Deep in The Eye and The Belly (2023, ongoing)

multi-chapter film series, text, sculpture

Exhibition history 2023 Arnolfini, Bristol, UK (solo); RADAR, Loughborough, UK (screening); Arts Catalyst, Sheffield, UK (workshop); Uppsala Short Film Festival, Uppsala, SE (film festival); 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 - trailer

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) 3 minute extract

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

Words Held in Waxy Time (2023); Archive image, Blackgang Chine.

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. Reclining in a cramped, cluttered space and dressed in a sequined, eel-like catsuit, they act as our first introduction to the cast of characters who narrate our possible queer futures. They leave us after Chapter Three in which they appear alone on a watery crossing at an unknown time. Atop a bold red lighthouse, they sing a looping lament for the disappearance of the world’s last whale.

Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 2) 3 minute extract

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

Deep in The Eye and The Belly (Chapter 3) Film stills

Chapter Four introduces us to a group of characters sat in a boat-like ‘belly of the whale’. One character, adorned in a stripey, jelly-fish like costume, begins to speak. Through their monologue they unpack the fears, hopes, indecisions and possibilities of human and more-than-human bodies on the brink of evolution. They ponder the types of oceanic body they might come to inhabit and think back on life before climate collapse. As they speak, the group around them perform a choreographed sequence of bodily transformations, each exploring different aquatic ways of being, and coming together to support and survive.

The enigmatic dancer from Chapter Four becomes our narrator for Chapter Five. She speaks to the experience of climate collapse and her body’s relationship to the ocean. With her cetacean counterpart, she dies and describes the phenomenon of whale-fall. We travel with her as her body is consumed by ocean dwelling creatures before transforming into a unique ecosystem. The monologue here is a meditation of life, death and resurrection, the body becoming a world.

deep in the eye and the belly (chapter 4) extract

What if you donʼt fancy being scaly? Scaling up? These are the kinds of questions Sam Williams imagines we will contemplate after the great flood, when our delicate ecosystem finally tips over and all but a lucky few are drowned.

Paul Clinton

Extract from an upcoming essay by Paul Clinton:

The survivors' queer position of being in a state of flux, or being alienated from their own bodies, is reflected also in the nascent queerness of the figures themselves. Dressed in a kind of apocalyptic half drag, they analyse a lost society to which they never quite belonged, and grapple with what they might become, perhaps as the quotation indicates, against their will. In fact, the tendency towards allegory –Jonah, the ark, the whale as extended metaphor for the body – but without a definite goal, such as redemption, draws Williams close to queer filmmakers such as Ulrike Ottinger and Werner Schroeter. Their films, like the artistʼs, feature visually rich, but disconnected, tableaux for characters on a journey, usually only searching for some vague form of change or dissolution. And all three tend towards a kind of surrealist anthropology, a sense that to understand the world involves a degree of fantastical recreation, which is just what Williams does for our drowned world.

deep in the eye and the belly (chapter 5) film still

Chapter 1

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

Chapter 2

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

Chapter 3

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

Chapter 4 (an improvisation)

Improvised monologue performed by and created in collaboration with Seke Chimutengwende

Directed by Sam Williams

Editing and post-production by Sam Williams
Produced by Priya Palak
Choreography created in collaboration with and performed by Temitope Ajose, Courtney Deyn, Karen Callaghan, Pierre Babbage and Masumi Saito
Camera by George Nicolaides
Lighting by Benj Leggett
Sound recording by Satsita Gavasheli
Music by Sophie Agnel
Costume by Max Allen
Set and props by Jonathan van Beek
Make up by Rie Gibson
Hair by Tommy Stayton Sound mastering by Harry Murdoch
Stills photography by Harry Mitchell
Runner Kieron Pell

Chapter 5

Written and directed by Sam Williams

Editing and post-production by Sam Williams
Produced by Priya Palak
Performed by Temitope Ajose
Camera by Pablo Rojas Costume by Max Allen
Set and props by Jonathan van Beek Make up by Rie Gibson
Music by Simon Fisher Turner
Sound design and composition by Sam Williams
Sound mastering by Harry Murdoch
Runner Daisy Mae Boorman
Dramaturgy Support by Laura Lomas

Title Design by Erland G. Banggren

Deep in The Eye and The Belly is funded with support from Arts Council England, Artist Network Development Bursary and The Elephant Trust with thanks to Somerset House Studios