Here Be Whales

a black and white image showing whales moving underwater.
Hondartza Fraga, The Secondhand Whale (2013)

Left Bank Leeds, a beautiful, deconsecrated church and now gallery, workspace, coffee bar and event space, plays host to Here Be Whales until the 27 March. The day I visited the wind was blowing in that insistent way wind does when it wants to make its presence felt, and standing inside the Porch Gallery with the doors still open to the blustery street was a fine place to view the exhibition. Curated by Martha Cattell, Hondartza Fraga and Sophia Nicolov, this is a gathering point for artists working in various media to explore and interrogate representations and stories of a threatened, wild and lovely species.

Curators’ talks at the exhibition opening touched on natural history politics and ethics. The exhibition runs in parallel with an associated one at Hull Maritime Museum (until 22 April), and there will be a screening of the film The Whale Rider (2002) at Left Bank on closing night. This is in keeping with the venue’s tradition of showing art that engages with the audience on a variety of levels and uses a range of outputs. The audience can take what it wishes from this exhibition, and its possibilities are many.

The space itself provides a calm rectangle within which to view a display of drawing, sculpture, collage texture and video. Cattell’s tiny collages, ‘Capturing Whales’, challenge our desire to view whales as the Other, and as tourist attraction. Pencil drawings by Fraga on the cover of a whaling book remind us that myth and fiction are our usual conduits for understanding the whale, whilst her video ‘Natural Habitat’ provides a commentary on the vitrine, the disembodied whale; the conceptual art representation of creatures that self-evidently do not belong in museums or glass cases.

Marina Rees’ filmed investigation of a pilot whale under a microscope is accompanied by a soundtrack created from the bones’ interaction with a contact microphone. The tiny, dense and intricate landscapes of anatomy and physiognomy chime with the textured sound and reverberation of the soundtrack. In contrast, her small biodegradable plastic and sand sculptures point towards a more sustainable oceanic future. The ink drawings and etchings by Philippa Dobson incorporate Pictish symbols and record, through fragile tracing paper, the surfaces of a found whale vertebra[1].

Helen Cann’s map triptych reprises the narrative of her journey from Reykjavik to Gothenburg in search of whales and dolphins and Angela Cockayne’s blueprints explore human interaction with the natural environment. Caroline Hack’s machine-embroidered digital maps add a textural resonance that emphasise both the social and economic importance of the whaling industry and the visceral, emotional response many have to that trade. Her work ‘Pewter Whales’ is simply and starkly listed in the catalogue as ‘ingredients made from a whale and damage inflicted on whales’. This speaks for itself and, being the last thing I saw and read, adds a poignant coda to my visit as I step out into a wind that sounds just a little bit more like whale cries now than it did before.

Here Be Whales, Left Bank, Leeds. 4 February-27 March 2019.

Karen Tobias-Green is a lecturer, researcher and writer at Leeds Arts University.

[1] The Picts were a confederation of peoples who lived in what is today eastern and northern Scotland during the Late Iron Age and Early Medieval periods.

Published 24.03.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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