John AkomfrahVertigo Sea, video still, 2015.
© Smoking Dogs Films, DACS / Artimage (2023)
Photo: courtesy of Smoking Dogs Films & Lisson Gallery, Los Angeles

Vertigo Sea and Typhoon Coming On, Oblique Tales of an Aquatic Sublime

Chélanie Beaudin-Quintin
Joëlle Dubé
A swarm of floating jellyfish, migrants crammed into a makeshift raft on a rough sea, people on a lone sailboat enjoying the sunset: these three scenes are juxtaposed in Vertigo Sea (2015), a video installation by British-Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah.

The forty-eight-minute work is presented on three large screens that wrap around the room, and a soundscape completes the immersive experience. Full of canonical art-history references such as Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, the videos include excerpts from Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Heathcote Williams, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, reminding us that the sea holds an abundance of submarine marvels yet has also taken many lives, particularly those of enslaved people and migrants. It is a place of mystery, wonder, and conquest. The installation Typhoon Coming On (2018) by the African American artist Sondra Perry plays on a similar ambiguity. Referring explicitly to the painting The Slave Ship1 1 - The work was originally called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On (or Typhon, using the spelling of the period). (1840) by the British painter William Turner, Typhoon Coming On revisits the massacre of the Zong (1781) by projecting a monumental video of an oily sea. Using the “Ocean Modifier” tool of the open-source software Blender, Perry samples, manipulates, and transforms the stormy waters taken from Turner’s painting. Periodically, the animation of the sea takes on violet hues and loses its texture.

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This article also appears in the issue 109 - Water

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