No need to beat around the bush: Five Murmurations is the most haunting, wrenching new work of art I’ve seen so far this decade—appropriately so, since its subject is the haunting, wrenching state of the decade so far. In the three-channel video installation, which was on view this month at Lisson Gallery, British-Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah studies the global shutdown and the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd with a cool, cerebral gloom. Without presuming to explain the horrors of recent history, he has given them a shape.
“It felt like there were almost two pandemics,” Akomfrah said recently in an interview for the New York Times—the crucial words being “felt like” and “almost.” Much of Five Murmurations consists of tense, jagged montage, intercutting images of the literal, viral pandemic of 2020 with footage of Floyd’s murder. And this is only the start. The present-day footage gives way to a dizzying, disturbing variety of older images: smeary archival photographs of Black African men posing with white European colonizers; Andrea Mantegna’s quattrocento painting Lamentation of Christ; the famous photograph of Che Guevara’s mutilated corpse. Akomfrah’s subject is the 2020s, but his impressions of recent history are weighted with history, full-stop.
The challenge with this kind of experimental documentary is to connect pieces of information firmly without forcing them together. “Almost” cannot collapse into a fanciful “maybe” or harden into a smug “exactly.” Since the debut of his Handsworth Songs in 1986, Akomfrah has mastered this middle way between muddled and overdetermined, tracing the knots of race, colonialism, and neoliberalism with what might be called a hazy rigor. His films dream, but with one eye open. Even when they turn their attention to the natural world or Romantic poetry, they are structured by the painful facts of capitalist underclass life.
“There are no stories in the riots,” says a woman featured in Handsworth Songs, “only the ghosts of other stories,” and her words might as well be the epigraph for Five Murmurations. Through Akomfrah’s juxtapositions, Floyd’s and Taylor’s bodies seem haunted by the ghost of Che, just as Che’s body seems haunted by the ghost of Christ. Akomfrah isn’t the first to make such an analogy; it was John Berger, more than half a century ago, who first linked the Argentine to Mantegna’s painting. It’s grim 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 police states—your life is worthless, so your death is worthless too—is a lie. Che wasn’t Christ, Berger was quick to clarify, and neither was George Floyd, but together, their deaths mean something greater than themselves—exactly what, Akomfrah won’t say, but demonstrators around the world have been working it out since May 25, 2020.
The film’s controlling motif, the one that furnishes its title, is a swooping, pulsating flight formation favored by certain birds. Scientists have yet to agree on what a murmuration is actually for (maybe safety, maybe warmth, maybe pleasure), but in the five short clips with which he punctuates the film, Akomfrah makes it look as hypnotic as a Möbius strip and as menacing as a Biblical plague. As for what his film is for: to distance the audience from horror without diluting horror; to find a spark of hope in the darkest images of recent years; to suggest, at a time when glibly comprehensive explanations for the two pandemics are everywhere, that nothing is inevitable—and that everything is an echo of the past.