John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea” (2015) is devastating. Seeing it reminds me of the feeling I have in those dreams in which something moves me so deeply that in my fabulating head I begin imagining I am crying and then wake up in tears. This is to say that the lyricism of the work is so encasing, so enveloping, so profound, that after leaving it to return to my waking life I glance backward over my shoulder wondering how I might stay in that other world a little longer.
There are other films on display in the New Museum’s John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire exhibition, and perhaps “The Unfinished Conversation” about the life and significance of the intellectual powerhouse Stuart Hall is just as compelling as “Vertigo Sea” in its own way. But this three-channel film, originally made for the 2015 Venice Biennale, is overwhelmingly lush. There’s too much, really: too much sea, with its miles of fish and plankton roiling the deeps; too much predacious elegance, watching cormorants plunging into the sea like a hail of knives, to pierce the bodies of those fish and feed. There is too much gratuitous death, as in the images of hunters taking down polar bears, which once powerful and stately after the crack of a hunter’s rifle are made into an inert mound of fur and flaccid carcass which is then dragged across the ice as some scavenger’s plunder. There are too many vignettes of humankind’s rapacious exploitation of resources for reasons beyond bodily need. I see images of slaves belched up on beaches from the hulls of foundered ships, a trussed-up deer waiting to be eaten and I know what connects them is that both have been rendered into plunder in the formation of empires.
The most disturbing images for me are the ones near the end, where a whale’s body is cut, methodically and relentlessly, gutted and parceled and the documentation of its dissection makes me think of the recurring theme of our human history: blood. We swim in it. It’s almost always others’ blood, but sometimes it is our own.
The film is a story of conquest, our colonization of the varied and brutally lovely forms of life that have nothing to do with us. It shows humans to ultimately be reductionists in our relationship to the ecology — in a world that feels like it is too much for us, we cut it down to a digestible size. And this is the primary aim of empire: to remake the world so that if you are a citizen of the colonial power everything you see in some way belongs to you, may be consumed by you, or exists by your mercy and grace, is therefore no longer alien to you.
This film by Akomfrah is so terrible and ravishing, that I have to rearrange myself to make room for it, to take it in, so it doesn’t just wash me away in its lyricism. But then I understand that it will wash me away, and perhaps should so that I am reminded that this world certainly does not belong to me. I belong to it.