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John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’ installation Talbot Rice Gallery. Photo Chris Park

The opening moments of John Akomfrah’s three-channel film installation ‘Vertigo Sea’ (2015) see each screen sheathed in ultramarine. A very particular shade of blue, its pigment was highly prized by artists throughout the Renaissance—considered more valuable than gold—was created by grinding the metamorphic rock lapis lazuli, and traded into Europe from present-day Afghanistan. Etymologically, ultramarine is rooted in the Latin ultramarinus, meaning ‘beyond the sea’. 

Being bathed in strong hues is a state shared by the two works which constitute this solo presentation at Talbot Rice Gallery: ‘Vertigo Sea’ installed in the white cube of Gallery 1 and ‘At the Graveside of Tarkovsky’ (2012) filling the Georgian interior of Gallery 2. The ‘Vertigo Sea’ installation is encased in soundproofed walls, allowing the audience to enter a space in which to give themselves over to the work. Conversely, the gallery floor surrounding ‘At the Graveside of Tarkovsky’ is covered in pebbles, in contact with which the audience creates a rubbing of stones underfoot, adding to the soundscape of the installation.

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John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’ installation Talbot Rice Gallery. Photo Chris Park

Set amongst the pebbles in the screen’s foreground is a large stone monolith, against which the saturated tones radiating in orange, red and pinks rebound. In an interview with his partner and Black Audio Film Collective member Lina Gopaul, Akomfrah says of colour symbolism:

‘In nineteenth century colour theory, red comes forward and blue recedes. I have always understood them to be in some ways polar opposites, giving us different definitions of space…  My interest in colour in Ghana specifically started while making preparations for Testament […] It was a shock to begin work in Ghana and to find that there was another universe in which you place the two colours together because they speak the same thing.’ [1]

The score of ‘At the Graveside of Tarkovsky’ is a collage of soundtracks from the Russian directors’ films, produced with Akomfrah’s long-term collaborator Trevor Mathison. Tarkovsky often employed non-linear narrative, brought in existing footage such as newsreels, and created dream-like sequences. Akomfrah’s utilisation of these materials and techniques is, in part, a homage.

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John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, installation Talbot Rice Gallery. Photo: Chris Park.

Scholar Anthony Downey has stated that while the sheer enormity of the planets’ oceans lend themselves to notions of separation, sanctity and neutrality, that which has taken place upon them and been repressed—most pertinently the Atlantic slave trade and the present-day refugee crisis—will not simply be washed away. The stories of those who have been cast into a disappearance will re-emerge, their collective experiences re-surfacing, regurgitated by the sea. A political, mournful and poetic meditation on the oceanic context of migration, conflict and mortality, it is to this re-emergence that John Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’ devotes its duration. Panoramas of crashing waves fill the screen, tidal surges with flocking birds, shoals of fish spiralling upwards in panic, hunted from below by wide-eyed seals. Coiled eels dig into the rotting flesh of drowned whales, grainy black-and-white footage depicts a polar bear being hounded and shot in front of her cubs, all interlaced with footage of slaves being thrown into the Atlantic. Akomfrah’s commitment to the philosophy of the dialectic is made clear in this film installation, layering disparate images together through the process of montage, colliding to produce something new.

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John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, installation Talbot Rice Gallery. Photo Chris Park

A third meaning, a trio of screens, rejects our binocular vision. The concept of triangulation is a constant through all aspects of the work, relating in particular to the Triangular Trade in terms of the history of slavery, and to the material composition of the work with its three primary sources. Akomfrah summons phantoms of these violent histories by creating a cinematic montage of image and sound, including a vast array of archival footage. This material is in part drawn from the BBC’s Natural History Unit, these scenes sequentially interwoven with tableaux vivants captured by the artist on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Isles and Norway. These set eyes on solo figures, a past-being dressed in historic costume, standing on the foreshore looking out: a backdrop recognisable in historic paintings except that the figure is turned away from us instead of proudly meeting us face-on.

Historically, tableaux vivants were formed of figures posed, silent and immobile, for twenty or thirty seconds, in imitation of well-known works of art or dramatic scenes from history and literature. [2] More than this—and of significance to Akomfrah’s enquiry—the tableaux were a leisurely pastime of the elite classes, coming of age synchronously with the height of the Triangular Trade. There is a tension in the stillness—the deathliness—of these immobile figures, in bringing history to life through their statue-like presence. Again with reference to the tradition of the tableaux, these were accompanied from time-to-time by readings, of poems or texts. Here, Akomfrah’s three screens are punctuated by narration from western literary texts by authors such as Virginia Woolf, Heathcote William (‘Whale Nation’) and Herman Melville (Moby Dick). Just as the whiteness of Melville’s whale was rich in symbolic value, the recurrence of the majestic animal in ‘Vertigo Sea’ signifies the brutal history of the whaling industry and its central role in European industrialisation.

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John Akomfrah, ‘Vertigo Sea’, installation Talbot Rice Gallery. Photo Chris Park

The figures hovering at the water’s edge are a recurring emblem throughout Akomfrah’s filmic oeuvre—a painterly gesture reminiscent of the romantics, and a nod to Tarkovsky—inscribing notions of sublimity, memory and timelessness. In ‘Vertigo Sea’ the figure is a phantom. The seemingly-barren landscape upon which they stand is scattered with remnants of broken furniture, fragments of chairs, prams, tables, lamps, clocks, as if the remains of a flood or a shipwreck, washed up as the consequence of a flood of biblical proportions. These almost-motionless images are further abstracted by the constant tick-tock of the omnipresent clocks, reminding us in equal measure that there are lessons to be learned from history tragically repeating themselves, and that—in terms of Akomfrah’s ecological concerns—there is no time to lose.

The waves within ‘Vertigo Sea’ keep on coming, a metaphor for the relentless repetition of history, the drowned Vietnamese victims attempting to escape the Vietnam war, mirrored in the stories of the young Nigerian men who describe their desperate attempts to cross the Mediterranean and reach the shores of Europe. Akomfrah’s ‘Vertigo Sea’ is an antidote to the amnesia which steeps the present, a homage to the unimaginable numbers who have disappeared, and a eulogy bringing history into the present, giving hope to transform our futures. 

A testament to the deep. 


[1] Kodwo Eshun; Anjalika Sagar (eds.), The Ghost of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology and University of Liverpool Press: Liverpool, 2007, pg. 170

[2] Mary Chapman, “Living pictures”, Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth Century American Fiction and Culture (Doctoral thesis), Submitted to Cornell University: Ithaca, NY, 1992, pg. 2

Vertigo Sea is presented with the support of Arts Council England, through the Strategic Touring Fund, and Creative Scotland. The Vertigo Sea UK Tour is led and managed by Arnolfini, Bristol, produced by Smoking Dogs Films and supported by Lisson Gallery.

The work of Black Audio Film Collective has previously been exhibited in Scotland at CCA Glasgow, 2017; Street Level Photoworks, 2007; and as part of the exhibition ‘From Two Worlds’ which travelled to the Fruitmarket Gallery in 1986.

Mother Tongue is a research-led, independent curatorial project, formed in 2009 by Tiffany Boyle and Jessica Carden. They have since then collaboratively produced exhibitions, screening programmes, discursive events, and texts, working with galleries, museums, and festivals. Mother Tongue has previously exhibited Akomfrah’s ‘Mnemosyne’ at the CCA Glasgow in 2012, and Black Audio Film Collective’s ‘The Last Angel of History’ as part of Africa-in-Motion Film Festival in 2013.