Current Exhibition

July 27, 2019
December 8, 2019
In the Bartels Gallery, Floor 1L

John Akomfrah’s installation Vertigo Sea—created for the 2015 Venice Biennale—immerses its viewers in a montage of spectacular images and sounds. With the beauty and horror of the ocean as its subject, Vertigo Sea combines original and archival footage, maneuvering between past and present, real and imagined, and picturing life below and above the waves. While much of the natural history and wildlife footage is drawn from BBC nature documentaries, the original material, reminiscent of the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, was shot in the dramatic landscapes of the Danish Faroe Islands, Scotland’s Isle of Skye, and the regions of Northern Norway.

Vertigo Sea portrays the ocean as a resilient and stunning life force while exposing it as a site of mass murder, political instability, and unaccountability. Using as its narrative arc both Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’s epic poem Whale Nation (1988), the film features graphic scenes documenting the brutal history of the whaling industry while charting the intelligence and majesty of Earth’s largest mammal. Spectacular imagery of waves and wildlife contrasts with scenes of political violence and environmental destruction. The film repeatedly portrays past and present forms of human suffering and the ways in which the sea has been used to exploit, colonize, and disappear. Alongside the dangers of contemporary sea migration, Vertigo Sea features images of Vietnamese boat people struggling to survive, Argentinian death flights during which political opponents were dropped into the sea, and enslaved populations shipped across the Atlantic, thus outlining the complex intersections between ecology, economics, history, and politics.

Akomfrah was originally inspired to create Vertigo Sea after hearing a 2007 interview with a Nigerian migrant to Europe, who barely survived the perilous sea crossing that has claimed the lives of thousands during the ongoing refugee crisis. Akomfrah’s installation treats the Atlantic as a site of historical trauma, drawing on archival images and accounts of the horrific realities of the slave trade.

Broken into chapters and spread over three screens, the meaning of Vertigo Sea depends on which screen(s) one focuses on, reflecting the artist’s interest in affinities. “I’m for the blur,” Akomfrah has said. “I’m about trying to blur these boundaries and borders because I think more resonance comes out of things, narratives conversant with each other, than not.”

Vertigo Sea is on view as part of how the light gets in, a Museum-wide exhibition that will open in its entirety on Saturday, September 7.

Andrea Inselmann
Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art