As visitors enter the gallery now housing the climate artwork “Purple” by John Akomfrah at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., they are greeted by a light sculpture made out of dirty plastic bottles suspended upside down from the ceiling. The bottles illuminate a hallway that is carpeted and lined in deep purple, the color of mourning in Ghana, where Akomfrah was born.
Akomfrah is a celebrated British artist whose work about memory, migration and the environment has been exhibited around the world, including at the Venice Biennale. Before opening in D.C., “Purple” was shown in London, Madrid and Lisbon.
Around the corner, visitors to the gallery are confronted by six huge screens and a cocoon of shifting sounds: singing, rainfall, church bells, speeches, train whistles, car honks, tap shoes. The imagery is pulled from across time and space; 20th-century archival newsreels are set against sweeping contemporary shots of the natural world. Collaging the past and the present together, “Purple” spins a narrative about climate change and the post-industrial age, a story about cities, technology, manufacturing and pollution that is punctuated with footage of wilderness and the sublime, landscapes that arrive like gulps of air.
Sitting on the benches arranged in front of the screens, it isn’t possible to absorb everything. The audience can really only focus on three of the screens at one time, and they are continuously changing, flickering from spring water running clear over pebbles to a tailpipe spitting exhaust to a woman’s palms, cradling a plant. The soundtrack includes orchestral music and sirens; the staid tones of broadcasters delivering scripts and the drone of highway traffic.
Critics have noted the panoramic scope of “Purple,” and how the immersive 62-minute work, which combines six screens of video with sound and music in the darkened gallery space, mimics the incomprehensible scale of climate change as it unfolds across the planet.
“It’s hard to take in the whole work at once,” said Marina Isgro, associate curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn, who worked to acquire “Purple” for the museum. “Depending on where you sit in the gallery, it can feel like a slightly different work. It’s this experience of information overload. You’re constantly having to choose where to direct your attention.”
Experiencing “Purple” might feel like stepping inside a film-reel kaleidoscope, but somehow, it isn’t overwhelming. Its moments of horror and calm, of poison and beauty, of indifference and care, are transfixing in a way that an onslaught of grim video might not be. There were children in the gallery when I was there, and while some of them whispered to their parents about what they were seeing, mostly they were rapt, staring around the room as the screens blinked from one snippet to another.
“You never know how long people are going to spend with a piece,” Isgro said. “It’s a cliché that everyone’s attention span is really short these days. But I think ‘Purple’ is the kind of work that really pulls people in.”
Part of what makes “Purple” so engrossing is that it’s not purely made of panic, damage and dread. We scrutinize scans of miners’ blighted lungs and plumes of toxic smoke and uncomfortable close-ups of animal dissections. But we also see and hear joy: newborns and birds and parades, dancing couples and clean water and ripening sunsets. The effect comes much closer to the messy, changeable reality of life on Earth than any montage of global doom. “It makes us sit with this ambiguity,” Isgro said. “On the one hand, it’s showing us the violence or destruction that we have enacted on our planet. And on the other hand, it’s reminding us of what out there is worth fighting for.”
“Purple” considers what “progress” is—and weighs its gifts against its costs. The film opens with babies and children and ends with coffins, carried through narrow streets. In between, we see factories, fossil fuels, cars, medicine, planes and war. In an interview with the Guardian, Akomfrah spoke about the need to complicate the Western ideal of industrial development. “The great shifts in human progress that are made possible by technology can also cause the profoundest destruction and suffering,” he said.
This kind of progress is one that Akomfrah is familiar with. “I’m a child of the fifties, so I’m a child of that moment of high hopes, one of which involved the bright hope associated with industrialization that came with a much darker narrative that remained unspoken,” he told an interviewer in 2017. “I grew up in west London in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, at a time when it still worked producing electricity.” Once a coal-fired plant that supplied a fifth of London’s power, Battersea was closed in 1983. (It’s since been turned into what developers are calling “London’s most exciting new shopping and leisure destination!”)
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“I remember its iconic chimneys and the smoke billowing from them, which was, in truth, beautiful,” Akomfrah said, in 2017, of Battersea as he knew it. “No one ever said to me or to any of my friends, listen: you’re being poisoned here, and this is a byproduct of the life you’re living, walking down the King’s Road.” That disconnect—about what industry promises and what it destroys—informs “Purple” and our present, a current that runs beneath the rolling tides of modern history.
Although its title and color scheme suggest that “Purple” is an elegy, because the film plays on a loop, a few minutes after the funeral processions and overcast graveyards are gone, we are back to the beginning, to birth and first breaths. Perhaps progress is not a line but a circle.
The film’s images of nature are sometimes foregrounded by white-coated figures who stand with their backs to the audience. Wind ruffles the edges of the coat. We follow their gaze outward over snowy mountains, dense jungles and open fields, in places as far-flung as Alaska, Greenland, Scotland and French Polynesia. We observe these landscapes through their eyes, looking over their shoulders, though we often can’t see their faces. As “Purple” progresses, we lean over a railing on the deck of a ship, ride with a bounding dog sled team, climb an icy cliff and walk on a beach. In some of the scenes, the person at the center of the screen is surrounded by litter or silhouetted against the smokestacks of a towering factory. When the white-coated characters do turn around to look at us, it feels less like judgment than a question: Do you see what I see?
“In a way, this is a person of color’s response to the Anthropocene and climate change, which is not just a white, European fixation, though it is often presented that way,” Akomfrah told the Guardian. “We need to start looking at climate change in radically different ways, not just as part of a western-based development narrative.”
Akomfrah wants to encourage those radically different ways of seeing, but he never intended to present a persuasive argument; “Purple” is not a lecture. Unlike so much content about climate change, Akomfrah’s piece is “emotional and authentic rather than didactic,” Isgro said, a work that doesn’t endorse any specific policy or politics. Like its creator, “Purple” is not interested in telling you what or how you should feel. It only asks that you do.