Since he was a child, British artist John Akomfrah has simultaneously had a fascination with, and an aversion to the sea. He almost drowned, and so respects its power. In Vertigo Sea, a multi-screen installation that opens at SFMOMA tomorrow, Akomfrah combines images of nature and archival footage with non-speaking actors, and a sound design that tells the rich and often brutal experience of man’s interactions with the ocean.
You can find out more about the work at the SFMOMA website.
The work had its premiere at the Venice Biennale in 2015, and this marks its US premiere. For the first time, it’s being paired with a work by J.M.W. Turner, whose seascapes have inspired Akomfrah since his childhood. He originally envisioned a work about the refugee crisis, which has continued, especially in Europe. “Once I heard this young Nigerian, whose voice opens the piece, something happened. It felt horribly familiar. I thought I’d heard that voice before, but of course I haven’t… Thousands and thousands have died at sea, and that’s certainly one of the catalysts for it…When it became clear that I wanted to do something about the current refugee crisis, certainly in Europe, it seemed to me that it wasn’t enough, that I needed to try and connect it with other narratives at sea.” So he also touches on the slave trade, the ‘disappearing’ of political prisoners in Chile on ‘death flights’ over the ocean, the hunting of polar bears and whales, even the testing of atomic bombs. “It seemed to me very early on that if the form we choose is the multi-screen form, then we are also saying, by implication that we want something discursive, we want something multi-faceted, and we want them to talk to each other in some way.” The painting it’s paired with is called “The Deluge,” and it’s just one of countless works by Turner that attempt to show the size and character of the sea. “One of the things he was obsessed with was the question of how to capture both the force, the violence and the beauty, and I think he saw them as being intertwined.”