Larry Achiampong: “Reliquary 2”

Online via John Hansard Gallery, until 31st January 2020, free

It feels like a lifetime ago when I wrote my original post on the “online museum” and what I thought of the state of them. Which, generally, wasn’t very much – I found the whole experience generally inadequate.

In all this time since I haven’t sought out that much art online. When I have it’s been small or short experiences rather than expansive overviews. I could put this down to my short attention span, but also I find think it reflects the direction of what I want art to be for me, right now. Trawling through an online exhibition doesn’t bear much relation to the real thing because it requires much more work to open-view-go-back-and-forth-with-other works-to-place-in-context-appreciate-piece together…it’s an academic exercise. That’s literally why there’s a whole profession – curation – dedicated to this kind of work. It’s easy to deride curators as overly self-important, but one of my markers for judging curation is – can I create my own story by following theirs? I want to experience my ideas in a free-flow, to wander and focus in or out and connect the dots at my own leisure. Curation enables this – even when you don’t agree with their angle, it’s the fact that this work has already been done which leads to this point. And I’ve generally found it missing in the online sphere.

animated Black astronaut in a green suit and blue hat holding a large white twisted shell to their ear. Background is entirely black.

All of which is a rather long way to say that when I have engaged with online art, it’s been with singular pieces. It’s actually nice to only have one thing to focus on at any one time, to be able to appreciate the piece of art by itself for a while. As I write this I’m in precautionary self-isolation, so have plenty of time to do that. And amongst the inevitable monotony of days being unable to leave the house for even the simplest reason, taking time – however short – to spend time with a piece of art and, briefly, think about something that’s centred around something other than the four walls of my house feels so precious.

So, finally, I arrive at Larry Achiampong’s Reliquary 2, commissioned and hosted by the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. It’s been commissioned to respond to the pandemic, which initially makes me nervous logging on. Even in the hands of an artist as thoughtful as Achiampong, I wondered, what is there to say about this whole thing that’s new, which we don’t already recognise for ourselves? And is there a danger that the audience of 2020 is fatigued by the subject? Very early in the film the narrator describes feeling a kind of apocalyptic unease, which I think we can all relate to to one extent or another. So would a film dealing with these familiar – omnipresent – feelings be a cathartic share, or adding to a sense of exhaustion?

Reliquary 2 doesn’t try to offer a revelatory or overarching take. Whilst it’s obviously aware of the expectations which will be placed upon it to be a documentary for our current time, its focus is deeply personal. Its conceit is that the narration is composed as a letter to Achiampong’s children, from whom he has been separated during the pandemic. After all it still feels too early to take anything but a personal view; we’re not far enough along for a grand analysing perspective to be possible. Annoyingly there’s no transcript though, surely a pretty basic accessibility fail?

Film still of a sea with a burned-out pier building sitting on the right. Animated over this is an astronaut in a green suit walking from right-left side of screen.

It’s a heavy, angered, anxiety-ridden letter. I was correct that it doesn’t give any new information – if you’re not already outraged by the disparity in the government’s support for the most disadvantaged in society which it describes, you’re not paying attention. And in this vein Achiampong also articulates fears which are beyond my experience. To put it bluntly, as a white and middle-class person I haven’t had to deal with the additional anxiety of recognising myself in statistics which consistently show that Covid is hitting BME communities hardest. I understand this to be the case, but can’t possibly get it in exactly the same way.

This may be where the letter format, by centring this as a real, lived and specifically directed fear, hits home hardest. Opening and closing the film with an adult and child singing hits a similar purpose. Remember how at the start of the pandemic politicians tried to make out that we were all in the same boat? Now, we all know this is utter bollocks, and Reliquary 2‘s narrative emphasises this. I said this is a work with one eye on the future, and it’s so important that this kind of personal story has been documented. Otherwise there’s a danger that the jolly ‘British’ togetherness narrative as espoused (in particular right now) by rag newspaper op-eds and so many shit poems in TV ads for banks would ultimately deny such experiences the space they should take in the historical record. They’d reduce the narrative to one of banal stiff-upper-lip, clap-for-victory populism that hides how it’s failing the most vulnerable sections of society. This actual narrative is heavier, less palatable to some perhaps, but overall more essential.

One of the key visuals of Reliquary 2 is an animation of a Black astronaut. It’s an image carried forward from Achiampong’s Relic film series, where it’s part of a mission in a more positive, equal future to explore the mistakes of the past. It’s a fitting image that offers a sense of approaching a big new world with preparedness, yet also concern and trepidation.

Almost in a similar vein, the rest of the film looks out at a seascape. I love the sea. I love its constancy, love its promise of new horizons. I respect its capacious potential to be home to the unknown. I also fear its capacity to put us in sudden mortal danger. A shining, drifting sea is the perfect image for this document. So it frustrates me that Achiampong needs to keep also drawing us to the symbol of a burned-out pier pavilion*. It just feels rather obvious. Like just exploring the unknown isn’t enough, but we also need a reminder of the blight around which it’s centred. But, do we, really?

Film still of a burned-out pier building where structure is down to the bones. It's black and in the sea, which is blue and calm, and reflecting the sky which is dusky orange.

Rather, I wonder whether it’s a motif which has been chosen out of fear. At one point in the narration the future is described as “a big, blurry grey”, an impossible landscape for the protagonist find themselves in, leaving them without resolution. I feel like the constant pulling back to the pier is a decision made of of fear of this lack of grounded-ness. That expanses of nothingness are just too much to deal with and it’s better to root to something than nothing. A broken pier or a virus – neither are much, nor grand, but they’re something to base yourself around. But in doing so we’re left dis-encouraged to properly explore, and rather to stay within reach of the known. Whereas how do we know that the big, blurry landscape really is as endless as it looks? What if there’s something better to be found? This isn’t me clinging to that sense of “build back better” which was so prevalent early in the pandemic (though it seems to have widely been quietly case aside), but wondering whether giving room for that question, rather than clinging to the bones of this building, would have made a better question to ask in this film.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about Reliquary 2. I think it’s mostly a success, that Achiampong has articulated his perspective well, but my goodness it’s heavy. I don’t feel like I’ve shared a burden of anxiety in co-feeling, but rather added to it, by discovering that the sources of my fears are confirmed. It’s not pleasant: but then, could I really have come into Reliquary 2 expecting solace? What kind of solace could possibly be found in discussion of the exhaustion and very real fears our current situation causes? So don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t disappoint my expectations in that way. But I am desperately looking for something to anchor to in the greyness. So I have to cling to the potential Achiampong’s astronauts offer that there might be those of us who are equipped to find our way through. That view of a successful future isn’t much – it’s turned to dystopia too many times in the past – but it’s something. And in the face of the racial and social injustice the film describes, that something to hope for and work towards is the least we need.

Watch the film online at John Hansard Gallery

* I think it’s West Pier in Brighton but don’t hold me to that.

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