An onslaught of images: boats sailing, drifting, floundering; waves surging and crashing; schools of fish and flocks of birds darting and dancing in shapes and patterns that sometimes resemble whales comprised of hundreds of individual gleaming parts; pineapples and coconuts hanging from branches by pieces of string; extremely graphic scenes of whales being slaughtered and butchered, huge slabs of meat the size of breezeblocks being pushed down holes or suspended from crane hooks; people dressed in exquisite period dress, posing almost immobile in a series of tableaus vivantes, dozing and dreaming on picnic rugs, or writing intensely with quill and ink; fat rain drumming on an intricately-decorated silver helmet, making a dull pinging rhythm.
The bombardment of the senses by visual and auditory images — and the vast, dense layers of ideas these images suggest or point to — induces a keen sense of vertigo. Conducting this orchestra of audiovisual material is the artist John Akomfrah. Some of the material in his film Vertigo Sea was created by him and his team, but a lot of it was plundered from sources such as the archives of the BBC Natural History Unit and the British Film Institute. Akomfrah arranges this vast and diverse range of material — excerpts from nature and social documentaries, film scenes, newsreel footage, and his own beautifully crafted and richly detailed frames — into a 48-minute montage covering hundreds of years of history and half a planet’s worth of terrain. Notions such as the Transatlantic slave trade, whaling, empire, capitalism, migration and refugees are hinted at without being drawn together into a single big idea. In fact, Akomfrah’s strategy of bringing all these disparate bearers of meaning together into what he calls an “affective proximity” might be a way of rendering perceptible, as an aesthetic object, a truth that is too big and complicated and far-reaching to be contained within a single concept. He recruits the senses to think the beyond of concepts.
If Vertigo Sea is a roaring symphony, then Akomfrah’s latest film Tropikos is more like a chamber piece. It focuses on the lives and dreams of several characters, some of whom appear to be imperialists and some slaves, though roles, locations, and historical moments often blur and blend into one another. In one scene, a woman in a sumptuous 16th Century dress is shown gazing out across an estuary, with modern engine-powered boats moving across her field of view. In another, a man in Elizabethan finery is shown writing with quill and ink, but the grand hall he is sat in is already a ruin. The implication is that they — and we, for the invocation of our own time puts us in the frame — are encircled within the bounds of a single event, a centuries-spanning dream/nightmare that links the British Isles with West Africa and the Caribbean.
In both films, what the textbooks consign to history is very much present as affect, shown by the power of Akomfrah’s images to unsettle and provoke. I felt both challenged and left to make up my own mind on how to live with an awareness of this affect, a gesture I interpreted as respectful on the part of the artist, even if it perhaps left the crux of the matter open. What I like about the films is their combination of sensory intensity and fierce intelligence, never neglecting one for the other; under such intensity, thought becomes a sensory apparatus, and the senses become other productive ways of thinking.
Vertigo Sea and Tropikos are on show at Arnolfini, Bristol until 10 April. Tropikos is on show at Lisson Gallery, London until 12 March.