Three large screens show ocean scenes with a whale and sea birds.
Installation view, John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery

Artist layers footage to create awe-inspiring viewing experience

In March 2022, Remai Modern hosts Vertigo Sea, a three-channel video installation by John Akomfrah. The 2015 work, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, immerses the viewer in the overwhelming power, beauty, and destructive capabilities of the ocean. Composed of imagery from the archives of the BBC’s natural history unit cut together with new footage shot by the artist, the result is a complex and layered narrative that brings us into relationship with the beauty and terror of the ocean. 

“An elegy to lives lost at sea, the film assaults the senses with rapturous shots of roiling oceans across three floor-to-ceiling screens. Historical footage of sailors harpooning whales is spliced with news clips of Vietnamese refugees onboard a sinking boat and staged shots of manacled Black men crammed into a ship’s hold. Akomfrah’s team traveled to Norway, the Faroe Islands and the Isle of Skye in Scotland to film striking tableaux with a cast of costumed actors, and also drew on footage from the BBC Natural History Unit.”

– Elizabeth Fullerton, The New York Times, 2021

The installation builds on previous works from Akomfrah’s decades-long career, in which he employs a montage style and uses several different types of film, including archive footage and fictional scenes created by the artist.

Scenes include a whale hunt off the shores of Newfoundland and polar bear hunting on Arctic ice floes, as well as the hold of a slave ship, political prisoners being cast into the sea, and refugees floating in makeshift vessels. We know the stories behind many of these familiar images. However, the number of scenes relating to the power of the sea that Akomfrah has brought together across the large screens and a 48-minute running time results in an awe-inspiring viewing experience that is greater than its elemental parts.

Akomfrah’s fictional scenes refer to the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819) and the sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich; his inter-titles are drawn from the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) and Heathcote Williams’ poem Whale Nation (1988). Also woven through the piece is Akomfrah’s telling of the remarkable story of Olaudah Equiano (about 1745–1797), a freed slave from the Kingdom of Benin who became a British abolitionist, sea merchant and Arctic explorer.

This haunting work was first presented in 2015 Venice Biennale, All the World’s Futures. 

A selection of waterscapes from Remai Modern’s collection will be presented alongside Vertigo Sea.

The artist John Akomfrah sits in front of a laptop in his studio.
John Akomfrah at his London studio, 2016. © Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Lisson Gallery. Photography by Jack Hems.

About John Akomfrah

John Akomfrah (b. Accra, Ghana, 1957) is based in London. He is an artist and filmmaker whose practice is focused on memory, postcolonialism and migrant diasporas.

Akomfrah has had numerous solo exhibitions, including at the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington (2020); Secession, Vienna, Austria (2020); BALTIC, Gateshead, U.K. (2019); ICA Boston, Massachusetts (2019); Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon, Portugal (2018); New Museum, New York (2018); Bildmuseet, Umeå University, Sweden (2015, 2018); SFMOMA, San Francisco, California (2018); and Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain (2018). His participation in international group shows includes: Ghana Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale (2019); Strange Days: Memories of the Future, New Museum, New York / The Store X, London (2018); Prospect 4, New Orleans, Louisiana (2017); Restless Earth, Unfinished Conversations, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2017); All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); and The Unfinished Conversation, The Power Plant, Toronto (2015).

He has also been featured in many international film festivals, such as Sundance Film Festival, Utah (2013 and 2011) and Toronto International Film Festival (2012). He was awarded the Artes Mundi Prize in 2017.

Additional reading/viewing:

Vertigo Sea is on view at Remai Modern until June 19, 2022 in the Feature Gallery.