BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead presents a survey exhibition and major new commission by the Dutch artist and filmmaker Fiona Tan. DEPOT is the new large installation which lends its name to the exhibition. It re-imagines ‘Jonah the Giant Whale’, a preserved whale in Formaldehyde, which toured across Europe exhibited inside a lorry. Tan has rebuilt the 71-foot long vehicle; however the inside now contains a cabinet of curiosities inviting the viewer to climb aboard.
Drawing on Newcastle’s forgotten history as a major whaling port, DEPOT is an exhibition within an exhibition including illustrations of beached whales, archival photographs, glass models of small sea invertebrate by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (1822-95 and 1857-1939). The immersive presentation also includes a new film installation incorporating footage filmed in the depots of natural history museums internationally.
The amassing of specimens in the 19th and 20th centuries is the basis for all natural history museums. However, for Tan ‘Natural History’ remains a curious term, an oxymoron. For her, this term encapsulates the troubled complexities of mankind’s relationship to the natural world. Ironically, when it comes to collecting for these institutions, one must first kill and destroy that which one wishes to preserve. This new commission builds upon several of Tan’s recent works that expose 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.
DEPOT reflects upon Tan’s personal fascination with whales and other marine animals and her wish to reflect on her own relationship to the sea, the creatures that inhabit it and their mythologies. Growing up in Australia where she frequently went snorkeling, as well as trips to natural history museums with her scientist parents, Tan for a time wanted to become a marine biologist.
Other highlights of the exhibition include Leviathan, 2015 a new, monumental projection, timed to coincide with the turn of the tide of the River Tyne which flows outside BALTIC. This projection is accompanied by a bass clarinet solo composed especially for this occasion by the Greek composer Calliope Tsoupaki. Inventory, 2012 was filmed at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and presents intimate details of the celebrated architect’s personal collection housed in one of the most unique public museums in the world. A contemplative visual essay, Inventory explores Tan’s preoccupation with time, memory, and place, and is as much a meditation on the human impulse to collect as a reflection on Tan’s artistic practice to date.
Disorient, 2009 was first shown in the Dutch Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009. Two films run in continuous loops on opposite walls juxtapose fantasy and reality of the trade route between Venice and Asia. The voice-over for this encompassing installation is comprised solely of quotes taken from Marco Polo’s 700 year old book, The Travels. Filmed in a set created in the Pavilion itself – an imaginary museum depot – Disorient builds a bridge across centuries and raises critical questions about contemporary globalism and its origins.
Fiona Tan: DEPOT – BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art – until 1 November 2015