Exhibition text for Grounded Currents
Verksmiðjan á Hjalteyri / The Factory, Summer 2022
Poster courtesy of Verksmiðjan
I lived in Iceland for over a decade but – dismissively – never went whale watching until back in Reykjavík this spring. With my eight-year-old as alibi, I bought two tickets for a boat on Faxaflói Bay; I packed sandwiches, binoculars, and low expectations. Onboard, we studied posters in the lower decks with their familiar and exquisite wildlife illustrations by Jón Baldur Hlíðberg, a keen naturalist who once described to me the activity of modern birdwatching (traditionally a no-girls-allowed endeavour) as an evolutionary extension of the hunt. Perhaps that’s the real reason I was sceptical about whale watching: even though it is posited by the tourist industry as an eco-friendly alternative to whaling, it still had the air of a seek-and-consume pursuit. I didn’t need to go out and hassle whales; for me, it was enough to know they were there.
You can tell where this is going, right? That once I saw actual, animate humpback whales spouting and fluking in Faxaflói Bay, my cynicism melted away and I was transformed by the encounter? Well, maybe. It was indeed surprisingly magical. But the pleasure was an odd one – a voyeuristic one. We saw no breaching, only backs and tails, tantalising suggestions of behemoths below. The guide, a marine biologist, counted over the loudspeaker for us the minutes between dives; we all somehow held our breath for eight and a half minutes with the whales until they surfaced again. Despite spending nearly all of their lives underwater, whales need to come up to breathe, and that is what the whale watching industry capitalises on. Breathing. Our boat was close enough that I could look into the creatures’ blowholes as they expelled the air from their voluminous lungs. Humpbacks, being baleen whales, have two blowholes, like two nostrils. It is an aberrant thing to gaze into someone’s nostrils and find some gratification there, and an awkward thing to admit to it. And yet that is what I did, and what I am confessing.
There is a similar spark of uncanny voyeurism igniting the works in Grounded Currents as the artists here are looking, reaching, across some divide or another. And here I am reaching for a word that doesn’t seem to exist in the English language, because I don’t mean voyeurism in the sexual sense; I don’t mean surveillance with its usual connotation of espionage; I don’t mean observation in a neutral, methodological manner. But watch, as Zinnia Naqvi strives to understand her encounter with an uncomfortable exchange between her middle-class aunt and a domestic worker, a recent immigrant with a family crisis. Naqvi’s The Translation Is Approximate rehashes the conversation she witnessed and recorded some eight years previous, exploring her relationship with the power dynamics between the two women – and between herself and this scene that became the subject of an earlier artwork. To whatever extent there is “voyeurism” here, it is, perhaps, motivated by sympathy, and a desire to narrow or at least interpret socioeconomic and cross-cultural gaps.
In Marzieh Emadi and Sina Saadat’s videos and animations, we also see stretching across rifts and voids. Quite literally, in the case of Rope Walker: a tiny figure crosses a tightrope above dozens of scenes of live footage filmed in the night-time streets of Vienna – a patchwork quilt of drivers, passengers and pedestrians monitored, anonymously, and stitched together into a mesmerising blanket revealing the quotidian motions of everyday urban life. In other works, Emadi and Saadat focus inwards, reaching from the conscious into the unconscious and back, in dreamlike imagery touching on the surreal. Sometimes, they even watch sleepers sleeping, and as viewers of their work, we become accomplices. Sigrún Gyða Sveinsdóttir, on the other hand, gives voice to the watched in Hlaupa, a video installation based on an operatic performance in which four trolls reveal the burden of being observed. Extending back into Icelandic folklore in order to interrogate contemporary crises of climate and society, Sveinsdóttir sets the stage for her narrators to tell the tale of another troll who gave up running from the petrifying light of the sun and allowed herself to turn to stone. Was this a willing self-sacrifice, or a surrender under duress? I imagine an eerie resonance between that hardened troll and a character conjured by Agnes Obel when she sings in her own haunting voice: “They say every sin will have a thousand eyes / To guilty fools with guilty minds / But I must be cruel to be kind / Deep within my head of stone…”
We know from physics that observed phenomena sometimes change their behaviours simply by virtue of being watched. Protons and electrons aside, is it even possible to faithfully observe another sentient, self-aware being like a whale without disrupting its ways? Certainly not on an intrusive whale-watching boat on Faxaflói Bay, but probably neither through subtler scientific means – if only because whales are already drowning in the overwhelming noise of human activities. “Aquatic animals are immersed in sound,” explains biologist David George Haskell in his 2022 book Sounds Wild and Broken. “Sound flows almost unimpeded from watery surrounds to watery innards. ‘Hearing’ is a full-body experience. […] Having lived most of my life inland, many hours’ drive from the sea, I have seldom seen or heard whales. But the whales hear me. They are immersed in the sounds of my purchases from over the horizon every day of their lives.” Artist Maryse Goudreau, however, lives right on a North Atlantic bay in Quebec, and much of her practice focusses on the lives and sounds of her local beluga whales. She reverses the dynamic Haskell describes, immersing participants and viewers in belugas’ calls and even the drumming of their hearts; she asks collaborators to interpret the meanings in these sounds from across the chasm of species lines. In her multi-channel video Beluga Constellation, Goudreau imagines a future in which cetaceans’ songs – their “data” – outlive and replace human technologies. I wonder, then, whether those whales would take some pleasure in eavesdropping on us.
Eavesdropping: perhaps that is the word I have been grasping for, the common activity in which these currents are grounded. In the context of contemporary technology and big data surveillance, “eavesdropping” connotes something less insidious and more analogue, a harmless listening-in, a curiosity driven by a desire to be part of what’s happening on the other side of the wall. These artists brought together in Hjalteyri invite us to witness their acts of well-meaning witnessing. And Hugo Llanes grounds it to the north Iceland–local by dropping anchor in Eyjafjörður, peering in on the creatures who normally swim past the Factory undetected. The jaws of the Atlantic wolffish he has etched on the seashells in his site-inspired installation have emerged from the artist’s longstanding interest in power dynamics, from the legacy of colonialism in his native Mexico to the domination of humans over other animals. Llanes heard that regular divers in Eyjafjörður took interest in a certain wolffish because they noticed she seemed to be curious about them, even to recognise them. And why wouldn’t she? We’re all curious, whether about the people whose language or circumstance we can’t quite understand, about the inner dreamscapes we can’t seem to grasp, about the creatures whose sounds spark excitement but not comprehension. Even, simply, about the breathing mechanisms of those creatures, familiar and mysterious all at the same time.
Dream-whales and deep listening
Written for Tanja Thorjussen for her exhibition Mythistoria
Wind and Weather Gallery, Reykjavík, Spring 2019
Michelle Henning had a whale, which Otto Neurath once had before her. Neurath’s whale was hypothetical, but huge; its bones were suspended from the ceiling of an unknown gallery, hung neutrally with neither cause nor context, testament to the awe an impressive museum object is meant to stir in the beholder. When Henning excavated that whale from Neurath’s 1933 essay – written to critique museological trends towards isolating natural history objects from their ecological and social frameworks – she reanimated it in the language of Latour. And then the whale (as Neurath would have wanted) ceased to arrive in the gallery as a pre-existing thing, but was created at the meeting with its viewers: a phenomenological whale, an intersubjective whale. But Henning also had this to say: “Alive,” she wrote, “it is a beast with its own purposes, its own intentions, its own unfathomable world.”
David Rothenberg had a whale who was intersubjective and alive, one of the humpbacks he courted with his clarinet via underwater speakers, the humpbacks he hoped would sing along with him. And when one did, the “strange interspecies music” rang out “in a world somewhere between human and whale, as we [made] sounds together that no one species could produce on its own.” Yet because Rothenberg’s whales had their own purposes and their own deep world (which was for them, of course, not unfathomable), they more often eluded the clarinettist at the surface, leaving him to continue playing a solo I imagine must have been mournful, full of unrequited longing.
Somewhere between the constellation of Neurath’s, Henning’s, and Rothenberg’s whales, I imagine, is Tanja Thorjussen’s whale, the creature who came to her in a dream and whom she went on to exhibit in Reykjavík, Oslo, Stavanger, and then Reykjavík again. For Thorjussen’s dream-whale was impressive and mystical in its isolated enormity; was created through the meeting with its dreamer, yet possessor of its own intentions; was sonically present but physically elusive, evoker of the practise of ‘deep listening’ “that encourages us all to pay deeper, slower attention to the world of sounds around us.” The world of sounds – and the voices of creatures.
The dream-whale swam up to its dreamer close, so close that Tanja could only remember its eye, feel its essence rather than ascertain its species. It invoked ancient mythology, but made no reference to Jonah and his whale, or the whale-monster Cetus that almost swallowed Andromeda. It certainly did not mention its having any place in Icelandic folklore, where whales “were said to be consciously malevolent, and huge enough to take a whole ship in their jaws.” No, nothing so noxious! Instead, it told of its own myths, “more visual and vocal than a human story,” Tanja said.
Perhaps it was not Thorjussen’s whale; perhaps Tanja was rather, for a time, the whale’s human.
When I encountered that great whale, the whale who had, on another plane, claimed Tanja as its own, it hung in a window in downtown Reykjavík in Wind and Weather Gallery, accessible to viewers only from the outside. Tanja had rendered it meticulously, texturally, in pencil on paper, shown it in profile swimming across a white page blank save for a graceful trail of tiny bubbles, accurate and solitary like a natural history illustration. Other creatures floated in similar isolation nearby: smaller whales; a goby fish swimming above the caldera of a volcano; a magical hybrid somewhere between puffer-, lion-, and anglerfish crossed with kelp or coral; a globular mass of not-quite-identifiable oceanomorphic forms. An octopus on its own page, in its own frame. But the eye of the great whale, lovingly rendered and lovingly communicative, relatable, left no question as to who the primary subject of the exhibition was meant to be.
Standing there on the street, I photographed that whale through the window, with consideration as well to the reflection in the glass that superimposed buildings and street lamps of downtown Reykjavík over the captive sea creatures. I smiled, remembering Tanja teasing me some weeks before as I photographed reflections in the glass over Emma Kunz’s mystical drawings, taken as I was by the interplay between the geometric forms on paper and the framed works on the adjacent wall, the circle of spotlights on the ceiling. But in front of the whale, with the layers of the reflection, the glass, and representation itself between us, I also thought of Rothenberg and his longing to connect musically and meaningfully with wild creatures (be they cetacean, avian, or insect), the longing to cross that divide between ourselves and other species. There is a loneliness that such longing brings about.
Mythistoria is not about loneliness, however, but rather about the connection between the dream-whale and its human dreamer. About the invitation that whale extended to Tanja to explore the real, imagined, and mythological depths of the (dream )ecology from whence it came. At the fore of talk about whales in the North Atlantic at the moment is the recent announcement that no whales – fin, minke, or otherwise – will be killed in Icelandic waters in the summer of 2019, the first such hiatus in seventeen years. That is to be celebrated, certainly. But let that celebration begin with them, in their voices. Now that the cultural lives of cetaceans and other animals have finally been recognised by the scientific community as not only a real phenomenon but also essential in wildlife conservation, perhaps there is reason to be hopeful that we will learn (or is it relearn?) to open channels of cross-cultural exchange.
Or, at least, that we will open ourselves, as Thorjussen does, to accepting messages from the natural world when those messages are sent.
Michelle Henning, “Neurath’s whale,” in The Afterlives of Animals: A Museum Menagerie, edited by Samuel J. M. M. Alberti (University of Virginia Press, 2011), pp. 151–168.
David Rothenberg, “How to make music with a whale,” New York Times, 5 October 2014.
Jacqueline Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends (Tempus Publishing, 2004), p. 57.
Convention on Migratory Species, “Conservation implications of animal culture and social complexity,” 2017. UNEP/CMS/Resolution 11.23 (Rev. COP12).