John Akomfrah’s three-screen installation/exhibition Vertigo Sea, first shown at the 56th Venice Biennale, started its two year national tour of the UK recently at Arnolfini, Bristol. After Arnolfini it will travel to Turner Contemporary, Margate and The Whitworth, Manchester as part of an Arts Council Strategic Touring programme.
Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective. He knew he always wanted to make films, he said in his 2015 TateShot, but not, perhaps, be a filmmaker. And it makes sense keep these lines slightly blurred, meaning one can play with strategies of exhibition across both the gallery and the cinema.
Vertigo Sea, is an expansive and poetic meditation on man’s relationship with the sea. The dark history of transatlantic slavery, historical and modern–day migration and the cruelty of the whaling industry are all explored through deeply immersive sequences and landscapes with haunting narratives and rich soundscapes.
Akomfrah layers his work like a collage. Archival and news footage is married with film shot on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands, the Northern regions of Norway and with BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit (making Bristol a fitting debut for the work in the UK). The films also draw on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988).
The pace of Vertigo Sea is meditative and hypnotic and appeals to what we know as some of the most iconic images of our lifetime - overloaded inflatables and boats, traumatised people arriving on Greek beaches. Yet the work also creates its own space in which so many world narratives, connected and fragmented, come together.
I really recommend catching this exhibition as it travels around the UK although I suspect it will be a hard one to ignore. Akomfrah is really a bit of art royalty at the moment, his 2013 film about the cultural theorist Stuart Hall is still being talked about as one of the most influential art films/docs of recent times (You can watch it on the BFI Player here). Once Vertigo Sea has seen the Bristol and Margate exhibitions through it will probably start making the rounds in large scale institutional group exhibitions across Europe and America. But it's interesting to see the installation in different UK settings, walking out of Vertigo Sea straight onto the Bristol Quays, bleak grey Margate dreamscape or redundant industrial canals of Manchester will put a different slant on the work each time.
Vertigo Sea runs at Arnolfini, Bristol, until Sunday 10 April 2016.