Sounds and views of the sea greet you as soon as you walk into the new John Akomfrah exhibition at Lisson Gallery. Yet these screens do not depict the snapshots of a relaxing, sunny day at the beach. Instead, Auto Da Fé, one of the two new works presented at Akomfrah’s American debut show, depicts the diasporic experience, and the generational struggle of reconciling history and memory that it entails. This might sound familiar for followers of Akomfrah, who typically approaches topics such as post-colonialism and collective memory through film installations that weave still photography and documentary material into original footage.
Auto Da Fé (2016) and The Airport (2016), the two new works on view at Lisson Gallery, are composed integrally of new material, yet their narratives are deeply rooted in history. Auto Da Fé is a two-screen installation that traces eight large-scale migrations over the last four centuries that came about because of religious persecution. The camera seems to catch the film’s characters mid-thought, mid-prayer, wandering the ruins of the past they leave behind, or contemplating their next challenge: the sea. These characters are all standing on different shores, but they all must brave the sea’s uncontrollable, sometimes violent force, which Akomfrah successfully evokes through an almost dizzying combination of shots of crashing, rumbling waves and immersive sound.
The vast shots of the expansive ocean suggest that the sea, because of the journeys it has witnessed, holds as much of our collective memory than the structures we’ve built, inhabited and abandoned on land. And the film isn’t exclusively about past diasporas: Akomfrah also subtly alludes to today’s refugee crisis through images of personal belongings and life vests washing up onto the shore, evoking the graphic photos that garnered worldwide attention over the past year.
The second film, The Airport, also presents travellers. This triptych, for which Akomfrah composed an original soundtrack, unites an astronaut, a gorilla, and several anachronistic characters in an abandoned airport in Greece. These shots are accompanied by TV and radio emissions explaining the Greek economic crisis and images of the Parthenon ruins in Athens. Downfall and decay come to mind, as Akomfrah focuses on the ruins of what was once the center of the civilized world and the capital of an empire.
Akomfrah’s paused, thoughtful camerawork and the original soundtrack provide a stunning audio-visual combination, and his investigation into the diasporic condition is worth contemplating. This is especially true given the current-day state of refugees around the world who, like Akomfrah’s characters, stand on shores without knowing what lies across the sea.
Header image: John Akomfrah, The Airport, 2016, Three channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound, 53 minutes, Copyright Smoking Dog Films; Courtesy of Lisson Gallery