Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Snuff Films at SFMOMA

There are two major installations at SFMOMA currently featuring film and digital video. On the third floor is The Train, an examination of Robert Kennedy's funeral train carrying his assassinated body from New York City for burial in Arlington, Virginia. The starting point is a series of blurry color photographs from Paul Fusco who was commissioned by Look Magazine. Fusco rode on the train and shot the onlookers along the tracks paying tribute. French artist Philippe Parreno was so taken by the photos that he recently rented a train and hired actors in late 1960s period clothing to reenact the event in a 7-minute, 70mm art film which you can watch in a small room while laying on the floor. In another room, Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra assembled 8mm footage and photos that the mourners themselves had taken of the event. The overall effect can best be described as disembodied.

On the top floor is a three-screen work by the African-born Londoner John Akomfrah called Vertigo Sea, which combines stunningly beautiful nature imagery of the ocean juxtaposed with disturbing archival and contemporary imagery of whales and polar bears being slaughtered along with references to the 19th century Middle Passage slave trade and 21st century refugees drowning in leaking boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

The 50-minute work is set to a haunting score that mixes narrated poetry and snippets from novels with music, including reworked snatches of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

There is a sign outside the screening room warning about the shocking footage, and it should be taken seriously. I have tried to watch the work twice, and both times lasted about ten minutes. Even the artist himself can't watch it again, according to a great interview by Jonathan Curiel in the SF Weekly. “I can’t watch it anymore, because in the course of trying to finish it, I think I crossed a line. There are one or two thinkers who basically told us over and over again that there’s this stage of being, and we have for a long time believed that [humans] were the only figures in that stage. And we know that’s not true. Deep down, everybody knows this is not true. Deep down. I happen to believe it passionately now. So I can’t watch it, because I know I’m watching fragments of a genocide. That’s basically what you’re watching."

On Saturday, April 28, there will be a free all-day screening of three of Akomfrah's other art films in the Wattis Theatre. In the description of the event, I also ran across a favorite typo, referring to "Stuart Hall, the Jamaican born pubic intellectual."

3 comments:

nancy namaste said...

I was able to watch "Vertigo Sea" during a press preview. I started sobbing out loud and had to leave as it truly was so painful. John Akamfrah was there to answer questions but I could not think of a darn thing to ask as the experience of watching - maybe 30 minutes of the film - was so powerful that words failed me.

Rachel said...

Hi, Michael!
Let's do another museum day soon.
(This is a great reminder to renew my membership...)

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Rachel:

Yes, let us do so, although I may wait until the Magritte show to renew my membership.