What is art for anyway?

By Quentin Sprague
Ian Potter Museum for Art’s ‘Vertigo Sea’ and ‘I was born in Indonesia’ are very different answers to the same question
John Akomfrah ‘Vertigo Sea’ (film still) 2015 © Smoking Dogs Films, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

The first time I walked into Vertigo Sea at The Ian Potter Museum of Art (until 16 July), a three-channel film by the London-based Ghanaian artist John Akomfrah, it had already begun. One of two ground-level galleries had been well prepared: the space was blacked out and carpeted; a row of entranced viewers sat on a bench before the three large screens, illuminated only by the ambient light playing before them. I heard one of them gasp in astonishment as Akomfrah’s beautiful images slowly unfolded.

One screen showed footage of lonely polar bears, filmed in exquisite high definition, adrift on ice flows, or swimming alone in a vast ocean – waiting, one assumes, to tire and sink. Archival footage played alongside, scratchy against the crisp colour images on the neighbouring screen. It showed arctic hunters and explorers: a puff of smoke from a rifle, a collapsed polar bear. The carcass, already frozen by the cold, was skinned.

Akomfrah, who has referred to himself as a “born bricoleur”, assembled Vertigo Sea from a mix of found footage and film shot especially for the work itself. He draws it together as an epic tale of inter-linked global morality. It positions arctic conquest alongside the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the whaling industry, before tying it all to the twin moral and ethical issues of our age: the unfolding climate crisis and the patterns of global displacement traced by asylum seekers. The cumulative effect is unsettling. Akomfrah’s film emerges as a kind of didactic impressionism, as if An Inconvenient Truth had been shot by Werner Herzog.

Any recent moment would seem timely to experience the film, and recent weeks were no different. Donald Trump’s announcement that he  intends to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement came in step with news that an already massive crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf was growing at an alarming rate. The still-fresh images of panicked people gathered at America’s airports following Trump’s so-called “travel ban” provided distorted echoes of those who have filled Australia’s media for far too long: asylum seekers behind cyclone wire fences on Manus Island, or wooden boats dashed to pieces on the rocks of Christmas Island.

To watch Akomfrah’s work is to be moved, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. I recognised the queasy feeling that can come from seeing contemporary horror aestheticised for the well-heeled liberal urbane. Yes, we are all implicated, but one wonders to what effect a film like this is viewed. In urgent times, what is it, exactly, that artists do?

A concurrent project at The Potter (until 9 July) – “I was born in Indonesia”  by the Melbourne-based artist Tom Nicholson – provides one answer. Nicholson is grappling with similar material, but in his case it’s far more specific: an in-depth engagement with the experience of Hazara asylum seekers marooned in Cisarua, near Jakarta. One gallery is filled with video interviews that the viewer can sit and watch, listening to each on a set of headphones. From these interviews, Nicholson has created a striking room-sized diorama in the neighbouring gallery. The narratives told by the asylum seekers are re-created by a series of figurines, each meticulously cast in resin and arranged on a wooden table. This too, is carefully aestheticised – the figures are left tastefully unpainted and the table is raw plywood – but it lacks the cinematic beauty of Akomfrah’s film. One is surely intrigued by the materiality of the diorama, but the visceral effect of the work draws from its link back to the interviews. There’s little mediation. It adds a lightness of touch that feels necessary.

Nicholson’s diorama was created in collaboration with two sculptors based in Yogyakarta who work in the vernacular style of Edhi Sunarso, a late, great practitioner of the diorama form. In the 1960s and ’70s, Sunarso, who died last year, crafted a series that traced the often-violent becoming of the Indonesian nation, and which form a key part of the National Monument in central Jakarta that was commissioned by President Sukarno. A wall text explains that Nicholson’s diorama imagines a similar monument here, one that might consider how Australia “is constituted by the stories and forms beyond our own shores”.

It’s an interesting proposition: how we act in our region, especially in regards to the ethics of the asylum-seeker debate, is perhaps the defining question of our times. I’d argue that it’s here where we gain some sense of what it is that art might achieve: a means to imagine spaces of rapprochement that are yet to be realised, even a site in which nations might acknowledge that they are all too often sustained by the misery of others.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a writer and curator based in Geelong.

John Akomfrah ‘Vertigo Sea’ (film still) 2015 © Smoking Dogs Films, Courtesy Lisson Gallery

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