Oceanic Feeling

Arthur Jafa’s new wavelength

Arthur Jafa, AGHDRA, 2021, digital video, color, sound, 85 minutes.

WE’RE IN A JUKE JOINT on a boardwalk overlooking the gulf, now transformed into a sea of magma. The 45s are warped, the turntable spins erratically. We sit on metal chairs and watch the waves of blackness. This is how the world ends—for me, and maybe for you.

Arthur Jafa’s AGHDRA, an eighty-five-minute moving image and sound installation, is on view in a cavernous warehouse at 439 West 127th Street. Formerly Gavin Brown’s uptown gallery, the building has been sold, and who knows to what purposes its new owner will put it. But right now, Jafa has returned to the space where in 2016 he showed Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, the seven-and-a-half-minute collage video that brought the previously unrecognized middle-aged artist and filmmaker international adulation. During the next five years, Jafa became one of the most eminent theorists of Blackness as experience and aesthetic while producing a deluge of work: newspaper photos made iconic by size and juxtaposition, photographic self-portraits and portraits of others, sculptures, off-the-cuff found and altered videos, and because this polymath is most obsessed with time-based mediums, four more major moving image works: APEX, 2013–17, an eight-minute explosive barrage of eight hundred photographs transferred to digital video and set to an insistent techno riff by Robert Hood; akingdoncomethas, 2018, an eighty-minute compilation of roughly shot internet videos of preachers and gospel singers electrifying Black church Sunday services with their voices; The White Album, also 2018, which won the 2019 Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale and consists of about forty minutes of white people performing their whiteness for their own cameras and occasionally for Jafa’s; and now AGHDRA, an eighty-five-minute movie masterpiece which certainly shares sources and ideas with the previous works but takes several radical departures.

Projected on a wide screen is what resembles an ocean of black rocks, churning and banging against one another, their motion creating waves that are borne forward and backward by an unseen current. Above this undulating, broken mass and occupying the upper fifth of the image when not blotted out by the swells, is a yellow-orange sun in a Turneresque sky. AGHDRA is organized into some twelve segments, each framed slightly differently, so that we view this seascape from various angles: head-on, high, low, and oblique. Some of the segments are smoothly fitted together, others shift perspectives and tonalities abruptly.

Unlike Jafa’s previous moving image work, the organizing principle of AGHDRA is not juxtaposition. In a video on the Museum of Modern Art’s website, he describes the editing of APEX and also Love Is the Message the Message Is Death as the meeting of the misery and majesty of the Black experience in America. “If you take this thing and that thing and overlap them, the place where they overlapped was you.” Such relationships do not exist in AGHDRA. The image is in flux, but it is all one thing, as if, “at the end of the Anthropocene,” Jafa explained as we watched the piece together, “what remains is Blackness.” Created through a collaboration between Jafa and BUF, the French CGI company which produced the special effects for The Matrix, AGHDRA is purely a digital creation. The image acts as a magnetic field, drawing out the viewers’ associations, some of which may be the same as the visuals Jafa suggested to the BUF team. Among these was “Ex-Slave Gordon,” a Black man whose heavily scarified back was famously photographed in 1863, and whose image has appeared in many of Jafa’s works. He also told them that one of his early inspirations for the piece was Godzilla, which, as he explained to his son after they had watched it in Japan, was a manifestation of the trauma the Japanese suffered as the first and only people to have atomic bombs dropped on them. I imagined Godzilla sinking into the sea and his spiky skin metastasizing to become the entire ocean.

Jafa also suggested the last glimpse of the sky from the hold of slave ships—a kind of anti-sublime James Turrell. Because surely the question of transcendence will arise as you watch AGHDRA. Can transcendence arise from blackness? The final image of Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967), which was likely on Jafa’s mind, is a nondescript, so-called black-and-white but actually various-shades-of-gray photo of ocean waves which is gradually pulled out of focus to become nothing but whiteness. We’ve been on a journey of a lifetime, a fifty-minute lifetime, toward that photo, which takes over the entire screen and your entire field of vision, and which is such a paltry, clichéd representation of what is beyond representation. Is it the irony implicit in the image that makes the end of Wavelength transcendent, or does the moment of silence and pure white light that follows clinch the deal?

AGHDRA does something very different. Its movement does not carry you anywhere. There is no journey to be found in the unfathomable rhythms of its waves. Obdurate and impenetrable, the image is beyond time. I might have walked away from it after fifteen minutes or wished I had a copy to use as a screen saver. But the piece is not simply an image, technologically and visually impressive as it is. It is the soundtrack that accompanies it (or maybe the reverse is the case) that keeps you sitting on the floor or on a metal chair facing the screen. Jafa heavily remixed a half dozen cuts from recordings of ’70s and early ’80s Black artists—the Isley Brothers, Roberta Flack, Rose Royce—dance tunes slowed down, fragmented, and run through reverb so that unrecognizable voices come roaring out of memory tunnels, hinting at all-but-forgotten desires and the pain of the loss of them, and the transcendence of pain and loss through music. “You abandoned me / Love don’t live here no more.” Austere and demanding as it is, AGHDRA is suffused with feeling. I’m glad Greg Tate, who died unexpectedly on December 7, was at the opening of AGHDRA. He was Jafa’s best friend and best sounding board. The piece is now his memorial, and I will never see it without thinking of him.

AGHDRA is on view through December 19 at 439 West 127th Street, open Tuesday–Sunday from 12 p.m.–8 p.m.