image installation 'The Sleepers' (2001), charmingly projected onto the floor, a loop of his deceptively minimalist feature 'Five Dedicated to Ozu' (2003) – although, I have to say, neither this nor Erice's breathtaking short 'Lifeline' (2002) were well-served by the fuzzy, coarsely textured digital projection system down there in the ACMI exhibition space. No new work as such from Kiarostami, beyond his half of the video-letters section. But this laziness – let's call it that – is itself eloquent.

One could not, ultimately, find two more different artists – and this, too, rests upon a certain relation to time, different conceptions of how to use or fill time. Erice painstakingly prepares, organises and builds up his few, precious works, almost desperate for a production situation that will allow him the sort of total freedom enjoyed by, for example, Terrence Malick. Accordingly, for Erice, every moment is concentrated, saturated. For Kiarostami – who is prolific without trying to be – art comes easy, or it doesn't come at all, and this is a pose he carefully cultivates. Many of his pieces, in whichever medium (poetry, photography, film), have an off-hand, impulsive, almost unworked quality. Kiarostami likes to remove himself as much as possible from his work, making himself a spectator, a discoverer of the result on par with any other viewer: the dashboard-mounted digital camera on the driver and passengers in 'Ten' mark the height of this tendency.

Of course, there is work, profound work, underneath Kiarostami's productions. But the 'exercise' of his capacity for art-making comes, as he puts it, from practising the act of 'seeing' – with his eyes, not in the first place with any representational apparatus. Kiarostami's laziness – tales abound of his ability to walk away from projects in which he quickly loses interest, or the 'squandering' of his best ideas by simply speaking and not writing them down, musing as he travels from one location to another – is a kind of openness, an 'availability' to the world. What he learns to see, to notice, can then be immortalised, swiftly and effortlessly, in the framing of a photo or the composition of a poem. Aesthetic time is, for him, a matter of captured moments.

Intriguingly, the explicit theme of time provided the occasion for a previous project that was meant to bring Erice and Kiarostami into a virtual dialogue, the 'Ten Minutes Older' anthology film of 2002 – although that became a missed correspondence when the producers eventually decided to drop Kiarostami's segment from the finished work. Although both men accepted the basic requirement of the project – to craft a piece that somehow shows, in ten minutes, the passing of a ten-minute incident or action – the differences between the sensibilities of the two artists is very clear here.

Kiarostami's contribution, another unfussy one-shot/long-take portrait of limited 'action', now finds its place in 'Correspondences' as the companion-piece to 'The Sleepers', on the floor again, but this time a single child asleep. The passing time is deceptive: it becomes elastic and infinite, without clear beginning or ending. By contrast, Erice's black-and-white 'Lifeline' is like an explosion of Erice's filmmaking energy, frustrated for the decade that he struggled with and eventually gave up, the ghost of his epic 'Promise of Shanghai' project. The very dramatic vignette of 'Lifeline' – which retells, in an imaginative way, the early childhood incident that could well have spelt the end of Erice's own life – takes poetic liberties with time; full of cuts, intercut zones of action and a memorably rich natural soundscape, it feels like a compressed feature film.

Then there is the centrepiece of the exhibition: the video-letters. What a fulsome gift they are! Erice begins by reflecting on his own work, but the blank, Warholian response from Kiarostami (filming the hide of a cow) almost (rumour has it) stopped the whole game stone cold dead. Erice regrouped, realising that the only way to hook his interlocuter was to address his work; the result – a documentary-essay on a class of Spanish schoolchildren watching and discussing 'Where is the Friend's Home?' (1987) – is heartbreaking stuff. Kiarostami is then captured: he takes a quince from a tree, in homage to Erice, and sends it improbably down and down a stream & which Erice then puts on a cell-phone for a rural friend to look at and comment on & and so on and on it goes. Like in those chain-letter fictions one finds in internet writing, a wacky story (a message in a bottle out on the sea) eventually develops of its own accord; one senses that both men are happy, finally, to put it into a watery grave. But, along the way, Kiarostami has stumbled upon another kind of artistic 'dispositif', a simple video with simple rules and procedures that generate a magnificent effect: shots from his car window out into the landscape, but with greater focus on the intervening rain droplets than on the grand views beyond. Until, that is, the windshield wipers cancel the 'dispositif' and end the tape: an immortal moment of 'intermedial' cinema.

As presented by ACMI in Melbourne,' Correspondences' felt like a lost opportunity. A sense of ceremony, of gravity – in short, a recognition of the true stature of Erice and Kiarostami – was missing from the event, or at least from its public reception; even those interested seemed unaware that this was the most complete version of the exhibition to appear anywhere in the world (earlier versions in Spain and France had fewer video-letters). Coverage of the event was meagre-to-non-existent in the mass media, and even in middle-brow-culture monuments like 'The Monthly'. Films were screened, Bergala was shunted in and out for the opening night, and a few lectures were dropped into the schedule. But this should have been the occasion for a major international conference – and every week between August and November there should have been a well-publicised podium for the likes of John Flaus, Delia Falconer, Susan Dermody or Donald Brook to weave their verbal impressions of the exhibition.

It also would have been better if ACMI had made the complete catalogue of 'Correspondences: Erice – Kiarostami' edited by Bergala and Balló available to consult or buy, instead of a fairly meagre booklet-extract from it. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering: is ACMI afraid of appearing intellectual, elitist or just plain cultural in their public activities? I firmly believe that ACMI must have the courage to take a more firmly 'pedagogical' approach to what it deems its more challenging or difficult exhibitions – instead of running for cover under populist marketing campaigns that stress instant family fun and entertainment at all costs. ACMI is, of course, not alone in this tendency: the same challenge can (and should be) addressed to the Melbourne International Film Festival and to 'Experimenta'.

But why depress ourselves in the company of such a marvellous exhibition? In a review of the Sundance Film Festival four years ago, the inspiring French-American critic Bérénice Reynaud commented that, although Sundance is indeed the site where a dispiritingly mainstream market-driven logic reigns supreme, it is still, on the ground and day by day, a place where 'you can also talk about cinema'. So let us celebrate, finally, this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australians to experience and talk about the highest cinema in 'Correspondences' – and, alongside the synaesthete Baudelaire, to 'sing the ecstasy of the soul and senses'.