John Akomfrah: Vertigo Sea

Attribution/author:Article by: Jessica Ramm

Cruelty and beauty are equally compelling in this multi-screen installation

There is something clichéd about John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea. A man stands looking out over a rugged and mysterious Skye landscape, a women silently mourns as household objects lie scattered to the wind, a dead deer is trussed and hung in a desolate glen. These are all images that have represented Scotland's national identity since the clearances of the 19th century; but whose images are they?

Harrowing footage of whales being slit open for their blubber and black slaves being dumped from a sail-ship is juxtaposed with glowing sunset vistas, the Aurora Borealis and flocks of migrating jellyfish; their poignant similarity with drowned refugees washed up on a sandy beach made clear. In this rush of sensory overload there are contradictory aspects of human experience that are impossible to reconcile. Cruelty and beauty are equally compelling and the logic of who hunts whom with the camera or the harpoon seems flawed.

Colonial fantasy finds refuge in cliché, in images that allow us to look without seeing. Akomfrah is bound to all manner of phantoms; he shines a light on where they walk and where they hide in our own psyche.

Talbot Rice Gallery until Sat 27 Jan.

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