John Akomfrah: sweet but superficial flights of fancy from the Venice Biennale star

John Akomfrah: Arcadia
John Akomfrah: Arcadia - Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

Cutlasses and caterpillars; bubbles floating past camera; a kangaroo, glimpsed only for a moment, shivering amid snowflakes: these are just some of the images in John Akomfrah’s kaleidoscopic new 50-min film installation, Arcadia, which receives its British premiere in Plymouth, at The Box. Divided into six “cantos”, and flecked with quotations from The Interpretation of Dreams and Paradise Lost, it seeks to dramatise, in a deliberately poetic and elusive manner, the now-oft-told story of European colonialism, beginning with Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the “New World”.

Like Satan, though, as characterised by Akomfrah’s beloved John Milton, Arcadia suffers a tragic flaw: overweening self-love. While its pictures are often magical, they’re also the cinematic equivalent of a shiny glaze: sweet and superficially attractive, but without proper sustenance.

Those familiar with Akomfrah’s previous films will recognise this one’s themes and techniques, as he splices aerial shots and footage of the natural world (flocking flamingos, sprouting mushrooms) with silent sequences involving actors in historical dress. His hit at the 2015 Venice Biennale, the three-screen installation Vertigo Sea, focused on the world’s oceans. This time – as he prepares to represent Britain in Venice next year – his protagonists are gusts and gales: those “trade winds” that powered the conquistadors across the Atlantic and disseminated European diseases which wiped out indigenous peoples in the Americas.

As well as panoramic shots of remote landscapes and time-lapse footage of, say, stars moving across the night sky, an important strain, as it were, of the film’s imagery are cellular-level close-ups of microbes, viruses, and sundry microscope-slide lurgies; Akomfrah, who was originally commissioned by The Box to mark the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower (which set sail from Plymouth), changed tack following the onset of the pandemic. At points, shocking black-and-white photographs of smallpox patients appear on Arcadia’s five screens, which are arranged in the shape of, as Akomfrah puts it, that “potent symbol of colonial conquest”, a crucifix.

After a while, though, like a nugget of soap dissolving in bathwater, coherence disappears. Places and dates flash up, without further illumination (“Yucatan Peninsula 1518”, “New Plimoth 1619”). Occasional, cryptic narration – mostly by an actor who sonorously repeats phrases from The Interpretation of Dreams until you want to scream – does little to dispel the cloud of unknowing. Grandfather clocks arranged upon a Scottish shore are wilfully befuddling – to what end? A barefoot man wearing baggy trousers and a wide-brimmed hat seems important: periodically, he pops up and flaps his arms. Why?

Installation view of John Akomfrah's Arcadia
Installation view of John Akomfrah's Arcadia - Shanavas Jamaluddin

For me, though, the fundamental problem is the familiarity of the visuals. Much of what we see was shot by the BBC’s Natural History Unit, with which Akomfrah has a “partnership”. As a result, though, we’re desensitized to this sort of “epic” natural-world stuff, which feels like so much B-roll from a Sunday-night extravaganza voiced by David Attenborough – or, worse, a computer’s digital wallpaper. The sequences involving pretty young things in early-modern outfits are like fragments from bland, mainstream costume dramas.

Akomfrah devotes considerable time to research, and integrates a bewildering array of ingredients – yet, here, lacks the alchemist’s ability to transform them into an elixir of something special.

From Nov 30;