A Fortnightly Review.
Andrew Kötting, The Whalebone Box
12A | 1h 24min | Biography, Drama | 3 April 2020 (UK)
By SIMON COLLINGS.
IN HIS LATEST film, The Whalebone Box, Andrew Kötting travels with the writer Iain Sinclair from London to the Isle of Harris with a mysterious box made of whalebone.1 An ‘unwellness’ in the Hebridean island, Sinclair tells us, necessitates the return of the box to the place whence it came. The account of their journey provides the scaffold around which the film is organised. It’s a format Kötting has used in other recent work – Swandown (2012), By Our Selves (2015), and Edith Walks (2017).
But this journey, unlike those in previous projects, takes place partly within a dream. Early in the film we see close ups of Kötting’s daughter Eden asleep. We hear a sound like a whale singing, perhaps in distress. Or is this Eden’s voice? She was born with a rare neurological disorder and her ability to articulate words is limited. There’s an image of a fishing net in the ocean, followed by archive film of children playing in a garden, in which a young girl is blowing a set of Pan pipes. Then Eden begins to describe her dream. ‘The first image that I remember was me in a forest. I was looking for a whale, with a gun. And it’s true.’ Her narration is translated by subtitles.
As Sinclair and Kötting travel north the itinerary becomes increasingly fantastical, an observation Eden herself makes in the film. Having reached Scotland, the pair visit Montsegur, a Cathar fortress actually located in the Pyrenees. Sinclair describes the site as ‘the plug of the entire mythological system’, and as ‘central’ to everything he’s ever written.
Later they call at the Sway Tower, a 66m-tall folly, built by Andrew Thomas Turton Peterson between 1879 and 1885, on his estate in the New Forest. It was constructed from concrete, originally as a mausoleum, and served to promote the use of Portland cement. Sinclair makes more esoteric claims as we gaze at the structure, suggesting that Peterson would climb the tower to listen to the ‘hum of the cosmos’. He has brought the box here, he says, to recharge it with the tower’s ‘insane, angelic energy’.
The boundaries between zany travelogue and dream narrative become increasingly blurred as the story progresses. This uncertainty is heightened by the inclusion, throughout the film, of speculations by third parties, who are shown sections of the footage and asked to comment. One of these is the artist Kyunwai So. In both the Montsegur and Sway Tower sequences Sinclair is holding a battered, cardboard replica of the actual box. Kyunwai puzzles over whether there is a ‘real’ box. ‘The paper box could be the “real” box in her dream,’ he suggests. Eden also comments, from outside her dream: ‘The man has bought the wrong box. It was from inside my dream.’
KÖTTING STARTED OUT making short films for Channel 4 and the BBC. Acumen (1991), Smart Alek (1993) and Là Bas (1994) are darkly satirical pieces suggesting the influences of David Lynch and alternative British comedy. The comedian Sean Lock was a collaborator on Acumen and Smart Alek, and also scripted Kötting’s second feature This Filthy Earth (2001).
Following these early critical successes, Kötting has increasingly pushed the boundaries of cinema, freeing himself from the constraints imposed by working with the commissioning departments of the big broadcasters in order to do so. His more recent work is largely self-financed, allowing Kötting to follow his own creative impulses. The result is a body of work which ignores mainstream cinematic conventions, invents its own rules, and makes few concessions to the general cinema-viewing public.2
The Whalebone Box, like other recent work, is a riotous assemblage of images and sounds, some recorded for the film, others culled from archival material, both personal and public. The soundscapes of the more recent films are as important as the imagery, and the rhythm of sound often dictates the editing of the visual material. We hear various clips from movies and news programmes. ‘What’s in the box?’ an American woman asks. ‘Curiosity killed the cat,’ a man responds. ‘I’m gonna open it,’ says another voice. We see images of the box pulsing, the lid trying to lift, the sides straining against the cords which bind them, as though something monstrous is seeking to escape. Other voice-overs link the box to an aircraft’s flight recorder, while in others we hear a voice explaining the thought experiment proposed by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger to explain how a sub-atomic particle, such as a photon, can exist in multiple states at the same time. The box is many things.
Kötting employs both film and digital media, and works with a variety of formats. High res, ‘broadcast quality’ images are spliced with grainy super-8 ‘home movies’. Jerky hand-held shots are combined with static takes from fixed viewpoints. Special effects may be added. At one point in The Whalebone Box we see a whale swimming gracefully through the air beyond a stand of wintery trees. Film speeds are accelerated or slowed for effect. A flickering frame-by-frame image of Eden taken in profile is accompanied by an account of how she was born almost blind, our brains struggling to make sense of the image in a way which mirrors Eden’s learning to see.
Kötting also likes to experiment with unusual camera angles. In By Our Selves, he uses a rig to up-end the camera, as he depicts the poet John Clare experiencing an anxiety attack, the shot rotating through 180 degrees and ending upside down in the grass. Images of Kötting and other members of the team filming or recording sound are frequently in shot, the mechanics of the process exposed. All of these techniques help give the films a tactile quality, a physical presence. ‘The haptic is vital’, he says.
Phrases and images from earlier films are often repeated in Kötting’s work, so that the various projects increasingly come to feel like a single work tied together by frequent cross-references. In The Whalebone Box there are two brief episodes showing a woman, dressed in a medieval gown, carrying the box as she strides along a beach. This is Claudia Barton dressed as Edith Swan Neck from the film Edith Walks, surfacing without explanation in Eden’s dream.
THE WHALEBONE BOX itself is the work of sculptor Steve Dilworth, and was created more than thirty years ago. It is made from bone recovered from the carcass of a whale washed up on the Isle of Harris where Dilworth lives. The whale died after becoming entangled in a fishing net. Sections of rope, and lead used to weight the net, were incorporated into the sculpture. It’s an object of mystery, elemental in its simplicity, ‘a thing of life and death’ the sculptor says.
Dilworth often uses parts of animals in his work, the objects he creates invoking mythological associations, perhaps even suggesting a magical function. In his landscape-based work he has used animal fat in a manner reminiscent of the work of Joseph Beuys. But Dilworth rejects the idea of the artist as shaman as practised by Beuys. His interest in folklore and myth is aesthetic, social, psychological – perspectives he shares with Kötting and Sinclair.3
AS PREPARATION FOR their journey, Kötting and Sinclair visited Philip Hoare, author of the bestselling Leviathan, and a fount of knowledge about all things whale. For millennia the whale was feared, depicted in stories and paintings as a monstrous and savage creature. Our knowledge of the animal, as Hoare explains in his book, only really dates from the start of the whaling industry in the early 19th century.
In recent decades an international moratorium on hunting has allowed whale numbers to recover, but to nothing like the levels once seen. Though they are no longer hunted, whales still perish as a result of encounters with the modern fishing industry, shipping and naval activity.
In pre-Darwinian times, Hoare says in the film, the boundary between human and animal was less clearly delineated, and the idea that a human might pass into animal form, or vice versa, was commonly held. That changed, he says, when humans acquired the capacity to ‘kill remotely’. Kötting’s film includes archive footage of dead whales, of a harpoon gun, of whale blubber being sliced into. Footage of a decaying carcass on a beach, possibly the whale from which Dilworth made the box, also appears. The half-titles which pop up throughout the film – ‘The passage out’, ‘Far Away Land’, ‘Sealed Orders’ and so on – are the chapter headings from Hoare’s book.4
‘The whale is a liminal breacher,’ Hoare says in the film, in what sounds like Sinclair-inspired psycho-babble (there’s nothing like this in his book). ‘It literally, and figuratively, and psychically, breaches between these dimensions [of water and air]…When the whale leaps out of the ocean it becomes an extra-planetary whale, the futuristic symbol of the backward abyss of time, as Prospero says in The Tempest.’5
ONTHE ROAD north, Sinclair and Kötting stop at Briggflatts in Cumbria, where the poet Basil Bunting lies buried. We hear Bunting reading lines from the poem ‘Briggflatts‘ at various points in the film:
Every birth a crime,
every sentence life….(Part I, stanza 10)
Down into the dust and reeds
at the patrolled bounds
where captives thicken to gaze….(Part III, start)
Who knows where we are
where we go. (Coda, final stanza)6
Kötting and Sinclair visit the Quaker meeting house at Briggflatts, a place Bunting often went. Here they encounter the Scottish artist and singer Kirsten Norrie (stage-name MacGillivray) who sings a wordless mermaid’s lament over the box.7 It’s the sound, like a whale singing, that we heard at the beginning of the film, and which we will hear again.
Further north, in Scotland, the grave of poet Sorley MacLean on the Isle of Skye is another site of pilgrimage, a cultural reference point, a psychogeographic marker. MacLean was born on Raasay, and grew up steeped in Gaelic tradition and folklore. He used his knowledge of local history and culture to modernise Gaelic poetry, becoming one of the most influential Scottish poets of the twentieth century.
Bunting and MacLean both cared about tradition and the identity of place – major preoccupations of both Kötting and Sinclair. ‘Briggflatts’ includes a section about the Viking chieftan, Eric Bloodaxe, with whom Bunting identified. It’s a world which is rapidly being lost. Kötting’s first feature, Gallivant, involves a trip around the coast of Britian with his grandmother and a seven-year-old Eden. When Kötting asks local people if they remember any traditional folk songs they look embarrassed. Finally coaxed into singing, they find they can’t remember the words.
EDEN IS CENTRAL to Kötting’s creative process. He describes her as ‘unfathomable, an enigma’, her take on the world and her creative response to it fascinate him. Children born with Joubert syndrome don’t usually survive into adulthood, but Eden is now in her early thirties, and exhibits in her own right as an artist. Kötting shares a workspace with her, and her drawings and paintings often reference projects he is engaged on, her artistic output becoming a source of ideas he then weaves back into his own work. Screenings of Edith Walks were accompanied by a short, Forgotten the Queen, which uses animations of Eden’s own version of the story of Edith Swan Neck, King Harold and the Battle of Hastings. ‘I don’t know whether she is ventriloquising me or vice versa,’ Kötting told Jason Woods in an April 2020 interview.8
There are frequent images in The Whalebone Box of Eden sleeping, sometimes accompanied by a woman’s voice whispering ‘What do you see?’ Different bedclothes appear in these shots, the footage clearly taken at different times. The sense of the film being an account of a specific dream is undercut by the variety of these images. In one sequence Eden is adorned with the crown of flowers she wears in the dream. In another she’s lying on her front, her feet raised in the air like a whale’s flukes.
Much of the footage of the sleeping Eden dates from the time Kötting was making This Our Still Life, his 2011 meditation on time and memory, filmed at Louyre in the French Pyrenees where the family spends part of the year. Eden appears in many of Kötting’s films but this is his most intimate portrait of her. In the April 2020 interview, Kötting told Jason Woods:
When I was working on This Our Still Life I would film her asleep on Super 8 for a minute or so just before we went to bed…I was struck by her serenity and beauty. She seemed to be away with the fairies and would often stir, uttering otherworldly noises so I began to record these events on my iPhone. In the morning she would tell us about the dreams that she might have had…One of these dreams involved her deep in a Pyrenean forest with a gun in a chair shooting BIG fish. She was wearing her favourite dress and looking into the trees through binoculars.’
Elsewhere in the interview Kötting says: ‘The film is as much about her and her “otherness” as it is about the whalebone box.’
IN 2005 KÖTTING worked with the writer Gareth Evans to create a kind of ‘artist’s statement’, a collage of material lifted from interviews and articles, the key concepts organised alphabetically.9 Here are a few extracts from ‘An Alphabetarium of Kötting’ which give a sense of his ‘poethics’ (to borrow a term from the American poet and essayist Joan Retallack):
Aphorism…The fragmentary and ‘unfinished’, the fleeting and the found. Set these to dance with digression, wilful extension, waffle, natural curiosity, distraction and a sometime reluctance to discard and you have the oeuvre we might be considering.
Being the layered reading of territories, urban and other, via signs of all kinds and without prejudice as to the source or status of the prompt.
Eden, as (dis)abled daughter, agent, collaborator and catalyst, is essential to appreciating how Kötting works, why he works, how he deploys and values time and how he is not afraid. How he is opened out and into celebration by a ‘situation’ normally deemed to be one that ‘reduces’ possibility. Eden embodying and generating an instinctual tolerance.
N is for never a finite Narrative, neither one thing nor another, hither and dither within the neverneverlands of spillage, post polemics and critical histories, new.
Politics. Less the megaphone, more the hope of ‘politics’ and ever the Prank. n. a mischievous trick or joke, esp. one in which something is done rather than said, or is it?
Process. The work is as much process as framed product. In constant flux, images and sounds migrate, are curious about the elsewhere, are remixed, lose titles and gain new labels briefly; fixity is not the spine here; things arrive into being, are held like water in the hand, then pass on. Are flawed, unfinished.
THE MEDIEVAL FRANKS CASKET is, like Dilworth’s sculpture, made of whalebone. Its sides and top are carved with scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Germanic traditions, accompanied by runic inscriptions in Old English and Latin. Scholars differ in their interpretations of the casket’s significance and likely uses. It’s an enigmatic object, the selection of images and texts which adorn it capable of multiple interpretations. Examining the casket in its glass case in the British Museum, Eden says: ‘It’s possible that the Franks Casket is pregnant with narrative on the outside, whereas the whalebone box devours narrative like a black hole.’
The whalebone box, in this sense of consumer rather than generator of meaning, might be viewed as a metaphor for the film itself, a mysterious art object which resists our attempts to understand it, gravid with possible meanings but, like our quantum universe, entangled, altered by any attempt to measure it, existing simultaneously in multiple states.
On Harris, we visit a circle of standing stones where Sinclair reflects on mortality. He speaks of how an individual’s sense of identity becomes overwhelmed in a place like this. He says he doesn’t want to be nailed down in a box in a particular spot, but to become part of something bigger. ‘Much better to be on the wave,’ he says, ‘to be flowing and floating.’ The film cuts to images of Edith in her favourite dress and flowery crown, doggy-paddling across a swimming pool.
In the closing moments, Kötting buries the box on a beach on the Isle of Harris. As he places it in the shallow hole he’s excavated, and covers it with sand, Sinclair says: ‘Maybe the treasure they speak of is nothing actual. It’s not this box. It’s nothing that’s been buried in the sand. It’s nothing that’s hidden in a cave. But it’s that strange state of consciousness that you can only achieve out of your own confusions.’
Simon Collings lives in Oxford and has published poems, stories and critical essays in a range of journals including Stride, Journal of Poetics Research, Café Irreal, Tears in the Fence, Ink Sweat and Tears, Lighthouse and PN Review. Out West, his first chapbook, was published by Albion Beatnik in 2017, and a second chapbook, Stella Unframed, was released by The Red Ceilings Press in 2018. An archive of his work for The Fortnightly Review is here.
Note: This item has been edited since publication to remove the reference to a walking tour of Montsegur by Pound and Eliot. The visit cannot be verified.
- Sinclair and Kötting have been regular collaborators in recent years. Sinclair is a central figure in Swandown, By Our Selves, and Edith Walks. Equally Kötting is a key figure in Sinclair’s London Overground project, walking the Ginger Line with Sinclair and featuring in both the book (London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line, Penguin, 2015) and film (London Overground, 2016, directed by John Rogers).
- The Whalebone Box is perhaps not the easiest place to start for anyone unfamiliar with Kötting’s oeuvre. Try watching Gallivant, and then perhaps By Our Selves, first.
- His website, SteveDilworth.com, is here. Sinclair writes in his book Lights Out for the Territory about being introduced to Dilworth by the performance artist and poet Brian Catling: ‘Catling, with his years ducking and weaving through declining art school gulags, honed his ability for finding the unexpected, artists of stubborn individuality…I’d have to thank him for introducing me to Steve Dilworth’s work, his eel-weavings and whalebone boxes, his crows crushed between sheets of glass.’
- The Shakespeare quote is from Act 1, scene II of The Tempest, in which Prospero, questioning Miranda about her memories from before they came to the island, asks: ‘What seest thou else/In the dark backward and abysm of time?’
- In chapter IX of Leviathan, Hoare himself lists the ‘evocative’ chapter headings of the book Melville plundered in the writing of Moby Dick, Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839).
- A voice which announces ‘Part I’, ‘Part II’ etc in the film also sounds like Bunting. Briggflatts has five sections plus a coda.
- A recording of MacGillivray singing ‘Murdered Mermaid Song’ can be found here.
- The interview, on Home, is here.
- See Andrew Køtting’s website here.