An Interview with John Akomfrah

by Clara Sankey and Lindsey Westbrook, July 2018

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 (installation view); photo: Katherine Du Tiel

A highlight of the 2015 Venice Biennale, John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea is an immersive aural and visual odyssey. The three-channel video installation has been on view in SFMOMA’s seventh floor galleries since early March 2018, where it is being presented with J.M.W. Turner’s historic painting The Deluge. After the installation of Sublime Seas: John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner, I sat down with the indefatigable London-based artist for a wide-ranging conversation about the importance art history in his work, how a near death experience as child has allowed him to connect to strangers, and why San Francisco is the ideal place to show Vertigo Sea.

Clara Sankey: Let’s talk about the title of your film installation. For San Franciscans, the word “vertigo” immediately conjures up Alfred Hitchcock’s famous movie, which was filmed here, and its themes of obsession, fulfillment, and despair. Can you talk about what that word means for you in the context of this piece?

John Akomfrah: If I had to pick the ideal place in which Vertigo Sea would be shown, it would be here in San Francisco. The title Vertigo Sea is very much a crib from the Hitchcock film—but as channeled by Chris Marker. Marker was the one who introduced most of my generation to that classic in the early 1980s. His diagnosis of it as a portrait of derangement, of masculine excess, and of a certain kind of mania for control and possession, is what I wanted to allude to with this piece. I was certainly hoping people would think, “Ah, that film looks very much as if it’s working for Hitchcock’s film.” Yes, indeed it is. And what better place to show it than the place where Vertigo was shot?

CS: Vertigo Sea is steeped in art history, with references to J.M.W. Turner, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19), and Caspar David Friedrich. How do you think about, or use, art history when you are creating your films? Does it enter into the work in different ways as you conceptualize versus shoot versus edit?

This is probably the most vexed question of them all. One of the ways in which land-based or time-based work has to initiate itself into the gallery space—morally, aesthetically, ethically—is to suggest a conversation with the history of such spaces. I’m not a believer in the tenet: “I’m coming fully formed to reinvent the wheel and not have a conversation with the past because I’m the new.” That seems false. The new—as I’m sure most people would agree when they think about it seriously—always comes into being in conversation with something that came before it, beyond it, its past. I don’t have a problem with having a conversation with art history because the institutions in which I want these works to circulate are already populated by past presences. I’m happy for the work to be touched by, to seem infused by, to have dialogues with, to be in contentious debate with, those institutions. You’ve mentioned the three that I’ve probably quarreled with, debated with, and learned from more than any others.

CS: I’ve read that you were inspired to make Vertigo Sea after listening to a radio interview with Nigerian migrants who survived a perilous attempt to cross the Mediterranean. And you yourself almost drowned in the sea a couple of times as a child. How are these experiences expressed in this work, if they are?

JA: First—and I think anyone who’s had a near-death experience will tell you—your life doesn’t flash before your eyes. Certainly not when you’re five. But what does palpably imprint itself is the question of mortality. You’re struck by the fragility of things and how close you are to your own unmaking.

So that’s in the “broth” of Vertigo Sea, as it were. It’s not that I wanted to do something specifically about the fact that I almost drowned at sea once; that’s just a fact. It left an imprint that I tried to use as a narrational device, an organizing trope for how I assess the lives and the chapters that we are going through. When you’ve almost drowned at sea once, you’re left somehow with a kind of nostalgia. You feel almost as if you understand what others have gone through. But of course that is complete bullshit. I’m here. I didn’t die. I was five. So the idea that I might understand what a thirty-year-old political prisoner from Argentina feels like is fanciful, to say the least.

CS: Yet I imagine there is an element of empathy that is completely real, particularly regarding the young Nigerian man’s story.

JA: Absolutely, and that empathy is something that I’m keen to hang onto. I know I’m not completely in that space, but there is a desire to extend the empathy to cover this range of people. It allows me to think through what the implications might be. Both for their lives as well as this slightly arrogant assumption that I understand them.

The young Nigerian is very important to me. Here’s a figure who walked from the rainforest of West Africa onto a boat that then shipwrecked and now he is about to die. And in that moment he becomes a new person. He realizes the immensity of something that would not have been familiar to him before. I’m interested in the transformative potential of our encounters with forces and things larger than ourselves. It doesn’t get any bigger than the sea.

CS: And it’s a shared fate, cutting across eras and cultures and politics…

JA: And that’s his importance for me. We think, “What was going to happen to him if we hadn’t found him? And how many people have suffered that fate?” And then how many people? became how many species? Because yes, it’s about that Nigerian, but it’s also about the millions of tuna in that cage that he’s hanging onto for dear life. They are also literally clinging on for dear life. How do we get that commonwealth of beings on the same stage at the same time?

That became the overriding concern for Vertigo Sea—to construct a theatrical space with a stage made up of different species, some human and some not human. To avoid a moral hierarchy in which whales are less important than people. I wanted to try to see whether we could do something different—something more Heideggerian, shall we say. There’s a shared ontology, be it water, or people, or the humpback whale. Vertigo Sea deals with a drama of becoming that is also a drama of unbecoming.

CS: I was thinking about how indiscriminate the sea is. It doesn’t pick one species toward which to be more indifferent.

JA: It’s so cruel. There are a lot of writers who play supporting roles in the construction of Vertigo Sea. One is Derek Walcott. The phrase “The sea is history” is in one of his poems. Usually people understand “history” to mean the narratives of human acts, but here it encompasses more than that. “The sea is history” also implies that there might be other means by which temporality is registered in our universe. Time doesn’t rely on our understanding of it flowing from human action.

So, that was interesting to me as a premise. Can we construct something in which these multiple histories are being formed by an ensemble of players? Almost all of whom are in some dialogue with this mammoth giant thing, the sea, but are not defining it? The sea has its own independence, its own power and ontology, and it is playing the space in which these dramas are unfolding, but the sea doesn’t itself become a repository of the fate of cruelty. Yes, the sea is enormous, but it doesn’t care much who we are. It is not there to form a backdrop to our becoming or unbecoming.

CS: In the exhibition, Vertigo Sea is on view in close proximity to J.M.W. Turner’s The Deluge (exhibited 1805). What were you hoping the viewer might pick out of your work when they’re viewing it with The Deluge fresh in their mind? And vice versa, perhaps?

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015 (installation view); © Smoking Dogs Films; courtesy Lisson Gallery

JA: I only wish we could have had The Deluge on one side of Vertigo Sea and The Raft of the Medusa on the other. The Deluge is standing in, if you will, for a whole set of art historical observations about fragility, about our complex relations with the sea, with disaster. The Deluge is interesting for me because Turner accomplishes its effects in this almost forensic way. Yes, he is concerned about the disaster unfolding, but you can see that the formal questions are really important to him. In what light, with what wind, can this disaster be shown? In other words, The Deluge is a way of reminding us that the question of form is central to narrational moments in which we want to say something ethical or political.

It’s what I like most about The Deluge: the disaster is not separate from the desire to find a form for representing it. It’s almost a kind of salutary reminder to people like me that you do have to take questions of form seriously. That there is no detour around form: the desire to say something is also a desire to find a way of saying it. The Deluge is not just a rendering of a disaster at sea—it’s a really fantastic rendering of a disaster at sea.

CS: With that in mind, can you say something from your personal perspective about making something visually beautiful out of terrible stories?

JA: Yes, absolutely. Take Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It’s not a great example of classicism, but the means by which it was arrived at are worth mentioning. The process of making it involved a lot of robbing of bodies and leaving bodies in Géricault’s studio for a very long time. In other words, the means by which he arrived at The Raft of Medusa were not beautiful. In fact there were some very ugly episodes. And in a way, that functions for me as a kind of example, charismatic or otherwise, of what the relation between beauty and terror might be.

CS: How much of that was intentional on the part of Géricault or Turner? Meaning, would they have thought about it in the terms you just described?

JA: Definitely, your average educated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century figure understood this. That’s what they meant by the sublime: that mix of the not-so-pleasant and the pleasant. The means by which we arrived at notions of the sublime were also the means by which we understood that we were mere cogs in this great wheel of being, which has its problems. The problems of romanticism in general. I’m attached to that ideal, and believe in it very passionately. The sublime isn’t either ugly or beautiful, but a complex interplay between the two.

CS: In the UK, where you live, and in Europe, the average person today might immediately connect Vertigo Sea with the refugee crisis. Here in San Francisco, people are perhaps less likely to immediately think about geopolitical borders. I wonder if and how you have witnessed the meaning of Vertigo Sea change as it is exhibited in cities experiencing different situations and circumstances?

JA: I’ll give you a concrete example. Turner Contemporary in Margate, England, is built on the site of a house Turner used to visit and work in. So when I was in the town of Margate with Vertigo Sea, understandably a lot of people wanted to talk about Turner. Margate also has a relationship to migration. Every city and town in England does now—they’re defined by whether they want foreigners and strangers or not. So, I would oscillate between conversations about Turner and light and the sea with people who are interested in history and art, and conversations in bars with people who were not interested in Turner at all, but thought refugees were important to discuss with me. I think often they assumed I was one.

This is very different from showing it in Denmark, for example, or places where there’s a particular history of whaling. You get a very different flavor to the conversation; the texture changes depending on which strand of Vertigo Sea people feel an affinity with. Either in a negative or a positive sense. I think it’s inscribed into the democratic intent of the piece itself. A multi-screen piece forces people to perceive combinations across the screens, and the means by which they arrive at those combinations will differ depending on what they decide to privilege.

CS: The meaning changes depending on which screen(s) you focus on.

JA: Indeed, and rightly so. One of my main goals was to bring these disparate strands of stories and chapters together. But in a way not really together. I suggest an affinity, and then the rest is necessarily made up by the spectator. I don’t want to have control over what people see. Otherwise, why not make a single-screen piece, sell tickets, advertise the start time, and show it in a theater? But it’s not that kind of piece. Do I want people to stay for all forty-something minutes? Yes. But if they choose not to, that’s fine. That’s one of the reasons why it’s broken into chapters—so that you can say, “Okay, well, I get it. I’m off.” There are too many things that are demanding absolute fidelity all the time from us now. I’ll ask for it, but I don’t demand it. I think that tone’s important.

CS: I will say that once you are in there, it’s incredibly hard to leave.

JA: The idea is to make leaving difficult, that’s true.