Premiered at this year's Venice Biennale, the artist's latest work explores beauty and terror at sea in a remarkable meditation on whaling and the history of migration
In the sprawling space of the Venice Biennale’s Giardini, it is easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer volume of work on display. Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ brings together a remarkable collection of artists, weaving together rainbow-bright installation work with muted small-scale sculpture, and interactive performances with architectural models. The harsh realities of a globalised economy are brought to the fore as these threads entwine, amplifying the voices and materials that make up the world’s labour force. An often-overlooked underclass of workers is conjured, and the exhibition’s many modes of presentation become an urgent tool of communication and dissent. Three-screen film installation Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah’s latest work, embodies this focus on the unseen networks of production and distribution. Nestled in the heart of Enwezor’s Central Pavilion, layers of archive footage, text, sound and imagery shot by Akomfrah overlap to form a new narrative of human ambition, brutality, innovation and pain.
A whale moves gracefully forward upon the central screen as I enter Akomfrah’s darkened installation room, separated from the main exhibition by a heavy curtain. Where many other works in the Pavilion overlap, sharing rooms or projecting sound that carries even as you move across thresholds, Vertigo Sea inhabits its own domain. Akomfrah watched over 120 hours of natural history footage for the piece over a course of three and half months, building outwards from an initial meditation on Moby Dick. “I had been thinking about doing work based around the Melville novel for years, which is so full of these incredible philosophical speculations about our relations with the sea, and with each other. I had been trying to find ways that I could eviscerate it, and take out elements without directly referring to the novel,” he says.
As I watch, a harpoon strikes the whale and slowly halts its progress through the water. The waves run a vivid shade of red, and the pain of the animal is palpable as it writhes amidst the waves. The violence is shocking, the looming presence of a ship and its machinery alien amidst their expansive natural surroundings. “I had set off to do something about the 'aquatic sublime', as I called it, which is just the notion that you could have the sea as a landscape in which incredible beauty coexists which absolute terror. And so then question was, what narratives could one find to substantiate this idea?” Akomfrah recalls. “Whaling is the maiming of the aquatic sublime par excellence. You've got these magnificent creatures: the oldest, the most intelligent on the planet, that are forced to live this incredible life of absolute brutality and horror with us, that has gone on for five centuries of mechanised, organised, systematic butchery.”
I had set off to do something about the 'aquatic sublime', which is just the notion of the sea as a landscape in which incredible beauty coexists which absolute terror.
The sea has recurred throughout Akomfrah’s moving image work over the years, drawing together his focus on movement and displacement, and is present from his first film Handsworth Songs to today. “From the beginning, I would always return to this central question of migration. And of course, for most of the last century, migration was necessarily a nautical journey. Creations of diaspora from biblical times to the present are always somehow connected to journeys either through or across seas, whether that's the parting of the Red Sea or the arrival of Spain in the Americas,” he explains. “This time, I was concerned about the flip-side of this utopian impulse. I was concerned about the people who don't make it. What made it relevant for me was realising just how many people were being lost at sea, notably in the Mediterranean. That suddenly suggested to me that the utopian narrative that we'd been pursuing - people arriving, facing problems, and then overcoming them - is being superseded in the imagination by a darker tale. And of course, when we talk about 'not making it at sea', you've got to talk whaling.”
From the beginning, I would always return to this central question of migration. And of course, for most of the last century, migration was necessarily a nautical journey.
The triple-screen installation heightens the dark side of our relationship with the sea, the central screen’s presentation of a history of mechanised violence set at odds with the extreme beauty framed on either side of it. Immense desert landscapes captured from above segue into frozen Arctic horizons, and waves break against distant shorelines. Meanwhile, a whale is cut open from end-to-end, chained African slaves peer out from crowded ships, and black bodies wash up on empty beaches. “It's a choreographing, an orchestrating of ideas and images and themes, deciding at any one time which screen will conduct and lead, as it were. You go over it again and again, and what you're left with in the end is a kind of mirror of your thinking.” Akomfrah’s mirror is turned also on his viewers, the interwoven sound, text and visual material reflecting an underlying collective consciousness of the realities of our networked world. “I wanted to make a work that spoke to these concerns of memory, of historicity, migration and possible futures,” Akomfrah emphasises.
A brutal logic emerges, the weight of our machine-dominated past and present fully felt. “The technologies that made whaling efficient were also the same technologies which made the enslaving of Africans possible. There may not be a direct connection, but there is some elective affinity here,” Akomfrah says. He reinforces the physicality of these tools, starkly evident in the ships, weapons and chains shown out on the open sea. The often unseen, even deliberately overlooked, mechanisms that continue to power the world that we know today are revealed, conjuring also the newer technology of today that offers alternate paths of connection. “We might be in an internet age, but most the cables that are fuelling this lie at the bottom of the sea. I remember, for a long time there was a belief that this wasn’t the case. There was a digital delirium, as if it were all happening in a nether world,” he says. “These are physical entities, and they are fuelled by a political, or other forms of, economy.”
We might be in an internet age, but most the cables that are fuelling this lie at the bottom of the sea.
Many have commented on the sheer volume of work shown in the Venice Biennale, both in Enwezor’s 143-strong line-up of artist contributions, and those crowded into previous iterations. Even amidst this demanding overload, crowds of spectators could be found breaking away from their customary frenzied pace to absorb the beauty and brutality of Vertigo Sea in full. It is a sensual audio and visual experience, revelatory and painfully familiar in equal measures. It washes in waves over its audience, bringing with it the traumas, memories and hopes of a fractured world still in transition.