The figure in the abandoned building

Abandoned buildings are like cat nip to the video artist. Abandoned international airports (and there a  ridiculous number of them around the globe at present)  have a poignant glamour to them and they provide an opportunity for reflection on the arrogance and corruption of  venture capitalists and politicians. The lone figure in such spaces is a highly evocative image. This week I was reminded of the many moving image artworks that have exploited this, some more successfully than others.

Airport- John Akomfrah

Lisson Gallery, Bell Street until 12th March

A spaceman  plods around Athens derelict international airport for much of this 52 minute film. It reminded me of Mark Wallinger in a bearsuit wandering  through the empty spaces of a Berlin art gallery at night in his Turner award winning film Sleeper. The Akomfrah spaceman is featureless and unreadable behind his smoked glass visor and there is no apparent emotion in his movements. At least in Sleeper we can adopt the viewpoint of the naturalist observing the animal’s behaviour. We know that Wallinger is inside the bearsuit but as we watch him  padding around the gallery  we suspend our disbelief and empathise with the animal’s excitement and boredom.

In Airport the spaceman is meant to remind us of 2001: A Space Oddessy as we also encounter a man in an apesuit echoing Kubrick’s signifiers  of human progress.  Although this is the curator’s view,  to me it seems that Akomfrah is driven by the wider symbolic power of placing a human figure in an abandoned building. Is it the first created Man in the Garden of Eden or the last man standing in a post apocalyptic wasteland?  Freud might argue that it represents the dream scenario of the person exploring in the recesses of their psyche as they go from room to room. Wallinger humorously cuts through this poncy intellectualising by playing up the droll absurdity of a man masquerading as a bear caged by the sleek glass and steel lines of a modern gallery.

In contrast Akomfrah’s spaceman is deadly serious. His smoked glass visor robs him of humanity and we can only regard him as an aesthetic image. The dissonance between his high tech garb and the dilapidated wreck of the disused airport buildings is visually arresting but that palls after a while. The other figures who appear are styled in the fashion of the 1940s when the airport first opened and they too make their visual point but hang around too long in enigmatic tableaus. It is the contrived portentousness of these figures  raising expectations of a denoument that never arrives that is unsatisfying. If this film had been 15 minutes long it would have been just as effective.  Even without the figures we would have plenty to absorb.

I’m reminded of the excellent film on a similar theme in Fiona Tan’s Ghost Dwellings shown in May 2015 at the Frith Street Gallery. The buildings were family homes in Ireland abandoned by the bankrupt developers before completion standing forlorn in the landscape. The simple soundtrack  of wind and rain and the absence of human life were all that were needed to give this film its emotional punch. There are many still images of the shell of Athens airport on the internet. The one that is most compelling is the departure hall escalators stacked high with redundant cardboard files, an image too ugly and unsettling to make its way into Akomfrah’s  stylish film. His 2013 film documentary, The Stuart Hall Project,  compiled from archive footage, is a worthy tribute to this famous cultural theorist but is similarly languorous.

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