John Akomfrah, still from Vertigo Sea, 2015. 3 channel high‑definition video.

John Akomfrah, still from Vertigo Sea, 2015. 3 channel high‑definition video, 48:30 minutes. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © John Akomfrah/Smoking Dogs Films; Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery

John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea

John Akomfrah’s three-channel video installation Vertigo Sea (2015) is at once devastatingly beautiful, heart-wrenching and incredibly timely.

Composed of excerpts from films and television programs drawn primarily from the archives of the BBC natural history unit, along with staged footage shot by Akomfrah, it weaves together multiple narratives that portray the ocean as a site of terror and of beauty. 

Vertigo Sea juxtaposes powerful scenes of the whale hunt off the shores of Newfoundland; polar bear hunting on Arctic ice floes; kilometre-long schools of fish and plankton; views of the predatory instincts of all forms of marine life; but also black bodies aligned in the hold of a slave ship; Vietnamese boat people fleeing their country; political prisoners being cast into the sea; and the all too common sight of refugees floating in makeshift vessels. Many of these images are familiar to us, we can identify their historical and geographical references, we recognize the stories behind them. And yet, their proximity one to the other with no apparent correspondence across three screens, and over the 48 minutes the work runs, produces a vertiginous effect.

Organized by the National Gallery of Canada



Until July 30, 2023


National Gallery of Canada
Contemporary Galleries
380 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, ON K1N 9N4