Exhibition history 2023 Arnolfini, Bristol, UK (solo); RADAR, Loughborough, UK (solo); Ocean Films Húsavík, Húsavík, IS (film festival); Göteborgs Naturhistoriska Museum, Gothenburg, SE (group); Designhaus Darmstadt, Darmstadt, DE (solo); San Mei Gallery, London, UK (solo)
Deep in The Eye and The Belly is an ongoing body of work entwining stories of cetacean bodies with imagined oceanic futures in which these bodies become shelter for humans who returned to the oceans in the wake of climate collapse.
In Chapter One an unseen storyteller recounts the real-life tale of a young blue whale who beached on rocks not far from the city of Gothenburg in 1865. After being violently killed, the whale’s carcass was purchased and preserved by taxidermist August Wilhelm Malm for a dramatic museological display that saw it mounted with its jaw agape, allowing access inside the decorated body. Sometime in the 1930s a couple was found having sex inside the creature, and from then on, the museum decided to only open them up on special occasions, including mayoral speeches and elaborate meals for the wealthy.
The voice recalls a conversation that takes place in an unmarked facility full of cetacean bodies in various stages of preservation and assembly, an inflated stomach is taken from a cupboard, a time capsule of ear wax and the bones of the Thames whale sit in a display case. From these museum artefacts, the film threads together other cetacean-body stories: a spa in which people find cures in the bodies of dead whales, the whale who became a stranded spectacle in the Thames, and the travelling carcasses of a trio of whales the whereabouts of which are now unknown.
Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 1) Film Stills
In the present day, a story is unearthed of a whale body that became a world of dinner parties, clandestine sex and mayoral speeches. In a possible future, a group of those-who-were-left-behind (or, those-who-chose-to-stay) have made a home inside the body of a whale. They find themselves contemplating this new world and speculating on the state of things outside – a world ravaged by a climate crisis which they survived by turning to the ocean. At a crossing between the present day and this potential future, a lone figure sings a lament for the body of the world’s last whale.
Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 1), exhibition documentation, San Mei Gallery, London 2023
Extract from a conversation with Leonie Pfennig, published as part of the exhibition with Darmstädter Sezession.
Leonie Pfennig: Chapter one of your new video work “Deep in the Eye and the Belly” starts with a recollection of a flood that made people flee into the sea. At first it sounds like a not-so sci-fi scenario: people were expecting fires, generated by climate change, but instead of burning, their cities were flooded from bursting banks of rivers due to rain that did not stop – something we already see happening nowadays. In fact, we don’t have to look so far away, a gigantic flood hit Germany in the summer of 2020 and destroyed entire villages and infrastructure, 133 people died. I recently spoke to a curator who told me that her curatorial focus has shifted so far that in every new art project she works on, she’s trying to raise awareness for the climate crisis. How does the global situation we all live in affect your work as an artist? Is it something you’re aware of constantly when you venture into a new project, or was it an idea of this filmic work specifically, to have it set in future times affected by the climate crisis (or climate collapse, as you call it)?
Sam Williams: The state of precarity we exist in at the moment, beyond just the climate crisis, is something that runs through the backbone of my practice. Consideration of this precarity is in the background of all of my research and work, but this project is perhaps the first that brings it to the forefront with a semi-narrative world or set of stories. It is speculative, but those speculations run through the past, present and future. As you say, the narrator suggests the tipping point of climate collapse happened in their past, which is our future, while they recall a story that is set both in our present and our recent past. It was very much my intention for the project to be set in an ambiguous and fluid timeframe and to also avoid a clear sense of utopia or dystopia emerging. Something that runs through my work is a sense that – in some way, shape or form – things continue.
I had been writing about whales for some years, collating images and stories, as I found them to be a strong image for many of my interests: ecology, mythology, bodies-as-worlds, and so on. Then, when I found the image of the people sat at a table inside the body of the “Malm” whale in Gothenburg Museum of Natural History, the project began to coalesce around it.
Installation photographs, Designhaus Darmstadt, 2023
Our narrator appears on screen in Chapter Two in an extensive, theatrical monologue, where they recount the tale of climate collapse that led them and others to seek shelter and survival in collaboration with their cetacean kin.
Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 1) Film Still
Chapter Three leaves us on a watery crossing at an unknown time. Atop a bold red lighthouse, a lone singer laments for the disappearance of the world’s last whale.
Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 3) Film stills
Words held in waxy time (2023, beeswax)
The Inscrutable House, A Response to Deep in The Eye and The Belly at San Mei Gallery (2023)
The microbial flora lining the gut of the organisation works toward the preservation and progression, in part, of the major organism’s life. Willingly or not, knowingly or not; the Jamie-Lee-Curtis-advocated microbiota, the collective organisation, the institution of bacteria, fungi and viruses carry out their duties in an amoral oasis of putridity. This collective microbiota carries out many of these duties to support immunity, aid digestion, synthesise and so on.
I find myself in the architecture of an inscrutable organisation. I’m inside the gut of a building, the lining of its intestines and even on the surface of its exterior skin. Rough. I mingle and network with all sorts of questionable elements. Within the architecture, the makings, the composite parts, something tells me it’s a bad man. I haven’t the faintest idea who this person might be, I’m only inside the micro of their functioning. For all I know, the gut I dwell inside may reside in that of a murderer, a sales administrator, or any other such blatant terrorist.
I had grown up impatient in the doorway of my parent’s bedroom. I stand waiting. My mum is getting ready to go, sitting in front of a mirror I can’t remember the shape of. With a jerk of her wrist, her face scrunched closed, a stream of bone-white Elnett Strong Hold fills the room. Shot in the head with glue. She dampens the air with isobutane, the particles, the fragrance stinging at my eyes and choking up my lungs. The smell tickles my nose. The atomised adhesive disturbs me. I splutter and cough, I feign a small performance of death in the doorway until it fades. The polymer cures on the surface of her hair. It disappears at the stroke of a brush.
I ask, in the muck, do the microorganisms all agree to keep the organisation alive? Healthy? The bits, the pieces nestle among the protruding villi in this garden of flesh. Some among my surroundings have intentions to cause cancer or sepsis. Others hope to cause inflammation or slow the structure down.
I can’t know for sure, it’s all conjecture. I can’t get my answer from the microbes, none of them are willing. The microorganisms in the building are too numerous and rampant. Too saturated is the architecture, to pin one down and ask its intentions—I can’t really know. ‘What are you up to?’
Inside a circle outside the body-building, I move around and around in a swirling rotted waste. Exiled, I float belly up in the pool. In the bowl of a toilet, in the sick, shit or blood. I feign a performance of death. I pass that which is venial, vitiating, volatile.
Text by Andy Grace Hayes
Chapters Four and Five are currently in production (Summer 2023).
Written and directed by Sam Williams
Editing, post-production and secondary camera by Sam Williams Camera by Paul Bates (London) and Marte Vold (Gothenburg)
Voiced by Nando Messias Dramaturgy support by Laura Lomas Music by Simon Fisher Turner
Sound recording by Jordan Hunt Sound mastering by Harry Murdoch Animation by Andrew Gooch at Studio Ultra Title design by Erland Banggren Archive footage courtesy of British Pathé
Special thanks to: Richard Sabin, Principal Curator (Mammals) at Natural History Museum, London Magnus Gelang, Senior Curator (Vertebrates); Kennet Lundin, Senior Curator (Marine Invertebrates) and Åsa Holmberg at Gothenburg Museum of Natural History
Additional thanks: Henrik & Eva Bäcklund
Written and directed by Sam Williams
Performed by Nando Messias Editing, sound design and post-production by Sam Williams Camera by Alexandra Boanta Produced by Priya Palak Music by Simon Fisher Turner
Costume by Max Allen Set and props by Jonathan van Beek Make up by Anete Salinieka Hair by Aimeric Amiot Filmed at The Hornecker Centre, London with special thanks to Tony Hornecker Dramaturgy support by Laura Lomas Title Design by Erland Banggren
The line "We questioned the end point of evolution when we realised it wasn't us" is a direct quote from Alexis Pauline Gumbs "M Archive: After The End of The World" The monologue contains additional references to texts by José Esteban Muñoz, Jenny Offil and Alexis Pauline Gumbs.
Directed by Sam Williams
Editing, sound design and post-production by Sam Williams Camera by Alexandra Boanta Produced by Priya Palak Performed by Nando Messias Costume by Max Allen Music by Jordan Hunt
The song contains a repeated set of lyrics from Pete Seeger "The Song of the World's Last Whale"
Deep in The Eye and The Belly is funded with support from Arts Council England and Artist Network Development Bursary with thanks to Laura Sweeney, Ruth Lie, Priya Palak, Jade Montserrat & Somerset House Studios