John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea is the flagship piece in a suite of exhibitions at the UNSW Galleries called Troubled Waters. The entire ensemble includes a 26-minute, 5-channel installation by Georgia Wallace-Crabbe called The Earth and the Elements; and a multimedia exhibition called River Journey, featuring work by Janet Laurence, Andrew Belletty, Nici Cumpston, Bonita Ely and Tamara Dean. There are static images, photos and sculptural components, but overall it’s a marathon of video. If your appetite for video art is still not satisfied you can visit the John Fries Award exhibition, also being held at the UNSW Galleries, and watch a bit more.
It may make thematic sense to put these shows together, but by the time I’d watched all 50 minutes of Vertigo Sea, it was disheartening to be confronted with The Earth and the Elements. The work uses the elemental beliefs of the Daoists as a frame for footage of minerals being mined in Australia and processed by Chinese industry. The imagery is ambient rather than dynamic, but the meditative nature of the piece is undermined by the 5-channel presentation which means the viewer has to stand in the centre of the room, constantly turning around.
There’s nothing like an hour or more of video to make one aware of the difference between art and cinema. At a time when Hollywood studios have become fixated on formula superhero movies to draw a mass audience, artists are perfectly happy to make films that are little more than compilations of images – or montages, to use the cinematic term. They are often about as exciting as staring out of the window.
Perhaps artists have no interest in reaching a mass audience, yet it’s almost impossible to say whether John Akomfrah is an artist or a filmmaker. Born in Ghana, he has forged a successful career in Great Britain, serving terms as a Governor of the British Film Institute and a Trustee of the Tate. Akomfrah has been making avant-garde films since the mid-1980s but Vertigo Sea, which received a lot of attention at last year’s Venice Biennale, has brought his work before a much broader international audience.
The film is played out on three screens simultaneously, meaning that we are looking at three images at a time and constantly reassessing the relationship between those images. It’s almost an instinctive process because the scenes keep changing and the relationships keep shifting. This may be the reason for the “vertigo” in the title.
The first of nine intertitles reads: “Oblique tales of the aquatic sublime”, hinting at some of the diverse scenarios we’ll encounter: panoramic landscapes and seascapes; icebergs, breaking waves, weirdly coloured skies, a huge variety of animal and marine life. If it sounds like something out of a David Attenborough documentary, that’s exactly what it is. Akomfrah has borrowed much of this material from the BBC’s archive of nature films, including Attenborough’s The Blue Planet (2001).
If Vertigo Sea were nothing but an anthology of spectacular shots of the natural world it would be a pleasant, slightly dull way to spend an hour, but this is only one strand of a complex interweaving of themes. Akomfrah has also unearthed a mass of black-and-white, silent film that shows ships leaving port, sailors dancing and partying, sailors hunting whales and polar bears, and the grisly business of skinning and flensing carcasses.
Interspersed with these sequences are a series of original scenes, as static as tableaux vivants, showing solitary figures from different centuries staring solemnly out to sea. They are accompanied by props – furniture piled high as if rescued from a shipwreck, clocks, a pram, a bicycle. These figures apparently act as observers or witnesses. They seem generic, although the catalogue identifies one as Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745-97), a freed slave who travelled the world and wrote a book about his experiences.
There are also spoken extracts from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and Heathcote Williams’s poem of 1988, Whale Nation. I doubt that Akomfrah expects his audience to recognise every reference or understand the way different strands are woven together. Our responses are necessarily impressionistic. Intellectually it’s a confusing package, but there are strong emotional triggers.
Every scene of dazzling beauty is matched by one of horror. For most viewers the hardest parts may be the antique footage of sailors shooting polar bears and whalers carving the flesh off the bones of their catch. It’s ghastly to watch this slaughter, and ghastly to think that those who shot the original film probably felt they were capturing moments of great adventure and heroism. Today it would be hard to imagine two creatures to which the world has grown more sentimentally attached than whales and polar bears.
Just as disturbing are brief stories of prisoners of the military junta in Chile being taken up in planes and thrown into the sea. The majestic shots of the ocean don’t seem quite so beautiful when one imagines some political prisoner being ‘disappeared’ into its depths.
Along with such specific instances of human brutality there are scenes that refer to large-scale upheavals, such as atomic testing and climate change. There are many references to the slave trade and the global refugee crisis. Both the slaves and the refugees have been treated as cargo, and suffered the dehumanising consequences. One sequence harks back to the infamous case of the slave ship, Zong, in 1781, which threw 133 of its charges overboard when supplies of drinking water ran low. The case, which did much to galvanise opposition to slavery, was immortalised in a painting by J.M.W. Turner.
It’s obvious where Akomfrah’s sympathies lie but Vertigo Sea is not a work of political proselytising. Each incident is presented in relation to the ‘sublime’ immensity of the ocean. Nature itself is portrayed as far more violent and destructive than anything humanity can conjure up. We watch Orcas ganging up on sea-lions, crocodiles attacking wildebeests. Everything in nature is feeding and breeding in the most frenzied fashion.
When the film cycle is complete it leaves one feeling bewildered rather than enlightened. Vertigo Sea is one of those works that probably have to be viewed a second or third time before the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. It’s not an attractive proposition because much of the imagery is so disturbing it hardly encourages another viewing.
I don’t think this response is due solely to my own sensitivities. One might compare Vertigo Sea to a film such as Chris Marker’s Sunless (1983), which is made for a single screen, but has a similarly fractured narrative. Marker also leaps around between different parts of the world, making broad observations about humanity and nature. The difference is that Sunless engages the viewer in a dialogue that becomes increasingly more engrossing. With Vertigo Sea we are kept at a distance by the relentless triple barrage of beautiful and terrible images. Ultimately we feel as detached as those motionless figures that stand by the sea shore.
If Marker can do so much more with one screen than Akomfrah can with three, it may be that the multiple screens allow an easy way of creating a montage, using simple juxtapositions that provide a range of instant reactions. The drawback is that the viewer is never allowed to get deeply engaged with the film. Images wash over us like waves. No sooner have we been hit by one than it’s gone, and we’re bracing for the next assault.
Vertigo Sea has many striking scenes but they don’t add up to a great experience. It’s a work that ticks all the boxes in terms of themes and devices but feels constrained by ideas that have not been allowed to gel cinematically. It denotes a certain rigidity in Akomfrah’s approach – a determination to dispense with conventional narrative to the point where the final product remains a series of fragments. As such, it’s hard to expect the unwitting, uninitiated viewer to sign up for the voyage.
John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea
UNSW Galleries, until 5 November.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 1st October, 2016