In researching her new art project, Fiona Tan discovered an odd pamphlet advertising “The Exhibition of Jonah, the Giant Whale caught off Trondheim, Norway.” She soon found Jonah was one of three huge whales preserved in formaldehyde and toured around Europe in semi-trucks from the 1950s to ’70s as fairground exhibits.
“Not much information about the three — Jonas, Goliath, and Hercules — remains,” Tan told Hyperallergic. “A lot of people who have memories of the spectacle saw the whale when they were very small children, so it actually belongs to one of their very first memories. It remains a fascinating idea to me that quite a few people saw this, and that it then became something that they’re not quite sure whether they actually did see or whether it became something of their imagination, something that they thought they might have dreamed.”
Depot, Tan’s installation which opened this month at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, recreates one of these trucks — but instead of a rotting whale inside, viewers discover a film and display of natural history objects exploring our connection with the ocean. One side of the truck reads “THE GIANT WHALE ‘JONAH'” while the back warns “CAUTION: 76 FEET LONG JONAH the WHALE.” The invitations to Depot even took on some of the promised sideshow curiosity of an 18th-century advertisement, with an illustration of “THE MONSTER WHALE.”
“We often forget that the sea is not our natural habitat; we can’t breath underwater,” Tan stated. “Perhaps this is why the sea is at once both fascinating and frightening to us. And so for the majority of us, we only come to know whales, sharks, and other marine creatures via a mediated experience.”
The Amsterdam-based artist often explores collecting in her film and photography work, such as the 2012 “Inventory” set in the 19th-century Sir John Soane Museum in London with its mix of artifacts and oddities, and her new “Depot” exploring natural history collections. She points out that our depictions of whales in media vary wildly, from the Middle Ages when their perceived savagery was sometimes connected with the devil, to today when they’re an endangered creature of ecological concern, singing sad songs out in the sea. “But what we really know is not these creatures, but instead the feeling of sitting behind the screen or in the exhibition,” she added, noting that it’s only since the 1970s with Jacques Cousteau that filming in the ocean has been a frequent occurrence.
The truck in Depot is set up as a wunderkammer, with a narwhal tusk on the wall and 19th-century glass marine animal specimens by Leopold & Rudolf Blaschka. Through the forgotten, strange spectacle of Jonah and the other decomposing whales hauled around Europe as sorts of sideshows, Tan considers specimen collecting, natural history, and our changing popular perception of whales. The exhibition also examines the often overlooked whaling history of Newcastle in which the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art is located, an area that from 1752 to 1849 was a major whaling port for England.
“Simultaneously, the amassing of specimens in the 19th and 20th centuries became the basis for all natural history museums,” Tan said. “This term ‘natural history’ somehow encapsulates the troubled complexities of mankind’s relationship to the natural world. Ironically, in order for these institutions to collect specimens, one must first kill and destroy that which one wishes to preserve. This new commission builds upon a number of my recent works researching collections and archives, calling into question the ways in which they are used to represent and interpret history and mankind’s place in the world.”
Fiona Tan: Depot continues at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead Quays, S Shore Road, Gateshead, England) through November 1.