By Lesley Harrison
‘Natural Iceland’ is a dramatic and intensely sensuous experience: the black lava, the tufa and glassy rock, the pockets of sodden yellow turn, the soft shale mountains, the straggly birch. Surfaces are tactile, porous, distorting the movement of air. The profound scale of weather systems coming in off the Greenland Sea - the giant, hysterical storms and the days of multi-directional water flow (‘rain’ is too weak a word) - wear the landscape down to its bare matter.
This makes us intensely conscious of texture. Walking in Iceland is not just ‘walking in’, but ‘walking through’. To walk is to constantly be reminded of the fact that you are walking - by the rivers of cold air streaming off the mountain, by the shock of sudden, concentrated colours and smells, by the huge raindrops landing seconds apart like spoonfuls of water.
How to capture this immediacy? To write is to distance yourself. We search for adjectives and metaphors that will replicate the experience in our readers’ imaginations; yet our language, our frame of reference, is necessarily drawn from our own experience, from the well of our own cultural and sensory memory. Language, as with any symbolic gesture, also imposes a linear structure: communication takes place along a line from me to you. There is also a particular sense in which language imposes time: to describe is to create a narrative, and so give the experience duration, a beginning and an end, the story building towards its (our) conclusion. So how do we describe something that is, in every sense, larger than ourselves? How do you ‘word’ something that is beyond language?
At the Whale Museum in Húsavík, artist Marina Rees finds her way round these problems. Her installation addresses the issue of how to imagine or experience the world beyond the human. It is possible to glimpse this ‘beyond’, she argues, in the whales that are washed up nearby.
Húsavík is a prime spot for whale-watching, and out on the tourist boats (some of which are ex-whaling vessels), ironically trying to get closer to nature, visitors strive to ‘capture’ the whale in the perfect photograph. This framing process, where the photograph itself becomes the measure of the experience, serves in fact to distance us from the stimulus - the whale itself. It also reinforces the idea of compartmentalisation and categorisation of the non-human world - we make a list, we frame and arrange, we tick off, we go home.
In C-E-T-A-C-E-A Rees uses the bones of a pilot whale (a corpse found floating in the fjord outside Húsavík) to create an installation in which the bones are active rather than passive agents in the art process. The first thing you notice is the sound: a strangely melodic weave of knocks and ticks, created by a microphone being slowly dragged across the surface of the vertebrae. These sounds, along with blown-up microscope images of the osseous surface in all its lacy, filigree detail, allow us to experience the matter of the whale kinaesthetically, through sight and sound and (almost) touch. At this scale, the bones are revealed as incredible moon-white landscapes of ridges and hollows, of paper-thin walls and flat worn planes.
On the other side of the room are the vertebrae, each with a sheet of blue-grey paper below on which patterns have been created using water, salt and ink. The water came from the site where the whale was dragged ashore, and from seepage from the bone itself. The result is a series of rough, skin-like textures, each the blue/black/silver of deep fjord water. The patterns, the photographic images and the soundtrack all have duration - the hours the paper took to dry; the seconds of camera exposure; the duration of the knocks and ‘white spaces’ between the sounds; the moments or hours of the visitor’s encounter. The aesthetic impact of the sounds and images, along with the sculptural value and the sheer presence of the vertebra themselves, combine to create a powerful, unsettling experience.
Why is the experience unsettling? Through these disturbances of expectation, through the kinaesthetic exploration of its carcass and through the emotive and aesthetic power of the objects Rees has produced, we begin to sense something of the whale - or at least, that there is a world beyond what we think of when we think about whales. The whale’s body is completely deconstructed. We experience each bone separately, then we walk through/below the reconstructed skeleton. The sounds and smells connect to our own deep memories. Our idea of ‘whale’ becomes vague; its boundaries have fallen away.
The Whale Museum itself is an uncanny multi-sensory experience. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the smell - of old polish, of church pews, of damp masonic halls. This is whale oil. It continues to seep and evanesce from the skeletons in the Museum for years after they have been cleaned.
The skeletons are, in fact, suspended from the ceiling. They are lit from below so that their shadows are thrown onto the roof. Walking along the raised tramway beneath and through them makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up: this must be what it is like to lie along the sea bed while these gigantic beasts glide slowly over.
The largest skeleton in the museum is of a blue whale which was found on a beach nearby in 2010. It lies on the ground floor. The baleen in its mouth had dried into fur; its long tail had to be curled to fit into the shed. The blue whale is the biggest creature to have ever lived on Earth. No-one knows how long they live. Its song reaches pitches well below the range of human hearing, and volumes of up to 180 decibels, more felt than heard, it is said, like being in an earth tremor.
Lesley Harrison is a writer and poet, and the vast bulk of her writing concerns how we locate ourselves in our landscape. 'Ecstatics: a Language of Birds' was a collaboration with Orkney artist Laura Drever, and won the National Library of Scotland poetry prize in 2012. 'Beyond the Map' (Mariscat, 2013) followed the route of the North Sea whalers up to the Northern Isles and into the polar seas beyond. 'Blue Pearl', a collection focusing on our mythologizing of the North, will be published by New Directions later in the year.
All photographs courtesy of Marina Rees.