The best word I can use to describe the feeling conveyed by John Akomfrah’s films at Lisson Gallery is fey. The worlds presented in the works are unearthly, even as they they train our attention on real-life crises: Greece’s history and its recent financial collapse — in “The Airport” (2016), a film on three screens — and migration as a process driven by religious persecution — in “Auto Da Fé” (2016), a diptych film.
Each work is exquisite, its cameras offering overlapping perspectives on the simple action of a character picking up a valise or entering a room, or crossing a bridge. Akomfrah is an insightful filmmaker, using lessons gleaned from directors like Stanley Kubrick — who made his characters appear to the viewer as though they didn’t belong in the territories in which they found themselves— and Bill Viola — who slows down quotidian actions such as walking and thus makes them riveting. Akomfrah also has a cinematographer’s eye for compelling landscapes. The abandoned airfield near Athens is a place so forlorn that simply placing a man in a black suit and bow tie in it makes me feel the poignancy of Greece’s financial crisis. Airports are the hubs for worldwide travel, busy with arrivals and departures, and the shuttering of this place means a kind of terrible inertia for an entire country. Reinforcing this sense are views of objects from the distant past: a gramophone, a bent-neck mandolin, clothing from the early part of the 20th century. Then, the introduction of a person in an astronaut’s suit, which makes the inertia terribly strange. The moon globe of the helmet reflects darkness back at me. This figure should represent the possibility of the future, but here they sit grounded and lost.
In both films, Akomfrah keeps things in motion. Even when characters are still, the camera is moving, so that the experience of watching feels like a journey. He uses this style to great effect in “Auto Da Fé,” which depicts the migration of members of persecuted religious groups to places such as Freetown, Sierra Leone, or Mosul, Iraq. The film mostly consists of men in suits and women in dresses walking through abandoned docks, buildings, and swimming pools. They move steadily, even heroically, forming gorgeous tableaus, yet also reminding us of their self-awareness by looking directly into the camera. Akomfrah balances this ennoblement by emphasizing the risks of migration: he presents images of actual Syrian refugees in boats wearing life jackets and, later, images of empty life jackets washing up on shore, as waves foam over old photographs. This tugging on the viewer’s heart strings is critical to the melancholic register of the film.
My worry, though, is that the films are so perfectly polished and poised that they tempt the viewer to find their characters’ agonies and losses admirable. This very possibly overaestheticizes figures who represent real people enduring real hurts. This is the danger of being such a good visual producer: the stories become all we want to see, and their antecedents lose their grip on our feelings and our political will.
John Akomfrah continues at Lisson Gallery (504 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 12.