Critics’ Picks

John Akomfrah, Vertigo Sea, 2015, three-channel HD video, color, sound, 48 minutes 30 seconds.

San Francisco

John Akomfrah

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third Street
March 3 - September 16

Vertigo Sea, 2015, John Akomfrah’s magisterial multichannel video installation, presents modernity as a half-millennium of mounting atrocities. Nineteenth-century photographs of enslaved people, grainy, decades-old footage of polar bear hunts, and more recent clips of sperm whale butcherings and melting icecaps are intercut with sweeping shots of majestic natural beauty. Through this dichotomy, Akomfrah shows the development of a truly globalized world as a centuries-long and human-produced emergency, one that trespasses on an increasingly burdened environment. Walter Benjamin’s axiom that artifacts of civilization double as evidence of barbarism permeates the work’s three massive projection screens as voice-overs recalling the 1781 Zong slave massacre and the forced disappearances of Pinochet’s Chile narrate teeming jewel-like butterflies and tumultuous, storm-capped seas.

Originally shown at Okwui Enwezor’s 2015 Venice Biennale, Vertigo Sea is exhibited here alongside J.M.W. Turner’s 1805 oil painting The Deluge. Chosen specifically by Akomfrah, the painting represents the biblical flood as a whirlpool of agonized bodies, smokelike clouds, and the skeleton-like wreckage of Noah’s ruined ark. Created at the dawn of an age of industry and political revolution, Turner’s smoldering vision acts as a prophetic auguring of the same radical and traumatic changes that Akomfrah obliquely chronicles in Sea. Both works conjure thoughts of another painting by Turner not present in this show: The Slave Ship, from 1840. Depicting the sea as a charnel house of jettisoned human cargo, it completes the story of a maritime, man-made, and, ultimately, catastrophic modernity.