‘Five Murmurations’ is John Akomfrah’s response to traumas of this decade – ARTnews.com

No need to beat around the bush: Five Whispers is the most haunting and heartbreaking new piece of art I’ve seen so far this decade – and rightly so, since its subject matter is the haunting, heartbreaking state of the decade so far. In the three-channel video installation, which premiered this month at the Lisson Gallery, Anglo-Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah studies the global shutdown and the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd with cool cerebral gloom. Without claiming to explain the horrors of recent history, he gave them form.

“It was as if there were almost two pandemics,” Akomfrah said recently in a maintenance for the New York Times– the crucial words being “felt like” and “almost”. A lot of Five Whispers consists of a tense, jagged montage, interspersing footage of the literal 2020 viral pandemic with footage of Floyd’s murder. And that’s just the beginning. Today’s images give way to a dizzying and disturbing variety of older images: stained archival photographs of black African men posing with white European colonizers; Painting of the quattrocento by Andrea Mantegna Lamentation of Christ; the famous photograph of the mutilated corpse of Che Guevara. Akomfrah’s subject matter is the 2020s, but his impressions of recent history are weighted by history, period.

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The challenge with this kind of experimental documentary is to firmly tie pieces of information together without forcing them together. “Almost” cannot collapse into a fanciful “maybe” or harden into a blissful “exactly”. Since the beginnings of his Handsworth songs in 1986 Akomfrah mastered this middle path between rough and overdetermined, tracing the knots of race, colonialism and neoliberalism with what one might call a fuzzy rigor. His films make you dream, but with an open eye. Even when they turn their attention to the natural world or romantic poetry, they are structured by the painful facts of capitalist underclass life.

A three-channel video shows, on the left, the corpse of Che Guevara;  in the center, a detail of the painting from the quattrocento Lamentation of Christ, centered on his feet;  and on the right, the face of a policeman.

View of “Five Murmurations”, 2021, at the Lisson Gallery.
Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery / © Smoking Dogs Films

“There are no stories in the riots,” says a woman featured in Handsworth songs, “only ghosts from other stories,” and his words might as well be the epigraph of Five Whispers. Through Akomfrah’s juxtapositions, Floyd and Taylor’s bodies seem haunted by Che’s ghost, just as Che’s body seems haunted by the ghost of Christ. Akomfrah is not the first to draw such an analogy; it was John Berger, more than half a century ago, who first associated the Argentinian with the painting of Mantegna. It’s sinister to look at the corpse of a man who was murdered by a police state and think of other corpses, but the very fact that one can think this way proves that the lesson of all states policemen …your life is not worth anything, so your death is worth nothing too-is a lie. Che was not Christ, Berger was quick to clarify, and neither was George Floyd, but together their deaths mean something bigger than themselves – exactly what, Akomfrah won’t say, but protesters around the world have been working on it since May 25, 2020.

The dominant motif of the film, the one that gives the title, is a formation of plunging and pulsating flight favored by certain birds. Scientists are not yet in agreement on what a whisper is (maybe safety, maybe heat, maybe fun), but in the five short clips it punctuates the film with, Akomfrah Makes him as hypnotic as a mob of Möbius and as menacing as a biblical plague. As for the raison d’être of his film: to distance the public from horror without diluting the horror; find a glimmer of hope in the darker images of recent years; suggest, at a time when the fullest explanations of the two pandemics are everywhere, that nothing is inevitable—and that everything is an echo of the past.

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About Monty S. Maynard

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