The stunning, tragic, gobsmacking beauty of “Purple,” John Akomfrah’s six-screen magnum opus now unspooling at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed in East Boston, engulfs. It’s a breathtaking precis of a planet-threatening scourge: Like the slow-motion terror of climate change itself, nudging sea-level human settlements toward the unlivable (that’s you, Boston), “Purple” ’s presence is inexorable, its impacts incremental. There are no outright cataclysms here, no thorough, planet-blighting disasters. “Purple” instead mirrors the world we now know, with its insistent rumble of change, and not for the good.
Akomfrah, born in Ghana and based for years in London, has always made work around trenchant, life-as-we-know-it-altering disasters from a compassionate remove. “The Unfinished Conversation,” a three-channel video centered around the British-Jamaican philosopher Stuart Hall, ebbed and flowed between footage of civil rights protests and the enrapturing humanism of its subject’s lifelong advocacy for racial equity. The three big screens of “Vertigo Sea” brought a cascade of waterborne imagery that captured the migrant crisis with a poetic grace.
“Purple” doesn’t have the same political flash points on which to draw, which, I think, might rob it of some of the power of Akomfrah’s previous work. The artist has always deftly avoided being a scold. He builds his arguments experientially, not pedantically. In “The Unfinished Conversation,” the soulful strains of a black gospel singer rise as Hall, on another screen, eloquently advocates for progressive immigration policies on the BBC; in “Vertigo Sea,” the thunderous rush of waves parallels surging airborne flocks of birds, building his metaphors of migration and peril.
Like those works, “Purple” acts as a visual symphony, with its movements following a barely-perceptible structure that becomes subsumed by its richness. Cobbled from both archival footage and scenes of oblique, shimmering perfection that Akomfrah shot himself, the piece is ravishing and hypnotic, though less dire than I imagined. In his quest to keep the invitation open, I wondered if Akomfrah had sacrificed the urgency of his conclusions.
I left “The Unfinished Conversation,” his 2015 work, emotionally drained — electrified by the overwhelming humanism of Hall, and crushed by the reality of his clear-eyed vision left largely unrealized. It was a masterwork of showing, not telling. The piece worked on a deep emotional level, and took me by surprise; the experience of it was subtle but profound.
“Purple” left me with no such afterglow, despite its absorbing sensory presence. Is it an essay that buries its thesis in equivocation? I’m still not sure. A score rises and falls; a hooded figure perches on a beach, or in a clear-cut forest, or at the edge of a nuclear power plant, or on a tire embedded in a marsh. Grainy black and white film shows men leading coal-blackened ponies through narrow tunnels deep in some mine; trains rush by, belching smoke; a team of huskies pulls a dogsled across the ice. It’s beautiful, often breathtaking, swallowing you in its gentle churn. But I felt as though, in his openness, that Akomfrah protests a bit too little.
Even so, for the Watershed’s second season, the ICA has used “Purple” to leverage its own political positioning. Inaugurated last spring with an exhibition of Diana Thater’s work, the Watershed’s debut felt a bit too sunny and crowd-pleasing, too self-consciously nautical — dolphins whipping by on screens that angled over and above you, glints of pinkened sunlight slicing through the watery scene. (Thater’s other video installations there, by contrast, were dark and moving: on the 24-hour armed guardship of the last remaining white rhino, and on the eeriness of an African elephant refuge at dusk.)
But with “Purple,” which it co-commissioned, the ICA takes a stand. Just outside, you can hear the groan of industrial cranes, the dull, repetitive beeping of trucks backing up. This remains a working waterfront, however under threat on various fronts: from gentrification, the longstanding diversity of its working-class immigrant community now rubbing up against new condos and yoga studios (and, ahem, cutting-edge contemporary art annexes), and less visibly, the rising waters that may make such demographic shifts ultimately irrelevant.
To put a fine point on it, the ICA includes projected maps of Boston Harbor in 2030, 2050, and 2070 drawn from reports released by the City of Boston in recent years. Most shocking isn’t the 2070 version, which shows much of East and South Boston underwater, but how far the waters will advance, if unchecked, in just a decade. The Watershed, like much of low-lying East Boston, could that soon be no more.
Make no mistake: “Purple” is entirely macro, a planetary concern. But the ICA’s framing of it on the micro level deepens its presentation, and particularly here. In many coastal cities around the world, working-class dockyards were historically where immigrants were dumped off to make their own way. As cities grew, industry made harbor fronts less desirable, leaving them to the poor. Then as heavy industry dwindled and cities rediscovered their harbors, barricaded for decades behind expressways and railroad tracks, it was with a newly-romantic maritime lens. As the unwanted has become more and more wanted, divisions are inevitable. East Boston has been no more immune than any.
“Purple” takes in this continuum’s full span. The piece tracks humanity’s arc from industrialization right up to now, the arc of modernity itself. It is complete with its deprivations: Alongside environmental despoilment, Akomfrah inserts archival scenes of mass migration and human trafficking — one of many products of the rough, destabilizing churn of a suddenly-globalizing world.
But those seeking a screed won’t find one. Akomfrah balances his piece with civilizing gestures; archival footage of dance troupes occur and recur, linking the crude march of industrial evolution with the enriching force of culture. One couldn’t have happened with the other; industrialization produced undreamed-of wealth, and organized labor eventually forced it to be shared as broadly as it could, creating leisure time and the demand for cultural diversion. In its brutality to the planet, industry also created a broad civilizing space; what would museums and libraries and universities be without Carnegies and Rockefellers and their like, steel and oil barons and more? One scene, of an auction of oil leases in Alaska some time in the 1960s, is met with a cheering crowd. Could we ever really have been so naive?
The subtle force at the core of “Purple,” at least as I could see it, was that as much as the industrial age might have given, it sits poised to take back even more. Does Akomfrah really need to make that clear, banging a drum of planetary retribution for generations of us feasting on it like leeches, belching megatons of carbon into the air? Maybe not. “Purple,” in fact, is awash in scenes that complicate what, in this urgent moment, is often cast as a simple issue.
I’m not giving anything away, I don’t think, when I tell you that “Purple” ends not with a catastrophic upheaval, a planetary death rattle — and there are many to choose from — but instead a quiet denouement that feels almost like hope. That might be overstating it, but the absence of a crushing conclusion leaves a little space for different outcomes. A little, and not many, with time running out. But that’s better than none.
JOHN AKOMFRAH: PURPLE
At the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Watershed, 256 Marginal St., through Sept. 2. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org