In the Belly of the Whale

This review of ‘In the Belly of the Whale’ was published in Art Monthly issue 348, July – August 2011

External view of Cartel gallery

In 1955 the auteur Orson Welles, part way through a thirty-year self-imposed exile in Europe, directed a theatrical adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic American novel Moby Dick. Staged at the Duke of York’s theatre in London, the play garnered rave reviews, but only ran for three weeks.  Two things simultaneously alienated theatregoers and absorbed theatre critics: the starkness of Welles’s stage direction and the innovative use of mise en abyme as a narrative device.  Entitled Moby Dick Rehearsed, the work featured a stellar cast playing the roles of a company of actors who, while touring a production of King Lear, decide to stage their own version of Moby Dick in an empty theatre without a set or props. In this amalgamation of naturalism and the theatre theatrical, Welles is purported to have compared the theatre hall to the belly of a whale, in which the actors are trapped. After the play’s short run the cast were reassembled at a barren Hackney Empire, where Welles unsuccessfully attempted to capture the stage play on film. Sixteen years later he shot footage of himself playing multiple roles in several scenes from the play. Neither of these projects saw the light of day.

For curators Rosie Cooper and Ariella Yedgar, both Moby Dick Rehearsed and Welles’s continued attempts to revisit its narrative, provided the overarching themes for In the Belly of the Whale. In contrast to the CCA Wattis Centre for Contemporary Arts’s 2009 exhibition Moby Dick – curator Jens Hoffman’s attempt to cover the human condition through an expansive nautical lens – Cooper, Yedgar and their participating artists have, according to the gallery text, narrowed the field and responded to Welles’s ‘unremitting and ultimately unfinished project’.

Sited in south London’s unconventional Cartel gallery (a single corrugated iron shipping container situated in the concrete garden of a disused New Cross police station), new works by Adam Chodzko, Côme Ciment, Anthea Hamilton and Jacopo Miliani are contained in the gallery’s compact 6×3 metre interior. Each artist pulls on a different strand of the Welles narrative, in order to extend its contours out into an inhabitable physical space. However, it’s in the correlation between the narrative driving the production of the works and the resulting works themselves that problems arise: too much attention is paid to the story’s exterior characteristics. The facts of Welles’s endeavour can be learned from the A4 interpretation sheet stuck to the gallery’s shell. These few paragraphs of historical exposition act as an anchor, mooring potentially radical artistic departures to its concrete base, while obviating any need for a straight retelling of the way things were.  Instead of diving into the narrative’s depths, the artists hover around its periphery, presenting subtle conceptual puzzles that, when deciphered, lead back to coldly phenomenal details. It is a kind of journalistic approach to the making of art, in which the artists visit a curatorialy defined narrative locus and, upon their return, produce works that refer to specific points of interest. There’s nothing wrong with reportage, but its stylistic pitfalls (factual presentation and a reliance on the accounting of physical as opposed to psychological events) inhibit the deep interiorities that the production of art gain easy access to. Welles’s story is an enticingly dramatic and multilayered corpus from which Cooper and Yedgar’s curatorial premise feeds. But, in being dazzled by the brilliance of its surface, the chance to pull the viewer down through Welles and Mellvile, into the stomach of the great white whale (and whatever metaphorical possibilities that particular image may contain) has been missed.

Miliani’s mixed media assemblages reference the Native American ethnicities associated with Melville’s character of Queequeg, the ‘friendly cannibal’. In Queequeg, 2011, a black and white photograph of a Caucasian, female mannequin-head, overlaid with clear glass, is nailed to a scarf-size line of red fabric. A feathered headdress circles her neatly cut bob. This combination of western coiffure and indigenous ornament recalls the odd incongruities found in Hollywood’s early practice of placing western actors in ethnic roles.  In Miliani’s Characters, 2011, three found photographs (production stills from unknown plays) show western actors in exotic costume and full Sioux-chief regalia. In Hamilton’s Untitled (rope divider), 2009/2011, a large metal ring is attached to a dyed bamboo stick, from which hang strips of thick, knotted rope. Hamilton was compelled to construct the piece through repeated viewings of the 1956 film version of Moby Dick (where the character of Queequeg was played by a European), in which Captain Ahab’s crew tied knots.

Chodzko’s New Wing. A Rehearsal For a Faulty Projector, 2011, is a six-minute video in which the rehearsal of a theatre group is offset against the bar code strip lines of a malfunctioning projector. His Props. For memorizing the Gravity of mime objects, 2011, an array of rocks displayed on four shelves that have been labelled as other objects, is a witty riff on liminality: using, as its subject, objects whose true use value is present once they are absent. Despite these clever manifestations of curious and personally interesting (for the artists) elements of Welles’s, and Melville via Welles’s, narrative, the artworks listed above exist only as incomplete, partially obfuscated, referents to minor facts (faux Native Americans, nautical rope tying, theatre companies, non-existent props) in the curatorial thematic.

Of the four participating artists Ciment’s contribution is the most considered and, as a result, affecting. In Floors of the Exhibition, 2011, lines of magnetic tape run along the gallery walls creating three distinct elevated architectural drawings of the three theatre spaces used by Welles. This matryoshka-like project nests the gallery visitor within a dizzying array of localities. Standing in the centre of Cartel she or he actually stands within three theatre spaces, which are within a shipping container, which is itself within an old police station, within New Cross, within the borough of Lewisham; onwards and upwards, expanding ad infinitum. The work prompts an almost transcendental sense of relief that some metaphorical engagement with the idea of entombment has taken place. It is a shame that Olivier Castel, the artist behind this clever, witty and ultimately numinous work, chooses to remain partially obscured by the pseudonym of Côme Ciment.

Despite the rather ancillary engagement of some artists, In the Belly of the Whale is almost alchemically well put together. Cooper and Yedgar have transformed Cartel’s cramped interior into a plausible and misleadingly spacious venue for a group exhibition. In the accompanying text the curators describe In the Belly of the Whale as a ‘rehearsal for a larger show’. Let’s hope this appealing, if slightly remiss, read-through develops into a full-stage production: a Stanislavskian journey to the heart of the narrative, or at least its abdomen.

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