Michael MacGarry’s new film, Sea of Ash, delves deep into one of the most pressing issues of our time—the ongoing Mediterranean migrant crisis. In thirteen minutes, MacGarry tells the tale of Tadzio, a young West African who embarks across the Alps on a treacherous journey home. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to Michael about the philosophy behind his films, migration in Europe, and his own native South Africa. Sea of Ash will premiere at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, September 11 – 13, 2015.

You are described as a visual artist and filmmaker. How do those two worlds differ and intersect? How has visual art informed your filmmaking?
Both allow me a means, or a series of means, to express myself and the time I live in. I don’t see any difference in these two practices other than the partners involved in making the work and the contexts within which the work is displayed and seen – the divisions of which are increasingly collapsing. 

Why did you become a filmmaker?
Audio-visual is the most powerful medium humans have developed. It allows for a myriad of possibilities – conceptual, intellectual, and emotive – that nothing else even comes close to.


The tagline of your artist practice is “All Theory. No Practice.” What does that mean?
I finished an honours degree in fine art and moved to Ireland where I worked as a designer to afford the MFA tuition fees at the Glasgow School of Art to which I was accepted and could enroll any time I had the money, basically. I didn’t end up going to Glasgow and continued to work for three years in Dublin and then in London. I returned to Johannesburg to complete an MFA at WITS and during this time didn’t have the financial capital to realise a lot of the complicated works I wanted to make, so instead I removed the material manufacture of any work and focused instead on the conceptualisation of films, sculptures, exhibitions, and installations that after a while was formulated into a dogma I called “All Theory. No Practice.” Whilst initially liberating, like all dogmas it became unstable and counterproductive over time, so I started making the key props from my fictional films as a way of getting back into the material production of art making. Those sculptures were well received and I became part of the art world. Now, I make and sell physical, real artworks like any other artist. The tagline All Theory. No Practice. is now just a legacy concept that I still operationalise but without any meaning, and is a kind of subtle resistance to the avarice of the contemporary art market.

How are you drawn to various subjects?
Through research coupled with a desire to unpack and understand the time I live in.

When did you first read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice?
In high school.


How closely does Sea of Ash follow that plot line?
The film is an abstract re-imagining of Mann’s novella, and features a number of the key locations and plot points evident in the book—namely: the journey by train, visiting the cemetery, arrival in Venice, and, of course, the final death scene.

What initially sparked your interest in the migrant crisis?
As an artist I have no interest in exploring the legacy of a dominant European / Western cultural rhetoric and art history. I am interested in articulating the time I live in and using a research-based approach within the abstraction of contemporary art to pose both practical and philosophical gestures, prompts, clues, and ideas to help me try to internalize, articulate, and understand my time, often via an exploration of recent socio-political history. The migrant issue in Europe and migrancy across the world, is the humanitarian issue of our time, and my small film is simply a way I, as an artist, am trying to come to terms with and understand this crisis.


In your opinion, what tangible steps could be taken to resolve the issue?
Italy, and by extension the Eurozone, could acknowledge that there is a very real humanitarian crisis that simply isn’t going to go away because they don’t feel like dealing with it. Colonialism was always “over there” and the notion that people, families, and whole communities in colonised countries and territories would want and need to travel to and take up residence in the colonising country was simply not a concept that was ever conceived of, or permitted, both conceptually and legally. This conceptual framework is entrenched today. The migrant and refugee crisis currently in the Mediterranean has shown quite clearly the pathological nature of the western European psyche.

South Africa has struggled to define its position vis-a-vis economic migrants. What have been the successes and pitfalls of your country’s approach? What lessons—positive or negative—could Europe take from the South African case?
South Africa has recently experienced a second wave of xenophobic attacks that are, in part, a manifestation of frustration with and anger toward the country’s callous, centralised, paranoid, and institutionally securocratic current administration. New visa and immigration laws have been passed here at the end of May that have had an immediate and adverse impact on the national tourism industry, foreign direct investment, and securing direct flight routes from national carriers in developing markets like China and India. We have a serious skills shortage in this country and an abundance of qualified foreign African nationals resident here who struggle to attain gainful legal employment in their respective fields. I think the problems experienced by migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean are quite similar to experiences on South Africa’s borders, in our refugee facilities and within our cities: institutional indifference coupled with brutality—both contexts have proved quite lethal.