Monday, 18 January 2016

Hidden depths of Vertigo Sea

Centre; footage of a whaler alongside the underbelly of an enormous blue whale, slicing open its blubber to ‘harvest’ its organs.
Left; vast swarms of butterflies emerge from the forests of Mexico.
Right; more swarms of butterflies make the journey to escape above the forest canopy.
Centre; a harpoon from a 19th Century whaling expedition blasts into trans-oceanic waters.
Just as simultaneously as there is a scene of literal ‘cutting' happening in John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’ the ‘art’ of his particular style of filmmaking is a similar, albeit debatably less/more butcherous process of cutting and editing...
“What is the essence of the director’s work? We could define it as sculpting in time. Just as a sculptor takes a lump of marble, and inwardly conscious of the features of his finished piece, removes everything that is not part of it- so the filmmaker, from a ‘lump of time’ made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving what is to be an element of the finished film...”
 The above quote from Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky is one of my favourite (and probably one of the more accessible) analogies for describing the process of filmmaking. The fragmenting and overlapping of time, sound and moving image as malleable in conveying meaning, suggesting form and narrative as that of sculpting with marble or stone. Unlike stone however, film is never static and is forever shifting both in the action and passing of time within itself and within the world in which it is being viewed. At the Arnolfini, Bristol, the images of the whale, the butterflies; life, death; the majestic, the static are all happening at once, across three large projection screens in what is the first UK screening of John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’. They are all distinctive archetypal images and the minute they are placed alongside each other the meaning of opposites/conflicting ideas becomes clear.  Described as a ‘visual essay’ and
‘a cultural history of mankind at sea as both victims and perpetrators’, the 48 minute film uses edited together footage from BBC Natural History and BFI archives alongside newly shot footage to create moving and multiple narratives about the sea, our relationship with it and ideas around migrations, displacement and ecology.  The work draws on a radio interview from young Nigerian migrants to Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ and Heathcote William’s poem, ‘Whale Nation’. 
I was fortunate to have seen the film previously at last year’s Venice Biennale, literally stumbling across it unexpectedly but being interested almost instantly. There is something hypnotically engaging  about Akomfrah’s work that beckons you to stay and linger which I probably put down to the use of three screens and the amount of visual variety/juxtaposition this creates within the work; as though one image is having a conversation with another. Secondly, the imagery itself is very strong photographically and in its fragmented state plays a lot on memory and traces of past lives, people, events and places (like attempting to assemble an intriguing but ever-shifting jigsaw!). On Saturday 16th Jan having seen it a second time I realise just how rich and layered it is, on one level because of the visual adjustment of having to process three screens at once and more deeply, because of the amount of overlapping ideas, narratives and symbolism within the work that there is always something new to be interpreted and seen. In many ways it combines some of the ‘dreamlike’ qualities of a Tarkovsky film with aspects of documentarian realism creating a state of flux between the two. During, ‘A Conversation with John Akmonfrah’ that took place on the opening weekend at Arnolfini, writer and art historian, Anthony Downey described ‘Vertigo Sea’  as “ to different ways of being both illusive and elusive...and always seeing something new.” The very title, 'Vertigo Sea' even prompts associations with 'a loss of balance' that is so reminiscent, for me anyway, of the visual documentary, 'Koyaanisqatsi' from the 80s that looked at mankind's increasing disassociation from nature and significantly, its title also translating as 'life out of balance'.  
When questioned on the significance and reason behind making a film about the sea Akomfrah responded by referencing having read Moby Dick whilst younger and not really engaging with the work (I have known many a book fan to say the same) and that because it is a ‘masterpiece’ it ‘becomes something else’; and can no longer be treated in the same way as you’d read any other book. It is, I gather, from what anyone has ever told me, a challenging read, that requires more effort but in turn whose rewards come through discovering its themes, madness vs. ambition, capitalism and multiculturalism to name a few. When Akomfrah re-visited Moby Dick in his late twenties these themes became clearer and more relevant to current events. In some ways ‘Vertigo Sea’ is Akomfrah’s attempt at presenting some of those themes for today’s audience. Akomfrah also shared he had once nearly drowned in the sea as a child (psychoanalysts read into that what you will), but I do not see the work as being autobiographical comment but a more social one. He stated that, historically and culturally, “...everything tends to be land-based,” and that it was time for “a discursive dialogue across sea”, continuing to describe the sea as a, “neutral space” in the way it is open to so many possibilities (being both gentle and turbulent or unforgiving); much of which is reflected in the propulsion and attraction of images used in the work; from the uncomfortable to the sublime.  
Speaking of the sublime, the newly shot footage in the work takes the form of a Casper David Friedrich style painting as historically dressed figures stare out to sea (often amid an arrangement of upturned furniture and ticking clocks) as though waiting or contemplating the events of the past in the footage played alongside (pictured left). These shots and sound of the clock help thread the work together and add an element of stillness and importance of time and reflection to the work that stops the whole thing becoming too frenetic. They are also amongst the more symbolic and dreamlike footage in the work and have echoes of the as equally haunting ‘Unfinished Conversation’ which documented the life and endeavours of academic and socialist, Stuart Hall. In that film identity is ‘likened to an unfinished conversation’ and is forever shifting and remembered differently. Some of these ideas reflect Akomfrah’s own concerns with ethnic and personal identity having been born in Ghana and growing up in 1970s London.
'The Unfinished Conversation' 2013
Ethnic and cultural identities are reoccurring themes addressed in Akomfrah’s films, in ‘Vertigo Sea’ shown in different ways, through the multiculturalism of the crew on the Pequod in ‘Moby Dick’ and with reference to the17th Century slave trade (contextually making Bristol a poignant place to show the first screening). A scene in which bodies of slaves are washed-up onto a beach having been deliberately thrown overboard into the sea are chillingly almost prophetic of recent events involving refugees escaping Syria. Akomfrah shrugs off any such claims as coincidence to recent events claiming that whilst not intentional the use of the, “...archive has nothing to do with the is not history but how the present may begin to understand the future...” It is non didactic but asks political questions around identity and how we understand migration and people. Certainly the opening sequences of the film featuring accounts from Nigerian migrants who survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean addresses just that, with a more stating of the facts rather than being preachy to the ethical or moral rights or wrongs; I think it asks the viewer to make their own opinion.
As a passionate fan of films (as in movies), it is in some ways strange that I’ve never had as much enthusiasm towards film art shown in galleries or even making film myself. So it takes something very special to make me compelled to sit and watch a film in a gallery for a length of time, there are a few; Christian Marclay, Matthew Barney,  Elizabeth Price, Mika Rottenberg, Bill Viola and, it goes without saying, that John Akomfrah has since Liverpool Biennial 2012 also been on that ever increasing list. I see no reason why anyone who loves film, who loves photography, documentary and visual art generally wouldn’t find something significantly worthwhile in Akomfrah’s films. Specifically ‘Vertigo Sea’ is as rich, varied in its ability to unbalance and shift; as immersive and as undulating as the sea itself.
And not to mention that you can see it for FREE! So why wouldn't you?!
‘Vertigo Sea’ is on at Arnolfini until Sunday 10th April
Images sourced from:;;;

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