Vertigo Sea

Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah and Tirohanga by Bridget Reweti is a major exhibition of two artists reflecting on our relationship to the ocean and land. Both artists investigate personal and collective histories, memory about cultural, ethnic and personal identity, and the impact of colonialism, from African migration and Māori perspectives.     

Heralded as one of the most important commissions of the Venice Biennale in 2015.

Vertigo Sea by Ghanaian born British artist filmmaker John Akomfrah is a mesmerising cinematic exploration of our relationship to the migration of refugees interplayed with awe inspiring imagery of the history, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on earth.  

Whilst Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea operates on a universal nature of the ocean as site, Bridget Reweti’s work is tied specifically to the land of Aotearoa New Zealand. Tirohanga takes the narratives of her iwi at Tauranga Moana as a starting point, to explore our understanding of the land and landscape in the North and South Island. 

The Artists

  • Bridget Reweti
    Bridget Reweti
    New Zealand

    Bridget Reweti is a Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi artist. Her moving image and photography practice explores customary Māori concepts within a contemporary context. Her primary concerns are Māori narratives and names pertaining to the landscape and the portrayal of these through traditional photographic techniques. Bridget is part of Mata Aho Collective, a collaboration between four Māori women artists who produce large scale fiber-based works, commenting on the complexity of Māori lives.

    Bridget is also a founding member of Kava Club, a Wellington based collective of Māori and Pacific artists, performers, activists and supporters. Kava Club produce thematic public events that disrupt formulaic modes of representation of minorities.

    She also has a forthcoming exhibition at the The Physics Room in Christchurch from the 4 June - 9 July.

  • John Akomfrah
    John Akomfrah
    United Kingdom

    John Akomfrah’s works are characterised by their investigations into memory, postcolonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA.

    Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today.

    His work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world including the Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 11, Centre Pompidou, the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; and Southbank Centre, and MoMA, New York. A major retrospective of Akomfrah’s gallery-based work with the Black Audio Film Collective premiered at FACT, Liverpool and Arnolfini, Bristol in 2007. His films have been included in international film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, amongst others.

     

  • North Gallery
    North Gallery
    Level 1

    At the opening of the exhibition, The North Gallery appears empty except for some vertebrae from the Canterbury Museum’s Blue Whale skeleton. This emptiness is deliberate.

    Space is a premium in Otautahi, particularly in the CBD. So as CoCA re-establishes itself, we are opening thegallery up as a platform and resource. The emptiness is potential. It is an invitation.

    CoCA is currently working with community groups who may come and utilise the space over the course of the exhibition. These groups range from artist collaboratives, education groups to NGOs. As the season unfolds, this space may host pop up exhibitions, spoken word performances, workshops, meetings and screenings. We may accumulate documentation from some of these, and the space may shift and change as community needs become apparent.

    We will also use this space for discussions, for visiting groups to assemble and workshop, for children's activities, and talks.

Bridget Reweti
New Zealand

Bridget Reweti is a Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi artist. Her moving image and photography practice explores customary Māori concepts within a contemporary context. Her primary concerns are Māori narratives and names pertaining to the landscape and the portrayal of these through traditional photographic techniques. Bridget is part of Mata Aho Collective, a collaboration between four Māori women artists who produce large scale fiber-based works, commenting on the complexity of Māori lives.

Bridget is also a founding member of Kava Club, a Wellington based collective of Māori and Pacific artists, performers, activists and supporters. Kava Club produce thematic public events that disrupt formulaic modes of representation of minorities.

She also has a forthcoming exhibition at the The Physics Room in Christchurch from the 4 June - 9 July.

View artwork
John Akomfrah
United Kingdom

John Akomfrah’s works are characterised by their investigations into memory, postcolonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explore the experience of the African diaspora in Europe and the USA.

Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today.

His work has been shown in museums and exhibitions around the world including the Liverpool Biennial; Documenta 11, Centre Pompidou, the Serpentine Gallery; Tate; and Southbank Centre, and MoMA, New York. A major retrospective of Akomfrah’s gallery-based work with the Black Audio Film Collective premiered at FACT, Liverpool and Arnolfini, Bristol in 2007. His films have been included in international film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto, Sundance, amongst others.

 

View artwork
North Gallery
Level 1

At the opening of the exhibition, The North Gallery appears empty except for some vertebrae from the Canterbury Museum’s Blue Whale skeleton. This emptiness is deliberate.

Space is a premium in Otautahi, particularly in the CBD. So as CoCA re-establishes itself, we are opening thegallery up as a platform and resource. The emptiness is potential. It is an invitation.

CoCA is currently working with community groups who may come and utilise the space over the course of the exhibition. These groups range from artist collaboratives, education groups to NGOs. As the season unfolds, this space may host pop up exhibitions, spoken word performances, workshops, meetings and screenings. We may accumulate documentation from some of these, and the space may shift and change as community needs become apparent.

We will also use this space for discussions, for visiting groups to assemble and workshop, for children's activities, and talks.

View artwork
John AkomfrahVertigo Sea, 2015Three channel colour video installation, 7.1 sound48 minutes 30 seconds

John Akomfrah
Vertigo Sea, 2015
Three channel colour video installation, 7.1 sound
48 minutes 30 seconds

Vertigo Sea, John Akomfrah
More about this artwork

Vertigo Sea, a three-screen film, first seen at the 56th Venice Biennale 2015 as part of Okwui Enwezor’s All the World’s Futures exhibition, is a sensual, poetic and cohesive meditation on man's relationship with the sea and exploration of its role in the history of slavery, migration, and conflict.


Fusing archival material, readings from classical sources, and newly shot footage, the work explicitly highlights the greed, horror and cruelty of the whaling industry. This material is then juxtaposed with shots of African migrants crossing the ocean in a journey fraught with danger in hopes of ‘better life’ and thus delivering a timely and potent reminder of the current issues around global migration, the refugee crisis, slavery, alongside ecological concerns.


Shot on the Isle of Skye, the Faroe Islands and the Northern regions of Norway, with the BBC’s Bristol based Natural History Unit, Vertigo Sea draws upon two remarkable books: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988), a harrowing and inspiring work which charts the history, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on earth.


Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986) explored the events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice.


 


MORE INFORMATION ABOUT VERTIGO SEA


Vertigo Sea, a powerful three-screen film installation, invites us to reflect upon humankind’s relationship with the sea. The artist describes the work as a eulogy, commemorating lives lost at sea. It is a work that takes the viewer on an immersive journey touching on the greed and cruelty of the whaling industry, the transatlantic slave trade and the current refugee crisis. Part fiction, part natural history documentary, Vertigo Sea fuses archival footage with newly shot material and readings from classic literature to create a moving narrative. The film could be described as a tapestry of empathy: a compelling web of interrelated concerns, histories and traumas connecting to our interactions with the sea.


“I wanted to make a work that spoke to [these] concerns of memory, of historicity, migration and possible futures”.  John Akomfrah, 2015


The sea is a reoccurring motif in John Akomfrah’s work, providing a rich source material through which his interest in movement and displacement can be explored. Vertigo Sea is presented as an expanded visual ‘essay’, an approach that uses images and the relationship between them to explore themes or create narratives.


The inspiration for the work came from a radio interview with a group of young Nigerian migrants who had survived an illegal crossing of the Mediterranean. They expressed the feeling of being faced by something vaster and more awesome than they had thought possible. While the sea is mesmerising, universally compelling and beautiful, it is also a uniquely inhospitable environment. It is difficult for us, as humans used to having control over our surroundings, to grasp the enormity of this constantly changing element, and the word ‘vertigo’ perhaps refers to this unfathomable reach.


To create the film, Akomfrah edited together footage from a wide range of sources and periods, an approach that he has developed over the course of his career, which dates back to early work that he made in the 1980s as part of the Black Audio Film Collective. He has described the act of ‘image taking’ – capturing an image of the present for the future – as having an ‘almost sacred’ aspect, in that it assures an afterlife. In handling this material there is great responsibility, since the role of the artist or editor becomes that of a custodian of our future.


The dreamlike quality of Vertigo Sea mirrors the subject of the piece. Shot on the Isle of Skye, in the Faroe Islands and Northern regions of Norway, the film depicts the exceptional beauty of the aquatic world. The BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol supported the development of the work with unique access to its archive, presenting the ocean as a primordial life source. However, the underpinning themes are of bereavement, suffering and dislocation: a cultural history of mankind at sea as both victims and perpetrators.


In an early section of the film, audio recordings of migrants are played over footage related to the plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Thousands of these migrants drowned in their desperate attempt to escape persecution after the Vietnam War, an echo of our current crisis that is largely ignored in the media. Akomfrah is interested in that amnesia and how traumatic collective acts and memories are often forgotten or disregarded by society, meaning we are forever repeating history.


The heritage of the millions of enslaved Africans shipped away from their homelands across the Atlantic ocean is also exposed in this film, with particular reference to the Zong massacre of 1781, an act of mass murder of slaves aboard a stranded ship for the purpose of claiming insurance money against their loss.


There are poignant connections between these histories and that portrayal of the whaling industry within the film. Akomfrah draws upon two significant books directly related to the subject: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), with its sense of the impermanence and precarious nature of life, and Heathcote Williams’ epic poem Whale Nation (1988), a harrowing but inspiring work which charts the history, intelligence and majesty of the largest mammal on earth.


“The gunners themselves admit that if whales could scream the industry would stop, for nobody would be able to stand it.” Dr. Harry D. Lillie who served as a physician on a whaling ship in the 1940s.


Like the slave trade, whaling has been a violent though hidden undercurrent instrumental to western industrialisation. Street lighting of the major cities of Europe and North America was provided by burning whale oil in the 19th century, while in the 20th century it was widely used in products ranging from margarine to makeup. These creatures, which biological research has shown to have human-like intelligence, were hunted to near extinction by people who were themselves often exploited, living for years at a time on dangerous, trans- oceanic hunting expeditions, earning little pay and often falling into debt with the whaling companies.


Although the comparison of whales’ intelligence to that of humans has been the most influential argument in support of a ban on whaling, there is a troubling contrast in the recent labelling of sea-crossing refugees as ‘cockroaches’ in the media, a reflection of the limits of society’s compassion for human suffering.


Akomfrah has spoken about the importance of maintaining the open-endedness of found images, rather than imposing specific meaning. Positioned alongside archive film, the newly shot footage in the film appears symbolic: in these sections, ambiguous figures dressed in clothes from a range of historical periods are shown looking out to sea. There is a sense that they are waiting, perhaps for the consequences of traumas from the past, or in anticipation of a mythical flood that promises to wipe out humanity for its sins.


“Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep, and swim far, so shall you come back with self- respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838


Vertigo Sea has been described by the artist as a series of lamentations or elegies. It includes some harrowing content, but is not intended to leave us in a state of despair. The film presents its story as a universal, humane concern – something to move us to compassion, rather than freeze us with horror. 


Text Credit: Arnolfini, a centre of contemporary art based in Bristol UK.


 


 

Bridget Reweti, Excuse me, you're still in my shot (still). 2012. Two channel digital video

Bridget Reweti, Excuse me, you're still in my shot (still). 2012. Two channel digital video

Tirohanga, 2012, Bridget Reweti
More about this artwork

Tirohanga is tied specifically to the land of Aotearoa New Zealand. It takes the narratives of Bridget Reweti's iwi at Tauranga Moana as a starting point, to explore our understanding of the land and landscape.


The work challenges the ideas of the wild, untamed, sublime Aotearoa New Zealand landscape, as first told by the 18th Century European migrants, offering an alternate perspective from Te Ao Māori through its quiet observation.


Bridget Reweti is a Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi artist. Her moving image and photography practice explores customary Māori concepts within a contemporary context. Her primary concerns are Māori narratives and names pertaining to the landscape and the portrayal of these through traditional photographic techniques.


The sublime landscapes of New Zealand’s national parks are often viewed as uninhabited wilderness – places to visit, but not to stay. Tirohanga questions this idea. Reweti records her presence in these landscapes as matter of fact.  Using a combination of contemporary and historical photographic techniques infused with customary Māori names and narratives of place, we are quietly invited to look again at these vistas, and consider that the land has always been inhabited.


Bridget has exhibited widely in Aotearoa, and recently participated in the Indigenous Visual and Digital Residency at The Banff Centre, Canada. She is part of Mata Aho Collective a collaboration between four Māori women artists commenting on the complexity of Māori lives. Bridget is also a founding member of Kava Club, a Wellington based collective of Māori and Pacific artists, performers, activists and supporters.


She also has a forthcoming exhibition in Christchurch:


Bridget Reweti & Terri Te Tau
Ōtākaro
4 June - 9 July


The Physics Room
www.physicsroom.org.nz


 


MORE INFORMATION ABOUT TIROHANGA 


Bridget Reweti’s whenua-based video artworks (1) exude an everydayness so disarming it almost camouflages their wero to colonial landscape conventions (picturesque, sublime, wild, pure, natural). Almost, but not quite – because the everydayness is the wero. Each piece functions doubly, both as a gentle yet steadfast positing of one way of relating to the Aotearoa whenua, and as a casual subversion/negation/undoing of another. Double but not binary: the differences in inheritance also bubble up and mingle infinitessimally on the surface of these lands and Reweti’s screens.


In the series undertaken in 2012 for Reweti’s MMVA (Master of Maori Visual Arts) – including Can I be in your video?, Are you still recording? and Excuse me you’re in my shot – small groups of people lackadaisically erect tents in outdoor spots, water sparkling and lapping in the background. In I thought I would of climbed more mountains by now (2015), mountain-climbers with backpacks walk nonchalantly across dual screens, glancing rarely at the high-altitude snowy ridges they traverse. In Get up earlier (2015), people again hoist on gear and amble off into the only-slightly-snowy tussock for a ski. What little happens, happens slowly. Acentred framing cuts people off at the shoulders or knees, picking out nothing for special attention. The action unfolds in a real-time that has already started and doesn’t end. Small positings of what Reweti has called ‘practical residency in outside space’, marked by that quiet everydayness affect (and not a little wry humour).


Yet these works are also small negatings. Unaestheticised, uneventful, unheroic, unselfconscious, they are foils to the other views also glimpsable on Reweti’s multiple screens. In the 2012 series, the makeshift tent slowly materialises as a camera obscura (early ancestor of the modern camera), and the view from within those tents appears alongside the ‘action’ scene on a second channel. The great outdoors, passed through a needle-eye, inverted and projected onto an interior canvas wall. Outside space becoming a flat, soft-focus, colour-tweaked image with a fade-out frame. That is a landscape. In I thought I would of climbed…, the mountain-climber scenes are Intro’ed and Outro’ed by a still, grave, triple-channel projection of snow, mountains and low-rolling cloud. And gradually the harmonic hum of voices on the soundtrack registers as a screwed version of rasta-pop classic The Rivers of Babylon (2). That is a landscape. But before you can get all Zion on the Adams Wilderness area where the footage was shot, inhabitants appear, the sublime surge passes and life goes on – complete with un-co’ fumblings with high-tech tramping gear. Neither Zion nor Babylon.


In Reweti’s titles, everyday phrases – ‘your video’, ‘my shot’ (all verbatim quotes from the foley sound of the videos) invoke a still-kicking possession-anxiety amongst users of the Conservation Estate. That possession-anxiety that came nestled inside European landscape imaginaries, and scarred whenua, cultures and psyches before settling again inside the contemporary photographic vernacular, now heard from passersby on the shores of Tauranga Moana. Unresolved desires sublimated in the easy taking of pictures? Shot as land grab?


But Reweti’s replay of the possessives is teasing, and her shots don’t possess. They tell the idealised landscape like it is: upside-down, inside-out, blurred, truncated. Her people don’t possess either, nor do they ascend, triumph or conquer – unless invading the camera obscura image counts as conquest. There they are, part of the upside down picture, smiling in front of nature for another’s camera; or gazing inscrutably at the sea-scene. Wait long enough, they suggest, and any landscape will reveal inhabitants. Inhabitants who instead of possessing, release the land from its representations. Back through the needle-eye. Inhabitants whose knowing of their whenua is enacted but undeclared, needing no witness to affirm or deny it (3). Inhabitants whose non-grand, non-euphoric, matter-of-fact actions in and with and for their whenua might be profoundly decolonising. Inhabitants who, being of this land, also keenly remember Poutini, Waitaiki, Tamaahua, but aren’t about to offer them up here. Inhabitants who look just like any other mountain climbers, really.


For Reweti’s frank image-making also practices an opacity with respect to cultural knowledge that operates as its own gatekeeper. If you know, you’ll pass through. If not, you’ll keep walking – but as you do listen hard and you might hear the teasing call: Excuse me? You’re in my shot.


Text Credit: Cassandra Barnett, Lecturer and writer at College of Creative Arts Toi Rauwharangi Massey University


1 Reweti has exhibited in numerous group and solo shows in galleries around Aotearoa including Te Tohu o Uenuku/Mangere Arts Centre, RM Gallery, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Hastings City Art Gallery, etc., and also with Mata Aho Collective in David Dale Gallery (Glasgow) and Toi Pōneke.


2 Boney M (1977) / The Melodians (1970). (‘When the wicked / Carried us away in captivity / Required from us a song / Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land?’)


3 ‘Wherever we see nature as a passing scene rather than a rhythm and a process, we deny the umbilical connection to place implicit in the Māori word whenua. […] The most practical means of preserving wild nature is residency in it… the forests need their people back. Not visitors treating them as scenery, but people who consider them home and invest them with love and vigilance.’ (Geoff Park, Theatre Country 142)


 

Photo: Tanya Muagututi'a

Photo: Tanya Muagututi'a

FIKA Writers Collective, North Gallery
More about this artwork

Fika is a collective of Christchurch Pasifika creatives whose members meet to give energy to the practice of storytelling through writing, poetry, prose and performance. Through collaboration and exchange, Fika maintain a sense of oral tradition and work to strengthen the voices of Pasifika peoples within Canterbury.


FIKA at CoCA


From June 16 to August, members of Fika will meet once a week in the gallery space provided by CoCA. Responding to exhibitions within the gallery and conducting a free writing exercise, the group will post their work to gallery wall. The writing will be a mixture of edited and unedited work, produced on and off site.


In an exercise entitled “Kupulaga - Words from the Generations”, Fika will invite members from the wider Pasifika community (elders and youth), to join them in posting their stories and reflections, adding to the collection.


To compliment Kupulaga, provision will be made for the general public to also engage with the free writing exercise and similarly post their work within the space.


At the end of the six weeks Fika and gallery staff will select a number of works to be performed and read aloud by the group and guest readers.


 


Photo credit: Tanya Muagututi'a

Faultline Poetry Collective, North Gallery
More about this artwork

CoCA and Faultline Poetry Collective were thrilled to present a unique workshop and performance opportunity for young writers in Ōtautahi.


The workshop focussed on the ‘performance’ element of spoken word, and exploring CoCA as a space, drawing on ideas presented in the exhibitions at the gallery; Vertigo Sea by John Akomfrah, and Tirohanga by Bridget Reweti. Both artists use the raw beauty of nature to explore the human condition.  During this workshop, themes of migration, identity,  environment and (post)colonolism, were discussed to inspire writing. Faultline mentors Alice Andersen and Sophie Rea joined with CoCA Curator Amelia Hitchcock to run a full day workshop, on Wednesday 20th of July 2016.


Collectively written poems responding to the nine chapter headings were left in the space, and workshop participants performed some of their work at the Gallery in a showcase on the evening of Friday 22nd July 2016.


Faultline Poetry Collective is a group of young writers from Ōtautahi, Aotearoa. Faultline was imagined out of a desire to see more people able to access creative, safe and bold spaces to share their work and hear the many unique stories and voices around them.


To do this, The Collective hosts The Faultline Open Mic on the last Friday of every month at White Elephant HQ – it is a relaxed, friendly and alcohol free venue and the mic is open to anyone to share their work (poetry or otherwise!).


The Collective also produces FAULTLINE, a quarterly, self-published zine of writing and art from around the city, as well as running writers’ workshops and hosting guest poets from around the country.

Blue Whale Vertebrae, 1908, North Gallery
More about this artwork


Courtesy of Canterbury Museum


Courtesy of Canterbury Museum When Edgar Waite, then curator of Canterbury Museum, opened his morning paper on 17 February 1908 one article caught his attention:


‘A large whale, measuring 99 ft long, and 20ft wide, and so high that a man on horseback cannot see over it, has been washed ashore at Commissioner’s Point, six miles north of Okarito, near Hokitika. Viewed from a distance it has the appearance of a stranded dismasted vessel.’


A zoologist, Waite recognised the significance of the find and immediately began efforts to procure the whale skeleton. He spent months bargaining and made the long trip to ŌkŌrito, over the Southern Alps, with the museum’s taxidermist, William Sparkes. Ultimately, the whale skeleton was purchased by Edgar Stead, ornithologist, supporter and associate of Canterbury Museum.


It was Stead, accompanied by three other men, who took on the mammoth task of freeing the skeleton from its beached position, cleaning the bones and transporting them to Christchurch. They used shovels, a chain block, picks, a gantry and hay knives, and suffered the stench of rotting whale flesh, whale oil and sandflies.


‘At the end of the twelfth consecutive day’s work, favoured by fine weather and calm seas, we reached the base of the skull. During our evenings in camp our discussions had been largely about the difficulties we might expect to meet in the handling of this huge bone. Ten feet in width,eleven in length and four and a half in depth, the whole mass must have weighed something about two tons. Before starting work on clearing away the large folds of flesh from it, we threw up a good sea wall all around the sea-side of our pit.’
(Edgar F. Stead, The Press, 1908)


The whole job took a total of four weeks. Stead then offered to sell the whale skeleton to the museum for £500. The museum could only commit £200, so a public subscription was taken up to raise the balance.


‘[W]e consider it would be not only a national loss, but an absolute disgrace to us if the skeleton were allowed to find a resting place elsewhere,’


Edgar Waite wrote in a fundraising circular. ‘Already disquieting enquiries have been made from America, a country whose propensity for acquiring “big” things is proverbial.’


Waite’s claim that the blue whale he was trying to procure was ‘the largest creature which ever inhabited the earth or ocean’ was vindicated by other museums around the world.


The whale skeleton was transported by ferry, rail and horse-drawn wagons and arrived at the museum on 15 October 1908. The fundraising target was reached on 28 October. The skeleton went on display in a purpose-built open shelter on 28 March 1909, and large numbers of Cantabrians came to marvel at ‘their whale’.


It is still the largest blue whale skeleton held in a museum collection. In recent years the skeleton has been removed from public view while a major conservation project has taken place. Time and exposure to the elements had taken their toll.Conservation treatment is now complete and the skeleton will take pride of place in the museum’s new atrium.


Gerard Hutching. ‘Whales - Blue whales and fin whales’, Te Ara -the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 5-May-15 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/7080/blue-whale-skeleton