John Akomfrah: Purple
Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal07 Nov 2018 - 10 Mar 2019
Tomorrow, or the End of Time – Kass Banning
“O Earth, What Changes Hast Thou Seen,” an inter- title extracted from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s epic poem In Immemoriam AHH (1849), displayed across three purple-coloured screens that appears five minutes into John Akomfrah’s Purple captures both the tone and address of this melancholic, momentous multiple screen-based work. Shot in ten countries, this spatially vast and conceptually complex, six-screen installation depicts planetary relationality, rendering our mutual ecological devastation, both recent past and present, not in admonishing terms nor by apocalyptic prophecy, but through a shared and resigned sorrow for our new planetary sensorium.
Eschewing the alarmist and clichéd aesthetic of the realist genre of eco-documentaries, Purple, through visuals and sound that are in concert but not necessarily aligned, approximates not only the very idea of the global ecology of the Anthropocene—humanity’s newfound geological force, triggered by industrial capital and the subsequent ecological destruction—but also its felt temporality of lament. Indeed, Akomfrah’s work is not necessarily about the Anthropocene, but a meditation on it, while wondrously endowing it with astronomical, non-anthropomorphic agency.
Comprised of five “movements” and an epilogue that together are structured like a tone poem, Purple worries simple description: Its multiple parts are perpetually in motion, conceptually and stylistically. Its intellectual reach decries crude summation; and, despite hints that the mind driving this work has more than recherché knowledge of current philosophical treatises on the Anthropocene, concepts are not simply displayed nor applied, but organically unfold through a fragmented yet interwoven aesthetic. While the narrative of how we came to be in our present morass progresses through a teleological arc, beginning at birth to the grave, and working in tandem with evolving technological apparatuses that signal progress—from the industrial age of the steam engine and factory oor, to biotech, artificial intelligence, and beyond—each of the movements’ recombinant aesthetics offer its own specific tone and imagery. Simultaneously, select imagery randomly recurs throughout this one-hour requiem-like symphony of thought: electricity transmission towers, billowing smoke- stacks, northern England’s desolate industrial townscapes, fiery nuclear reactors, snapshots of unidentified people, and bodies in flight—be it rivulets of human mass scurrying towards some unidentified purpose, worker-bee-like office personnel, factory workers labouring in frenzied formation, or dancers cavorting to various rhythms. Akomfrah’s temporal image repertoire works against linear proscription and with additional intertitles, which afford pause and further deter forward linearity.
The acoustic omnipresence of water, among other elements, functions similarly: Seemingly innocuous sounds of a babbling brook soon register as sinister sounds of relentless melting of polar ice- caps; a faint rain builds to a crescendo of merciless beating of a torrential storm. Akomfrah and his long-time collaborator, the composer Trevor Mathison, are renowned for their masterful dissonant sound design that marries ambient sound, poetry, literary recordings with soundtracks from archival news; yet, this soundscape surpasses the illustrious capaciousness of all that have proceeded: We hear the earth crack.
Purple exhibits renowned Akomfrah techniques, most notably the extensive reanimating of archival footage and narratives to poetic hauntological e ect—always suggestive of the past’s imprint on the present—and setting arrested gures in tableaux amongst expansive landscapes, some in recognisable period-piece, others in more historically obtuse settings. Recurring purple-hued snapshots of anonymous “victims” from various ecological disasters, recalling the family album, are often submerged under a babbling brook, which work to e ace the indexical property of these photographs as well as their sullied condition, thereby suggesting a less markedly mediated, non-evidentiary trace. Similarly, the use of purple-tinted filters elsewhere throughout the work imbues associations with the colour, principally that of mourning and death or of planetary loss and cosmic species interconnection.
Akomfrah mobilizes other types of “remains,” ripping moments from educational, industrial and nature documentaries from the 1950s and 1960s to interact with snippets from select episodes from the 1960s BBC arts television programme Monitor. These are interwoven with solitary, grim, expressionless, white-jacketed hooded gures who stand a fixed in the foreground of vast detritus-littered and scarred ecological topoi, indicating that our species’ previous anthropomorphic relation with nature is no longer extant in this new age of the post-human. Implicit archival references to Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Fukushima tragedies, among other man-made disasters, intermingle with meticulously composed shots of mutilated landscapes, that comprise an ugly beauty of sorts, a materialist sublime of ecocide fallout. Offset by these foregrounded futuristic-looking lone gures in tableaux, they signal an allusive relationality, if not causal elusive culpability. Organism-like, the piece’s insistent metonymic material interconnectedness becomes coterminous with geological interdependency: materially manifest—but impalpable.
The work loops backward and forward in time, utilising past and present images, always in consideration of a future, no matter how despairing; looping, juxtaposing, and recalibrating the archive to draw an ever-finer distinction between global histories and their lived inheritance, geo-cultural formations, and subjectivities. Akomfrah is fundamentally concerned with reflecting on the passage of time and the nonlinearity of history worked through and against an autobiographical narrative of lives lived (in the UK or Harlem); the inextricable but often disavowed linkages between colony and the metropole; the transnational expe- rience of dispossession and the reclamation of a new space and novel claims on citizenship. Akomfrah’s oeuvre is also laced with encounters with the urtexts of Western modernity, be it the extensive dialogic mobilising of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Emily Dickinson, James Milton and Shakespeare himself in The Nine Muses or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) in Vertigo Sea. Yet, a countervailing alternate always inheres in these tapestry-like moving image works, evinced in the accented or classed cadence of voices of disenfranchised testimony, the dissonant sounds of Miles Davis, or the speculative fantasy world of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series.
Relatedly, while Akomfrah customarily casts one eye on political economy and the lived effects of global modernity and insistently its colonial legacy—brief flash appearances of harbingers of the last mid-century’s radical transformation, such as Mao, Kwame Nkrumah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Fidel Castro, signal time’s march as well as an aide-mémoire of the miscarried dreams of better worlds—the other eye is xed resolutely closer to home and the vernacular. Akomfrah’s well-honed practice of repurposing the state’s treasure trove of realist recorded events, in order to inversely foster Black Britons’ ontological emergence and subjectivity, is integrated in Purple—whose amplfied incorporation of extant narratives, extracted from Monitor, resurrects urtexts not for the sole purpose of thematic embellishment but also as genuine interlocutors.
Purple’s response to Tennyson’s opening appeal gives rise to a masterful polyphonic conjoining of symmetry and alteration, which yields structures of feeling that far surpass the discourse of eco-eulogies for climate change. The refrains of mourning that inhere throughout Purple are not subdued at the work’s end; yet, no tidy-bowed nale is on offer, dystopian or otherwise. Instead, we are left with an open-ended temporality: a futurity not visible, let alone imagined. Yet, in spite of the work’s funerary refrain, Akomfrah’s dogged insistence that the image as “remain” offers a utopian premise, that “it will make sense in the future,” inheres in the piece. Relatedly, although not a contributor to Purple’s masterful associative mélange, lines from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze” (1967) resound as its silent partner: “Is it tomorrow, or just the end of time?”