Human life and the sea

vertigo sea copenhagen british soldier

On our last day in Copenhagen, cold and smiling, Chris and I wandered narrow cobblestone streets sprinkled with historical treasures to find the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre. As we entered the aging repurposed church I was surprised to find what seemed like a mostly empty space, at first questioning what we had each just spent our $15 on. John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea was the featured and the only exhibit currently at the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre. Little did I know that this exhibit was about to silence all my doubtful questioning and leave a lasting mark. 

This exhibition, Vertigo Sea, bombards the senses by appearing on three massive side by side television screens simultaneously, and your attention is drawn back and forth like a bowstring. It was first shown at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) as a part of Okwul Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition. Arnolfini, one of Europe's leading cultural art centers, put it perfectly: ”[Vertigo Sea] is a sensual, poetic, and cohesive meditation on man’s relationship with the sea and the exploration of its role in the history of slavery, migration, and conflict.”

The piece utilizes archival materials, readings from classical sources, specifically Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote William’s Whale Nation (1988), and newly shot footage to highlight the horrific nature of the whaling industry. This is juxtaposed with many generations of immigrants crossing the ocean in hopes of a better life, a particularly timely message considering current issues of global migration, slavery, and ecological concerns. It is important to note John Akomfrah’s specific focus on the African migration here, as it is in keeping with his continued passion for the African diaspora in Europe and the USA. Arnolifini notes that Vertigo Sea conjures emotions in the “investigation into personal and collective histories and memory, cultural, ethnic and personal identities, both post colonialism and temporality.” It is this investigation that leaves us so personally and humanistically connected.

More themes that struck me were that of the primal comparison of man and animal, of death, life and rebirth, all encapsulated in the great historical narrative that is beholden in the sea and all its beautiful and tragic happenings. John Akomrah’s Vertigo Sea has reminded us to continue to examine history both critically and sensitively as he pulls on our heart strings and floods our senses with an all encompassing visceral experience leaving your eyes wide and mind racing.

Needless to say we left the Nikolaj Contemporary Art Centre not at all disappointed and with a new interest in John Akomfrah’s works. We raced to a café to further discuss, explore, and reflect. 

Chris was struck first by his personal connection to the sea and how little he thinks of this historical and present relationship. He was left reflecting on the significance of the the sea in his and all our lives. How the sea and its history is alive in us, in the food we eat, in our imports and exports, in our connection to nature, and imbedded in our culture; the film unearthed a connection that he had forgotten or perhaps was unaware of, but now post-film, feels deeply.  

I continue to be in awe of the beautiful curation of all aspects of the film, from the incredible images (3 at a time) each so striking and impressive that it was impossible to pick one, the use of quotes, words, and sounds to stir our senses to feel the true weight of the messages. This visceral experience left me enveloped in the divine sorrow of the sea and washed over with emotion in now remembering the great sacrifice and tragedy the sea has held in all our histories. Throughout the film and post it's wake I feel the power, strength, energy, beauty, care, resource, life, death and rebirth that is and lives within the sea.

Let us not forget the impact of the sea in our history and culture and let us feel ever present in what we have to learn and how we can grow from the sea.

Enjoy a 3 minute excerpt of the exhibition: 


And now, with no further adieu, we're off to Amsterdam! 

Eve & Chris