Mythmaking in and through Sublime Seas at SFMOMA


Mythmaking in and through Sublime Seas at SFMOMA

By Connie Zheng May 8, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

… “Memory does not stamp its own coin; Argentina. 1974.” …

… “Feeding the ghost; Newfoundland. 1575.” …

… “The way of killing men and beasts is the same; Algiers. 1956.” …

—John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea (2015)

As one watches the alternately awe-inspiring and bone-chilling images of turbid ocean waves, trembling starfish, harpooned whales, and enslaved Africans that flow through John Akomfrah’s spectacular three-channel film Vertigo Sea (2015) in the Sublime Seas exhibition currently on display at SFMOMA, the above cryptic words interject from time to time, like prophecies bubbling up from the depths. Appearing on interstitial screens in a searing Chroma Key blue, these intertitles serve as a kind of palate cleanser for the onslaught of images delivered by Akomfrah’s film. The text is polyphonous; it is unclear whether there is a single writer, or if these are quotations from different sources. The polyphony quickly reveals itself to be a major source of the power of Vertigo Sea. Specifically, it provides a conceptual frame for greater consideration of the relationships between bodies and voices, media and environment, representations and reality.

Sublime Seas (installation view). Courtesy of SFMOMA.

Sublime Seas is the US premiere of Ghana–born, British artist John Akomfrah’s 48-minute, 3-channel film, Vertigo Sea (2015). The work could be described as a hybrid film essay, natural history documentary, and visual poem. This audiovisual and conceptual triptych interweaves original cinematic footage, archival material, and texts by Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, to trace linkages between the ways in which different kinds of bodies move, are moved, disappear, or are traded in the animated palimpsest of the ocean. 

It is an ambitious film, perhaps necessarily so. The transatlantic slave trade, whaling industry, “disappearances” during the Argentine “Dirty War” (1974–1983), and tragic deaths of migrants out at sea are but a sampling of the narratives singing in Akomfrah’s soaring chorus. At Akomfrah’s request, Vertigo Sea productively shares the SFMOMA exhibition space with J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Deluge (1805)—a depiction of the Biblical flood—whose wild chiaroscuros remind viewers of the myths surrounding the sea, as well as its mythmaking character. It is this mythic voice that Akomfrah’s piece embodies and reimagines in order to open new audiovisual ontologies.

J.M.W. (Joseph Mallord William) Turner. The Deluge, first exhibited 1805; oil on canvas. Courtesy of SFMOMA and Tate. 

Each time I watched Vertigo Sea, I was struck by Akomfrah’s collage of different representations of the sea, particularly the stylistic differences within these representations. Staged scenes of actors in colonial costume looking out to sea are juxtaposed against National Geographic-esque images of aquatic landscapes and marine life. These glossy tableaus are then complicated by archival footage of a different tenor, such as grainy vintage clips of polar bear hunts and what I presume are scenes from older films about the slave trade. The archival imagery packs several hefty emotional punches, but I am more troubled, and therefore more intrigued, by the glossy cinematic visuals. Over and over again in my notes I wrote, “What is the meaning of the cinematic, or sublime spectacular, here?” How is beautiful imagery of ecological and humanitarian disaster used responsibly, without allowing aesthetics to distance us from the peril that we can see only through a camera lens, thousands of miles away?

John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea, 2015; three-channel HD color video projection with 7.1 surround sound, 48:00 minutes. Courtesy of SFMOMA. 

Here, I call upon the thinking of the media historian and social theorist John Durham Peters to aid my use of Akomfrah’s film to enter into a larger discourse about the relationship between media and the environment. In his book The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, Peters argues that the “ozone layer, the arctic ice, and whale populations all are now what they are not only because of how they are covered by reporters, but because of how their being is altered by media, understood as infrastructures of data and control.”1 He further suggests that if we see media as “vehicles that carry and communicate meaning, then media theory needs to take nature, the background to all possible meaning, seriously.”2

If television, film, radio, newspapers, and other forms of media act as distributors of particular kinds of ideologies or methods of meaning-making that have affected how we see the ocean—as a zone meant to support colonial enterprise, a blank slate where political enemies are disappeared, or an idyllic site for a neoliberal vacation fantasy—then Akomfrah’s act of cutting, mixing, and recontextualizing these “civilizational ordering devices”3 reminds us that media itself is just as much of an environment as the very ecologies that they can depict and shape. Peters notes that the “brightly lit seascapes featured in color film and television documentaries since the 1950s act as advertisements for the idea that the ocean can and should be colonized by human technologies,” a representation that is in tension with the reality that the ocean is a dark and murky place, in possession of natural forces and ecological states of being that surpass our ability to control them.4 Vertigo Sea both indulges in and challenges this aesthetic, and reinforces the notion that the ocean is “both a primordial medium-free zone, immune to all human attempts at fabrication…[and is also] the medium of all media, the fountain from which all life on earth emerged.”5

John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea, 2015; three-channel HD color video projection with 7.1 surround sound, 48:00 minutes. Courtesy of SFMOMA. 

The new environment that Akomfrah creates is therefore a constellation that both makes visible and imagines beyond the cartographies of human ambition, cruelty, and greed that have etched themselves into the crashing waves of the sea. Time acts as a unifying thread throughout Vertigo Sea, as the ominous ticking of a clock undergirds the soundscape, and images of clocks lodged in beach sand at the tide are juxtaposed with images of living or dead human and animal bodies. We are seeing more than just depictions of maritime; perhaps we are witnessing the countdown of the planet’s time, as well. Yet, we are also experiencing a production, or suggestion, of non-simultaneity: “a plural now in which many different times cross.”6

More than a collection of “plural nows” that hint at new possibilities for how viewers interface with media, environments, media as environments, or environments as media, the polyphony of Vertigo Sea also brings to mind other artists who are thinking through our relationship to the ocean. The fatal trade in whales, and the deadly trade in human bodies via the Middle Passage, collide potently in the works of Ellen Gallagher, particularly in her Watery Ecstatic series. Using mixed-media methods and the practice of scrimshaw to conjure the utopian underwater Atlantis Drexciya, which is a reimagined counterpoint to the horrific historical practice of casting African slaves overboard in order to collect insurance payments, Gallagher suggests that traditional modes of mark- and meaning-making can be reworked to imagine environments not only of the future, but also the past.

John Akomfrah. Vertigo Sea, 2015; three-channel HD color video projection with 7.1 surround sound, 48:00 minutes. Courtesy of SFMOMA. 

The work of the artist Enrique Ramírez, who is based out of Chile and France, also provides a potent node in the nautical web. Much of his work takes the sea as its subject, and it is often figured in ways that reference individual and national memory, recent Chilean political history, migratory flows, and narratives of conquest. In his video work Así… como la geografía se deschace (This… is how geography is unmade) (2015), the camera slowly roves over the surface of a rolling sea, tracing a succession of temporary maps whose lines are made of seafoam. Borders are made and remade over and over again, often arbitrarily. The deep indigo cast of the ocean produces an ominous feeling, whose source reveals itself when we learn that Ramírez often depicts the sea to reference the US-backed Pinochet government’s use of the ocean to “disappear” political enemies. The placid image of the sea belies a gruesome reality; representation and reality could not be more dissonant.

By using Sublime Seas—and Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea in particular—as a point of departure for exploring wider considerations about the relationships between the media and the environment of the ocean, grounded in the movement of bodies and thenexpanding out from these bodies to consider both historical and newly imagined representations of these bodies, we may begin to challenge and reshape the myths that are encoded in our experience of the natural world. Our experience, as Akomfrah, Gallagher, and Ramírez give voice to, has been shaped by colonial enterprise, flows of humans and capital, and intervention in the planet’s ecological systems. Film, television, the news, and the increasing forms of digital media have all helped to propagate extractive attitudes toward the ocean, but also less anthropocentric viewpoints. Through the shifting plurality of its oceanic chorus, Vertigo Sea reminds us of not only the many representations of the sea that have shaped our relationship to it, but also the non-human voices (both animal and institutional) that have had and continue to have a stake in its future. When we also include the works of Gallagher and Ramirez in this symphony, we are reminded that history and mythology have multiple authors, and that we, too, can write our story on and of the ocean. In an age with more democratic potential for authorship than ever before, it is imperative that we question how the media has circumscribed how we see, move within, and interact with our environment. With this, may we imagine a new environment of the media, and a new media of the environment.

Sublime Seas is on view at SFMOMA through September 16, 2018.


  1. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2.
  2. Ibid., 2.
  3. Ibid., 5.
  4. Ibid., 61.
  5. Ibid., 54.
  6. Ibid., 95.

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