You’ve changed. I can see it in your fingertips. Tap tap tapping on the surface of a violent storm. A bestowed memory, taking flight every morning as the kettle whistles. So much time has passed, ticking seconds, units of accountability, moments lost to the surrender of our bodies. Those hands, those fingers. How they have become stiff and thick.
“Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.”
We would walk for days. Letting the chance of the unknown side step into our vision field, and wrap Orange cloths around our disintegrating plans. Like Confucius, Mencius – let the fluid trajectory illuminate the day, building resilience through flexibility. The big plan is just another means of feeding our fear. Feeding the fear that we only shape the edge of our intention, of our identity, of our trace. For the most, we are shaped by that which is outside of our notion of free will, of intention. And so, hand in hand, in a quiet stupor, magnified by the wonder falling into matter around us. Porto, Geneva, Leeds, Glasgow, Warsaw, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Berlin, New York. We drift, the derive. I want more, more, more.
“With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby. She wove the river that raised her — maternal pinks, blues in watery hues. She wove a mother sewing in the sun, a girl falling asleep beneath the stars, and everything she’d ever loved.When she was done, all of her spiders beside her, she held the river and let it rock her again.”
And as we cope with the wild sea, that life turns in on us with; the beating incessant tide of love, complexity, wonder, the stars, ecology, the leviathan, you, me, language…I am presented with a large mouthful of meaning. John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea.
Three screens, three eyes, three brains. Invisible pushed apart, yet united by time, juxtaposition and epic theatre. Tears for forgotten, smoothed over violence. A fever tamed with a Black sodden cloak. Black out. Black heart. Blackness and Silence. But through the film. I remember. The hunting of whale fat powered street lights, margarine and death coloured lipsticks. The hunting of Black men and women, and photographing them as broken eyed ethnic curiosities. Sad systemic exploits, that lead me to question how brutal the human psyche can become. And I see it around me now. Such isolated disconnection. The Zong Massacre of 1781, where a whole ship of marooned slaves were murdered, drowned and dumped in order to claim insurance money. The Friday 13 November Paris attacks, 2015. How ignorant we are, in the delirium of our fever and the thickness of that Black cape. The violence of now is only a continuation of the violence of then.
The sea. The undulating force, that swirls around the surface of the planet. It covers our home. 71 % of the earth is dressed in ocean. While these watery chasms contain 99% of the earths living space, the ocean also contains Akomfrah’s reality. The sea is a recurring motif in his work. It seems to me that the ocean contains ecological knowledge that evades us on the day to day. Tied up in climate change, colonial exploits, international trade, deforestation, dropped dead bodies of the Chilean Pinochet regime, water bound people of Patagonia, my vanished grandfather, taken to the early sea grave in his sailing boat. The sea makes me shiver, and like the night sky become humbled by the deep darkness of the unknown. What I do know is that the sea is a place inhospitable to the human, where we pour our pollutants, political, emotional and material. And from the ecological wonder of the ocean to it’s toxic tides, that Akomfrah dredges his narrative iconography. The themes that populate the water in Vertigo Sea, are human exploitation of each other and nature, of the soothing balm of natural wonder, of the majesty of the sea. Whispers of rejuvination and self regeneration, stories of oppression and overlooked histories, and a potent visual language that uses natural order to amplify anthropocentric disorder. While I reflect on the meaning of one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time, Akomfrah remains intent of maintaining ambiguity and an open endedness. There is no singular meaning to be taken here. Vertigo sea is melancholic and moving. It has been described as the artist as series of lamentations or elegies. The imagery and the meaning has effortlessly etched itself into my conscious mind and Ukiyo-e dreamland.