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Boston Society of Architects

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Immersion therapy

The Fence and Purple contextualize what it means to be human

Imm Therapy T7 I9097 photo by Meg Elkinton

Installation view, John Akomfrah: Purple, ICA Watershed, Boston, 2019. Courtesy Lisson Gallery and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.

Photo by Meg Elkinton © Smoking Dogs Films

During summer’s less frenetic pace, thoughts turn to travel. For those concerned about aviation’s carbon footprint, consider a gentler manner of exploration via two art installations that bring far-flung corners of the world to Boston neighborhoods. Photoville’s The Fence, courtesy of the Griffin Museum of Photography along Albany and East Berkeley streets in SoWa, has curated a wide variety of contemporary photography with its seventh edition, currently on view through October. And the Institute of Contemporary Art presents John Akomfrah’s hypnotic six-screen opus called Purple at the Watershed in East Boston until September 2. Both installations offer an immersive experience that will satisfy your seasonal wanderlust.

Each year, hundreds of photographers submit five images into themed categories for an international jury of professionals to review for inclusion on The Fence. The categories are broadly defined and include Play, Streets, Nature, People, Creatures, Food, and Home. Taken in the aggregate, the photographs cover an expansive swath of human, animal, and natural activities, locations, and emotions.

The Fence in Boston's SoWA neighborhood featuring "Lost and Found" by Michael Joseph.
Installation photograph Suzanne Révy

In the shade of an overhead highway, walking along The Fence is surprisingly quiet on a Sunday afternoon, and it is easy to get lost in in the rhythm of images from photographer to photographer. A few in particular stand out. Idris Solomon’s graphic black-and-white documentary images of young dancers at the Harlem School of Ballet revere both the ache and artistry of dance. Griselda San Martin’s images made in Friendship Park on the border between Tijuana, Mexico, and San Diego are a powerful testimony of the difficulties families who live on both sides face, but it deftly mirrors the visual cadence of the installation itself. Likewise, Paula Bronstein’s powerful pictures of the stranded and stateless Rohingya are jarringly disturbing.

There is levity among the work, too. Grace Chon’s Hairy humorously presents dogs before and after grooming. She notes the pictures are made in Japan, where grooming is individualized to each dog. Is this my beautiful house? by Janet Holmes treats viewers to a delightful set of environmental portraits of rescued chickens who uncannily match the decor of their surroundings. Similarly, Unhee Park literally becomes part of the furniture, walls, and floors in a series of self-portraits made while visiting different homes through the homestay network. Regional photographers are featured along East Berkeley Street, including Michael Joseph’s poignant portraits of young adult travelers who hop freight trains and hitch rides across the country and Marky Kauffman’s meditative prayer pieces that reveal an abiding sense of peace.

Walking along The Fence in SoWa is a satisfying and worldly journey and so, too, is visiting the ICA’s Watershed in East Boston. During the warm days of summer, the Seaport is frequently tempered by a soft ocean breeze. The languid light on the stairs below the building’s distinctive upper galleries offer a quiet place to rest and wait before boarding a water taxi, which departs every half-hour for East Boston. After a six- or seven-minute ride, lapping in the water and breathing in the salt air, visitors disembark and take a short walk through Piers Park to the Watershed.

The Watershed was a condemned industrial structure when the ICA transformed it into a cavernous space for visitors to experience large-scale art in 2018. In its second season, the ICA has chosen to present John Akomfrah’s symphonic and immersive six-screen video installation called Purple, which addresses issues related to the environment and climate change. Akomfrah was born in Ghana in 1957 but grew up and works in London. He was a founding member of the Black Audio Film Collective in 1982 and its offshoot, Smoking Dog Films, in 1998. His collaborative works in film have investigated issues of memory, post-colonialism, and experiences of migrant diaspora. Purple is his most ambitious project to date.

On view upon entering the Watershed are several installations that highlight and emphasize the time we have lost in the debate around climate change and the impact humans have had on the ocean. A sea of large plastic containers appears to float like a giant armada from the ceiling, and a surreal photograph presented as a triptych speaks to the pre- and post-industrialized world and the relatively short time it took humanity to alter the earth’s environment and climate.

A vast screening room with comfortable couches and a few large beanbags on the floor allow visitors to get comfortably absorbed in this hypnotic experience. The film loops all day and runs for about an hour. It features contemporary footage shot in 10 countries weaved with archival footage of the post-industrial world, from early-20th century telephone technology to smog and traffic of the 1960s to breathtaking landscapes marred by power lines.

As a viewer, you choose which screen to focus on, but elements of other screens find their way into the corner of the eye. Throughout, Akomfrah features lone figures ruefully staring into landscapes, and streams of water rushing over snapshots as if to say, “It’s too late.” The soundtrack resonates with the harmonies and industrial history of Boston’s harbor. It is a reminder that New England is vulnerable to rising sea levels. Despite the film’s dire nature, its dramatic beauty creates an odd hopefulness. The earth, in all her glorious and exquisite allure will likely survive longer than humanity, so it is up to us to respond to our own peril.

The deep, immersive experience of Purple and the open-air wandering journey created by The Fence may encourage many of us to consider the small and large steps we can take to restore balance to our culture and environment.