You are presented with two paths to take when you walk into artist John Akomfrah’s solo exhibition US debut at Lisson Gallery. Through the left passage, you’ll find diptych video installation Auto Da Fé, a solemn exploration of eight major human migrations that have taken place across the world since the 1654 fleeing of Sephardic Jews from Brazil to Barbados. The right entrance brings you to The Airport, a triptych video installation that deals with feelings of longing and nostalgia within a Grecian landscape, perhaps the epitome of a country that longs for its better days in the past. Whichever path you take, you encounter a near feature-length experience.
Despite the different themes at hand, both video pieces have an inherent stillness in them; the characters and landscapes barely move, often with an air of heavy contemplation. Most movement in the scenes comes from the exceptional camera work, the rapidity of scene cutting, and the various synchronized monitors, which combined with the inactivity of the individual scenes, leads to a feeling of a “moving-picture” as opposed to a more traditional notion of film. These are living, breathing still lifes punctuated with Akomfrah’s carefully orchestrated narratives, conveyed without any character uttering a single word.
Auto Da Fé was filmed solely in Barbados, but shot in such a way that the ambiguity of location is emphasized, resulting in a catch-all landscape for the stories of migration. The film shows many individuals in moments of hypnotic introspection. Sometimes they stare out into the ocean on a long pier or stand within the ruins of an enormous pool. Frequently, the fourth wall is broken as a person stares intently at the viewer for an extended period of time. Without a word spoken, you can feel the tense disconnect of the individuals and their surroundings, a ruptured link of the ancestral homelands they were forced to flee.
Akomfrah explains that the people in the film are descendants of the depicted migrations: “I am committed to the idea of an ‘aesthetics of location.’ For me, that means working as much as possible with as many ‘local’ themes and materials, and this is as much about resources as it is about people.”
There is also an intensely somber quality to The Airport. The film centers on an older man traversing a series of abandoned landscapes and buildings, upon which he encounters literal visages of his past, seeing a younger version of himself in the ruins, often punctuated by a sepia filter. Other figures like a dislocated astronaut and an abrasive gorilla frequently appear, the former often following and observing the older man as he is visiting his own past. There is an ambiguity in who the astronaut is, but perhaps it functions as a post-mortem look into the old man’s own life, whose detachment from reality is represented by the astronaut suit, a symbol of exploring a world that is not your own.
Although nostalgia and longing are certainly common feelings of the human experience, the focus on Greece in this film is somewhat unusual for an English artist of Ghanaian descent. “The Airport is in many ways an homage to one of my idols, the late Greek maestro Theo Angelopoulos. His work was often described as complex, sweeping, and hypnotic, but what drew me to it most were his dazzling and magical investigations of modern Greek history,” Akomfrah tells The Creators Project. “At the time of his death, Angelopoulos was working on a film that reportedly addressed the crisis of modern Greece titled The Other Sea, and in some small was my hope in was to complete this unfinished project for him.”
John Akomfrah’s Auto Da Fé and The Airport are on view at New York’s Lisson Gallery until August 12.