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“Vertigo Sea” (2015) installation view: John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire New Museum, New York, 2018; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery (all photos: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio)

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 But this three-channel film, originally made for the 2015 Venice Biennale, is overwhelmingly lush.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.

“Vertigo Sea” (2015) installation view: John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire New Museum, New York, 2018; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

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.

“Vertigo Sea” (2015) installation view: John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire New Museum, New York, 2018; courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

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.

John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through September 2.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The American Age. His book...

One reply on “Making Room to Take In the Depth of John Akomfrah’s “Vertigo Sea””

  1. This film is just a collection of national geographic footage. Or BBC, I guess, in their own imperial style. It’s not art, just stock images strung together with meaninglessly banal sound.

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