LHR-JHB by MIchael MacGarry
Was this darkness always with us?
All of us, individuals – foraging for goods and pleasures. Nationalities, histories, singular experiences – forged and grafted in the mechanical transit of bodies.
It breaks apart and the routine assumes the norm. As the vice tightens, the hours become years. Days become months. Today becomes everyday.
We work ourselves thin. For money. For future freedoms. For the dim assurances of our families. We survive in these countless shapes – repeating the same mistakes, taking the same risks, enjoying identical pains.
We have come out far to where we are, here, where we cannot tell ourselves apart. And here, see for yourself – we have no tragedies. No heroics. No light.
Yet each time, you and I start from scratch. Begin anew. And if we never meet in this cycle, we will all be here in the next. We will never go home. We made this, and it has created us.
What is hope, but a toothless consequence of youth?
Occupying the same space. Entertaining people whom would never be talked to
Aspirational in our loves, and clumsy in our greed – when did we resign that which was never ours to part with? From what sea, what course, did this sinew grow?
How do we escape to familiar shores?
Here, we are the captives of our cowardice designs.
Like most, this project has several basic starting points – namely, a television advert for beer and a developed sense of self-loathing. For most of 2001 and 2002 I lived in Europe, one year in Dublin, the other in London. I worked as a designer and participated in the ongoing brain-drain adversely affecting South Africa’s development. In London I saw a television advert that showed several Britons adrift at sea in a small inflatable dingy who were obviously the survivors of some wreck or accident. The narrative of the advert concerned not the horrors of survival but rather their thirst for the particular brand of beer being promoted. The dialogue was not the desperate, stereotypical lifeboat statement of ‘Water! Water!’, but rather ‘Brand of beer! Brand of beer!’ It was a lame advert, as most are, but it looked really good, as most do. The polished formalism initiated my thinking on a possible fictional narrative for a video that could articulate, as well as mimic, the voluntary South African alienation and London-induced drowning of identity I was experiencing at the time.
The title and the presence of the life raft in the short film LHR-JHB, allude to a fictional 747 crash landing into the sea en route from London to Johannesburg. On board are numerous versions of myself: young, educated, white, middle-class South Africans returning home from London - some with saved money, others with property in England and most with one eye on their return ticket. The narrative concerns 4 survivors of this fictional accident - 230 passengers and crew died following an explosion a little while after an improbable, but successful, crash landing in the Mediterranean Sea.
The three survivors swim to and occupy a deployed life raft issued to all 747’s in the event of a crash landing at sea. After a day on the raft they sight possible rescue but all attempts to make themselves visible fail and they continue to drift. A slow leak sustained during a nighttime collision with a piece of plane debris causes the raft to slowly deflate. Over several hours the raft sinks and the 4 survivors, after initially treading water, give-up any prospect of rescue and promptly drown.
Some of the South Africans I met in London saw themselves as ‘economic refugees’, citing a developing economy coupled with an apparent lack of employment opportunity and security as motivating factors for leaving the country. The fatal passage, in the video, of these three South Africans between so-called ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ represents an ironic mimicry of the economically and politically motivated (and often perilous) gravitation of ‘boat people’ from North Africa to Southern Europe; from the Caribbean to the United States and from the Far East to Australia. These awkward colonials trapped in a life raft are no more plausible as ‘boat people’ as are their claims to be economic refugees. Their mortal journey from centre to periphery is directionally opposite to the typical migrations of ‘boat people’, coupled with the fact that they are going home to family and hot weather to spend saved-up Sterling, aided by a favourable exchange rate. Most South Africans move to London because of familial connections, the language advantage or want of ‘a change of scene’ but not because they face certain political persecution or poverty in their home country.
A life raft is an advanced tool for survival, but in the context of this project, continued existence is defined as the retention of identity, with the raft as the metaphoric means to do so. Having chosen to be isolated and adrift as participants in the South African brain-drain, and over time to give-up attempting further rescue (a return to habitual self), the three survivors turn in on themselves and dissolve like effervescent tablets into the sea. Hence, the metaphoric drowning of their vague identities – a process that occurs in some affected antipodes living within the societal bosom of the former coloniser.
A life raft is a specifically developed form of refuge - look to J.W.M. Turner’s studies of boats in raging storms and Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee, 1633. The term refuge defined as physical protection in an environment perceived as hazardous, but a life raft is also a unique form of captivity too, for the visual symbolism of prospect is embodied in the distant, unattainable views of the horizon - look to Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, 1819. His portrayal of the survivors of the doomed Medusa straining to attract the attention of the distant speck of a tall-ship on the horizon represents a frozen moment of desperate optimism and potential rescue. However, having an historical knowledge of the actual event portrayed causes the moment to defrost – the viewer ‘knows how this one ends’ and moves on. But perhaps they are not informed and instead, linger for a bit longer unsure of how it all ends. The tension and power of Gericault’s image comes from the smallest element of the painting, the ship is so tiny and so far away that surely it cannot possibly see the raft in the vastness of the ocean? But it does and the real survivors of the Medusa were saved – but nearly two centuries later Gericault’s figures are still stretching to the horizon unsure of their fate.
For exhibition, LHR-JHB is projected as a loop which mimics the narrative frieze of Gericault’s painting, however the medium of video also allows for a linear narrative within a broader circular one. The 4 survivors do all drown at the end of each individual segment but its continuous looping is constructed as a circular narrative. They all die and dissolve into the sea in the final scene only to be proverbially resurrected the ‘next day’ as the film loop begins again. Reminiscent of the plight of Prometheus, they are doomed to eternally relive their fatal journey without the finality of either death or rescue.