Spring has sprung at SFMOMA

  • by Sura Wood
  • Wednesday April 25, 2018
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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the presidential candidate and ardent advocate for civil rights and the poor, slain at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. Three days following his death, a funeral train carrying his body departed New York City and headed toward Washington, DC, where he was to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Kennedy's idealism and compassion and the shock of his loss galvanized an extraordinary outpouring of grief, expressed in the spontaneous gathering along the railroad tracks of nearly 2 million people - black, white, young and old, families with children, soldiers in uniform, brass bands, people sitting in lawn chairs and in the back of pickup trucks or holding up signs - who came to bid farewell. SFMOMA's "The Train: RFK's Last Journey," a slim but thought-provoking exhibition, assembles the work of three artists from different eras and parts of the world who have documented or interpreted the event through the mediums of film, photography, or a combination of both, for an intellectual examination of a moment that represented an emotional depth charge to the culture. Those seeking a portrait of the idealistic leader, who engendered hope among the ranks of the disenfranchised and the young, may be disappointed. The show is less interested in politics or the man himself than with how historical facts are transmuted into memory, often with the help of photographs, which can supplant actual memories - and the historical record - over time. While each artist's distinctive point of view advances the show's intriguing core concept, one wishes that the exhibition as a whole were more substantial.

More than photographs of the official ceremonies or the assassination itself, the color images shot by American photojournalist Paul Fusco, who was aboard the train, have defined the perception of the experience and how it's remembered. Fusco was on assignment for Look magazine, armed with two Leicas, a Nikon camera and over 30 rolls of Kodachrome film, when he took 1,000 slides, including the 20 or so pictures here. Traditionally, press photographers concentrate on the deceased and their relatives, but Fusco might have been influenced by the example of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who, 31 years earlier, while covering the coronation of George VI, aimed his camera at the people in the crowd rather than at the procession. Forbidden by the Kennedy family to photograph inside the train, Fusco opened a window of a rail car and captured the spectators lining the route. Working furiously as the light waned, his early pictures from the trip are bathed in warm, late afternoon sun, sharp and clear at the center and fuzzy on the periphery from the motion of the train; but as night fell and his shutter speed slowed, the images became increasingly ghostly.

Forty years later Fusco's series inspired Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra, who was only eight when RFK was killed. Terpstra, who explores biographical and collective memory through photography, spent four years tracking down images taken by onlookers in an effort to reconstruct the event through the eyes of people who were there. He amassed more than 200 slides and B&W and color snapshots frayed and scratched from the passage of time, as well as a half-dozen Super 8 films. Washed-out pictures of children sitting by the tracks, a locomotive whirring by, slides with hand-written notations inscribed on the margins such as, "Waiting and watching for the train," or, "Here it comes!" and film footage interwoven with the oral testimonies he compiled comprise "The People's View," a multimedia work pervaded by melancholy. "Sometimes you can see a kind of loss or an attempt to hold onto a moment of history," Terpstra observes. "[But] when a photograph comes between you and your autobiographical memory, you often remember the photograph instead."

Fusco's work also spurred French Algerian artist Philippe Parreno to produce a "reenactment" of RFK's final voyage for his hypnotic 2009 film "June 8, 1968." Parreno, who recomposed or drew directly from some of Fusco's photographs, chartered a train, hired a hundred extras to play onlookers whom he costumed in 1960s-era clothing, and in a stroke of genius, engaged the great cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot the film with 70mm Panavision cameras from a moving train.

For a riveting seven minutes, which warrant repeated viewings, the train rumbles along, clickety-clack, through rural and urban landscapes; the wind rustles trees and grass, but the actors remain silent and eerily still. They stand beside the tracks in a trance-like state like the group of friends stopped mid-motion on a hillside, or the team of baseball players frozen in place on an athletic field. Through June 10.

Epic sweep and total immersion coalesce in the spectacular dark poetry that is "Vertigo Sea." Monumental in scope, loaded with experiential ambition and presented in surround sound on immense screens each measuring 94.5" high x 168" wide, the roiling three-channel HD video created by British, Ghana-born artist John Akomfrah is an amalgam of fiction, high-toned natural history documentary and esoteric cinematic essay. Though what it's about isn't clear, the repetitive opus is enveloping, thrilling, and in some stretches, painful to watch. Akomfrah, a founder of London's Black Audio Film Collective, seduces us with beautiful oceanic landscapes where episodes of nature's primal wrath and interludes of pristine beauty - frolicking orcas, armies of penguins, untouched icy mountains, volcanoes erupting underwater - are interrupted by the murderous interventions of humankind. Those include the industrial slaughter of whales - the innate cruelty of the bloody business alarmingly vivid, even in grainy B&W footage; the killing of seals and polar bears who can't outrun their predators' guns and clubs; and the battered bodies of dead slaves washed up on distant shores. Layering whimsical literary tableaux, archival imagery, voiceover passages from "Moby Dick," and original and secondary source material shot in the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and northern Norway among other far-flung locales, "Vertigo Sea" may be arduous as odysseys go, but its visual roller coaster, like the tides, never ceases. Through Sept. 16.