Courtesy of Smoking Dog FIlms

September 9, 2019

The Dizzying Power of Vertigo Sea

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On the bottom level of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art lives Vertigo Sea, a visual installation created by John Akomfrah which is stunning both in its beauty and in its horror.

Akomfrah is a Ghanian born, British artist whose vision goes hand in hand with political messages, as seen in this installation which pairs beautiful and intriguing filmmaking with an underlying message about the health of our world.

Vertigo Sea premiered in 2015 and much of its story was inspired by the perilous journey of an African migrant making his way to Europe. Much of Akomfrah’s footage comes from the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and the Northern Region of Norway and along with footage from BBC nature documentaries focuses on man’s and nature’s relationship with themselves and each other, all within the confines of the Atlantic Ocean.

The installation is composed of three large screens, each of which shows a feed different than the other two. Sitting on a straight row of benches close to the screen viewers cannot possibly catch everything being shown, creating a mounting sense of over-stimulus. And it would appear that Akomfrah wants his viewers to be overwhelmed. Between and around shots of silent, snowy Arctic landscapes and peaceful waves he incorporates increasingly troubling visuals from old film of hunting expeditions shooting polar bears, to an actor portrayed scene of white sailors pushing African slaves off of ships to people in the modern-day pulling themselves and each other from the ocean as a hurricane rages on. To put it simply, Vertigo Sea is not for the faint of heart.

In fact, Akomfrah often draws a comparison between the violence of humans and the violence of animals, with crossovers of interspecies violence until it all becomes a conglomeration of jousting power dynamics. Akomfrah juxtaposes the sequence described above of slaves thrown into the Atlantic with footage of killer whales hunting seals by knocking them off of ice caps. Other such contrasts combine ideas of “unjustified” veses “justified” violence, and calls for audiences to examine what they know about right and wrong.

However, Vertigo Sea contains more than just a clear-cut statement about the violent history of the Atlantic Ocean. Early on Akomfrah utilizes actors to create still life imagery with weird artistry comparable to paintings by Casper David Friedrich and Salvador Dali. Actors in colonial garb stand as the only living things in dreary looking outdoor settings, changing from a gray, stony shore to monochromatic woods of brown bramble and brush. Littered in these natural environments Akomfrah places an assortment of items including clocks whose hands are frozen between numbers and empty baby carriages. The actors say nothing and often do not even look directly into the camera, giving the effect of confusion about their relevance and importance, especially in the context of the plethora of beautiful images that Akomfrah captured in their natural states.

Akomfrah breaks up the installation by unifying all three screens in one deep, blue background. He places a quote in the middle screen, giving the sense of chapter titles, that he pulls from novels and poems such as Moby Dick and “Whale Nation.” The description of the installation outside of its entrance specifically names these two works as major pieces in Akomfrah’s inspiration, emphasizing how his work takes on a combination of radicalized politics and art.

On the whole, Vertigo Sea becomes confusing, but not in a bad way. Viewers may come into the installation expecting another call to protect our environment, but they will quickly find that Akomfrah more so wants his audience to examine the relationships going on in the world that is bigger than themselves. While he shows humans hurting the ocean through industries such as whaling and sulfur mining, he also shows the ocean fighting back. He calls into question our understanding of destruction but provides no easy solutions. Instead, Akomfrah creates a visual installation that is overwhelming in its size and stimulus but with the purpose of remembering that the world remains a truly complex and weirdly beautiful place.

With everything I could write about this installation, the actual Vertigo Sea contains so much more. For anyone who has 48 minutes to spare on the weekend or in between classes, it is a worthwhile see, if only to get exposure to a different and provoking art form.
Vertigo Sea is on view at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum until December 8.


Erin Hockenberry is a Sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].