John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.