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The incommensurability of Purple

A long, dark purple hallway leads to a wide room with purple walls, pavement and ceiling. The room is filled with the sound of running water and six large-scale screens light up, emitting the same immersive hue. Purple, the work by British artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah currently on view at the Berardo Museum, begins like this, quietly but quite dramatically.

The six screens are then animated by moving image: the running creek already familiar to our ears, an impressive mountainous landscape, lone hooded figures, black and white footage of pregnancy and birth. Some screens offer different perspectives of the same scene, others are entirely disparate. Fragments of each scene are cut at different moments, some linger longer, while others open up to a whole different realm, creating a living mosaic of moving image. A powerful soundscape orchestrates it all, steering our attention from screen to screen by weaving a polyphonic texture of archival news reports, lyrical excerpts, symphonic scores, folk tunes, and natural sounds – meanwhile, water continues to run.

Combining archival material from the 1950s and 60s, that involved perusing hundreds of hours of film, with original footage shot in ten different countries over the course of three years, it is safe to say that this six-channel, hour-long, immersive film installation constitutes Akomfrah’s most ambitious project to date. The artist frames this work as the second of a larger series based on the concept of the hyperobject – a term coined by philosopher Tim Morton to describe entities that expand in such vast spatial and temporal dimensions that escape conventional ways of understanding, controlling or coping with them. The first work in this series, entitled Vertigo Sea, was focused on what is, according to the artist, “the most primeval of hyperobjects,” the sea. Presented at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Vertigo Sea approached its subject matter as an element of great splendor and torment, exploring its role in the history of migration and violence, from slave trade to the current refuge crisis, from the practice of whaling to environmental destruction. This is where Purple comes in.

Purple addresses the overwhelming, all-encompassing reality that came to characterize the Anthropocene, now widely discussed as the present-day era in which human activity seized to be a mere biological agent with local impact, to gain geological proportions and drastically interfere in the global climatic system. Inspired by notions that gravitate around object-oriented ontology – such as Morton’s hyperobjects, Bruno Latour’s actants or Jane Bennett’s vital materials – Akomfrah devotes special attention to the elemental, non-subjective forces that play central roles in the grand scheme of things. Artists and philosophers have repeatedly found ways of approaching the Anthropocene that are often be more palpable than exact scientific methodologies, when its staggering complexity and urgency seem to defy reason.

The ambition and intricacy of Purple is then grounded on the incommensurability of its subject matter. Channeling the global predicament into the gallery space, the artist makes it is impossible to apprehend the totality of the work. Each view is invariably fractional. As a gallery piece, Purple constitutes a collective experience, shared among viewers. Yet, each can never watch the exact same sequence as the other, the exact same film. The artist rejects the supremacy of a one-dimensional narrative, encouraging different readings of the violent juxtapositions he puts forth; allowing for different “relations of solitude” with the work; and demonstrating our state of apathy and impotence before this shared reality.

Contrast, apposition and simultaneity are key in the execution of Purple. Not only for collapsing the time-space continuum and approximating distant cultures, but also for interlinking fractional biographical narratives, both real and imagined, with the immense and impersonal climatic realm. This baroque composition has no script but it does have an internal logic. An underlying chronicle from birth to death unfolds in five progressive movements that are punctuated by rhythmic counterpoints: warm and cold weather systems; active bodies and contemplative figures; frenetic machines and latent landscapes.

Although underlining our glorious path to self-extinction is certainly defensible, I wonder if linearity is at all fruitful in this work… Does it make sense to create a progression of consecutive movements into decay to speak about the indeterminacy of the hyperobject or the entropy of the Antropocene? Perhaps this linear narrative exists only to be disrupted and reshuffled, but it can come off as somewhat didactic. The work is most compelling at moments when the collage of scenes is most oblique, complex and nuanced – as puzzling as the hyperobject itself.

In turn, the contrast of pace between the automation of events and actions and the paralysis of bearing witness can be highly suggestive. One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is the recurring appearance of people dancing. When asked about it, the artist explained that he was searching for material that said something about this era and he started seeing in dance “an index of sociality, a key metaphor for being human.” The numerous fragments of people dancing and singing that populate the film, from ball dancing to disco moves, from rock concerts to folk songs, poignantly stress our state of oblivion, as we let ourselves be entertained in the face of a self-produced calamity. It is possible to make a paradoxical parallel with a vanitas tableau, with these scenes working as a prequel of a still life, showcasing human vitality while pointing to the inevitability of our demise.

The exploration of these dichotomies ties Purple to Akomfrah’s oeuvre in an intimate way. The “affective proximity” of these scenes reaffirms a belief that has driven much of his work – namely the obsessive research of archival footage – the conviction that a forsaken image, or a forgotten memory can be incredibly revealing in the future. A passionate poststructuralist, Akomfrah repeatedly exercises his drive to read against the grain:

“Partly why it is always good to use archival material is because it gives you a chance to return to the scene of the crime, as it were. There, the villain never hides. The return forces a confession. It allows you to see again, anew. Sometimes archival material appear to know in advance what they are about and other times they appear to be a mirror to something they themselves can’t see.”

The artist also refers to Purple as one of his most auto-biographical projects. Growing up in West London, next to Battersea Power Station, Akomfrah was constantly exposed to its harming emissions – something that was never questioned, or even mentioned. The artist explains that this work is also about going back to that moment and teasing out what was left unsaid. Interestingly, it is also in the ramifications of these autobiographical ties where some of the recurring topics in Akomfrah’s body of work emerge, such as social history, identity politics, and issues of class and race. Several moments in the film interlink social and environmental injustices, pointing to how underprivileged minorities often take on the heaviest toll of the global environmental crisis, even when the consequences were not understood or acknowledged. Akomfrah is adamant, however, in stating that the violence of these forces is bound to reach every layer of society. As his strategy of “affective proximity” tends to show: “The narrative of the 20th century can seem as a kind of strange game that appears to have winners and losers. Actually, everyone is a loser, all the time.”

In the end, the title of the work continues to be somewhat elusive. The omni-presence of the color, as well as the rather saturated purple-filtered industrial landscapes that populate the film, indicate the strong appeal it has to the artist. Akomfrah is rather interested in the indeterminacy of the color, situated between two coloration systems, blue and red. The hue’s liminality can also be regarded from the perspective of the physics of light and color. At the upper limit of the visible spectrum, violet operates in the threshold between what we can apprehend and what escapes our sight: again, as the active forces depicted in the film, with no subjectivity but great impact. And, yes, Purple is also an homage to Prince, as confirmed by the artist, and to his creative understanding and appropriation of the color as something with powerful, yet regretful and elegiac associations. Echoing a collective lament of despair, Purple takes us on a complex journey through the ambiguity and absurdity of our era.

Purple is on view at the Berardo Museum is Lisbon until March 10.

Joana Valsassina Heitor is a curator, architect, and cultural producer based in Lisbon. Joana lived in New York for three years where she completed a masters in museum studies and worked at MoMA and at the Drawing Center, also developing her independent curatorial projects. Since 2016 she produces Lisbon's annual arts event Bairro das Artes.

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