2017: Issue 8: Review: Auto Da Fé and Vertigo Sea: John Akomfrah: John Curtin Gallery

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John Akomfrah , Auto Da Fé, 2016, Two channel HD colour video installation, 5.1 sound, 40 minutes 30 seconds. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London.

The last few years have seen many three-channel video works exhibited in Perth. Chen-Chieh Jen’s Echoes of a historical photograph at Success Gallery was particularly powerful, as well as AES+F’s Feast of Trimalchio, at Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, as were many of the other works that displayed themselves across three screens. But this format seems unacknowledged as the classical form and trope it has clearly become. Three-channel projection is the new format of history painting.

There is something that is classical beyond art about the three-screened projection. Consider ‘polyvision’, and even before this, going back as far as Abel Gance’s 1927 film Napoleon, or the more recent ‘cinerama’. Perhaps most appropriately, of Windjammer, presented in ‘cinemiracle’, using three cameras to allow an immensely wide angle of view. Windjammer itself is clearly intended to be some populist spectacle, yet it should be noted that almost all such multi-screen movies have fallen from grace in the cinematic world. Cinema is constantly searching to fill our vision, immerse us in the vast panoramas of its sets and costumes, but its innovations have almost all been gimmicky and quickly found to be too expensive and/or unpopular to be successful.

The endurance of multi-screen projection in the art world can probably be accounted for by art’s persistent interest in physical space, and, since the middle of last century, with non-linear alternatives to cinema – that can take advantage of using three separate screens. However, more specifically, it is the form of the three-channel projection that raises some questions. It is one of contemporary media art’s most prevalent and consistent tropes, and it often demands a question – what purpose does it serve? Does it ‘colonise our attention completely’ as Clair Bishop writes, merely filling space, and leaving us perpetually distracted, from one screen to another, but remaining within the overwhelming onslaught of information – A ‘times square’ effect?

The problem, as I see it, is that three-channel projection is the default for making artwork appear to be artwork, and to separate it from television and cinema, but that is paradoxically as standardised as either. Yet Akomfrah’s work does occasionally provide the crescendo moments that warrant its use, where he has edited across space, the three screen of Vertigo Sea, cutting a narrative that stretches centuries and the whole of the globe at once. Akomfrah’s influences here are old: montage (not editing itself, which in almost all commercial production is getting quicker) is an art form that is rarely popular in mass cinema today, and it is the classical forms that Akomfrah takes: Eisenstein and Tarkovsky. Montage constructs the ‘third meaning’ between the flashes of images, and in the case of Vertigo Sea and Auto Da Fé, in between the two and three screens, and the flickering images. Despite this, the choice of three- and even two-channel installation is one that seems almost arbitrary, as if Akomfrah decided he was making an installation, and that it therefore had to be on three and two screens.

Akomfrah’s work, other than perhaps not capitalising fully on its multi-channel projection, does fulfil the promise of its epic historical background – both about migration and about our relationship with the sea. Vertigo Sea is particularly interesting for its catalogue of quotations and sources that have been masterfully edited together, from the BBC natural history unit to other, less well-known archives. The images presented are an incredible linking of elements. From extreme views of ice-bergs to the killing of whales and polar bears, from the depths and heights of human visualisation to our propensity to kill and skin and climb upon the carcasses of what we’ve conquered, it is a vast and sprawling epic that negotiates terrain often left to rot, and hidden from sight for the cruelty it exposes. It remains a particularly specific history – it is a filmed history, and one that is therefore quite limited, but within this limitation the work finds enormous depth.

Auto Da Fe, Akomfrah’s epic of the history of refugees, stretches beyond filmed histories, and his direction shows us everything in tableaux. The work is a deliberately alienating and dispassionate costume drama. Though Vertigo Sea was occasionally intercut by similar tableaux shots that Akomfrah had filmed himself, rather than appropriated, Auto Da Fe seems to be his attempt to make an entire video installation without employing archive footage. In Vertigo Sea the shots were the least successful – among the fascination of appropriated historical footage and the awesome technical abilities of the BBC, the tableaux were comparatively uninteresting, using a largely symbolic language as opposed to documents and testaments, and resting still like paintings – a flat note in the motion and pacing of the work. In Auto Da Fe, one can sense the progression of Akomfrah’s vision. Though they remain stilted (perhaps deliberately), in Auto da Fé, the images begin to breathe. The acting and video work of Akomfrah remain non-naturalistic – though the costuming and a few other symbolic elements of naturalism (on site shooting, etc.) seem to be present. The actors in Auto Da Fé are often throwing their hands up, in an ambiguous signal. Either it is to signify that they have let go, that they are shrugging, or that they are throwing their hands up in surrender, or hopelessness. It is probable that its connotations relate to the Act of faith of the title, yet the absence of expression in the characters offers a more pessimistic take on what each group of refugees is doing, throwing their hands, and their lives, up into the air. Symbolic gestures and portents – particularly bags – like this are present in every age reflected in the work. This preference for the symbolic and affectless over any attempt at naturalistic acting is an approach that Bertolt Brecht took in his theorising and practice of Epic Theatre. Akomfrah, in interview, suggests at the need, along the lines of Brecht, to generate alienation in his appropriation of costume drama, which is typically about the internal workings of characters, rather than historical and material circumstances. He points to the paradox of people in the present emoting about the past. This interiority does tend to suspend disbelief, no matter how crassly it is performed. Akomfrah’s manipulation of this genre takes the ‘trappings’ of the costume and removes the drama.

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, 3-channel HD video installation, 7.1 sound, 48:30 mins. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery, London (installation view).

However, in the moving image, the sort of alienation generated by the use of tableaux and stylized gesture functions somewhat differently from Brecht, and in the cinematic tradition it brings one to mind more of The Colour of Pomegrantes than The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The tableaux of arrangements and actors performing poetic and symbolic gestures are the language that The Colour of Pomegranates masters. Unlike that film, Akomfrah’s work does not reach similar poetic heights – it’s linking of the visible and the symbolic is too literal, descriptive despite its non-naturalistic appearance, and the most frustrating element of Akomfrah’s works is their adherence to this style, that is ultimately lacking the poetic it needs to succeed totally at its rhetoric. The works are consistently and totally serious, and consistently remind us of how serious they are in their pacing, slow-motion effects, movement and sound design. In Auto Da Fé, Akomfrah’s admiration of Andrei Tarkovsky (whose work he describes as the ‘limit of cinema’) is most obvious, yet the slow motion of Akomfrah’s film is excessive, the shots that are reminiscent of Stalker go without the lightness of sound and motion that leaves Tarkovsky’s images at the edge of dreams. Akomfrah’s works are also without humour or affect (if one takes away the sense of foreboding and ominous airs that we get from the consistently ominous soundtracks) or even a sense of play – something even Brecht allowed his characters; particularly his infamously mad and just judge Azdak. Perhaps it is meant to alienate us from the typical plight of costume drama, but it appears like vague, symbolic gesture has been used instead of an idea and an approach. This is finally the most trying part of a work rich with history and narrative and that is carefully, indeed beautifully, constructed and edited together.

The context of this work is also vital to consider: as we sit here, a crisis unfolds on a global scale, where people are displaced in refugee camps and in foreign countries. Auto Da Fé is timely, and while I have my doubts about Brecht’s techniques operating any more successfully in video than they did on stage, the work remains, like Brecht’s own oeuvres, an important artistic plea for justice and sympathy for those who are driven away from their home by violence, oppression and hatred.

The strength of Akomfrah’s work though, is his ability to reimagine historical research, and his ability to draw archival footage and historical events together with a filmic and artistic sensibility that seeks less to assure us we can know what these events were like, than to challenge what we know about our relationships with migration and the sea. Above the staging and the cinematography, the histories that Akomfrah uses, the narratives that he tells are the most potent parts of his work – and extremely relevant to our own country in this time and age of closed borders and isolationism. The archives he trawls to find these most incredible images are also part of this. Akomfrah is, from what I have seen, an excellent editor of time, and edits history into story and narrative, powered by the engines of music and silence and narration. This is where the importance of his work lies – in its careful weaving of history, events and circumstances into a cohesive and powerful cinematic-artistic odyssey, and one that is sensitive to the contemporary refugee crisis.

written by Graham Mathwin.