On December 24, 2011, a forty foot (twelve meter) beached sperm whale was discovered by a dog walker in Old Hunstanton, Norfolk, UK. In the days that followed, crowds gathered; a colony of insect-people, mourners, reverends, scavengers, paparazzi and freakers. In the moments before de-gloved hands tentatively reached out to touch the cracked, clammy, damp, salted, marbled hide, and fingers pushed into the firm spongy blubber, and dogs tip-toed into the salted ionic crimson pool that seeped from the severed tongue, a question slipped around the gathering like an eel: “Can I touch it?”.
Almost exactly 146 years earlier, a blue whale was discovered alive and beached near Näset on the west coast of Sweden, October 29, 1865. This fifty-three foot (sixteen metre) juvenile creature became The Malm Whale (Malmska valen). His skin was scraped and dried in sections, his organs preserved, and his hide laboriously fixed back together to become “the only stuffed blue whale in the world”. Transformed from fleshy, bodily, oily, salted hide, to polished “jewel of the Gothenburg Natural History Museum”. Malmska valen was discovered alive by a fisherman, and sold, after it’s killing, to August Malm, the then curator of the museum. A lengthy and painstaking preparation ensued, where after it toured Europe, starting at the Stockholm Industry and Art Fair, 1866, then Copenhagen, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris and London. The skin was screwed back together onto a whale shaped wooden form in highly irregular sections; the jaw, fixed on a great hinge, now allows visitors inside to visit Father Christmas.
After my visit to the Hunstanton whale in December 2011, a chain of events followed. They arrived silently, crept into liminal spaces, and unfastened a series of ruptures. An unprecedented rise in dolphin beachings; the first killer whale ever spotted from my local coast; three weeks in Gothenburg with Malmska valen; a conversation about conservation in a museum of natural history… fissures opened in my human world, and animals fell through them. But still, a distance remained, both physically and psychologically, between me and the other animals.
Touching the Whale considers thresholds of contact and distanciation between us and other animals, and the things that fill them. These spaces seem to mediate and perplex our understandings of animality, corporeality, and of animals “in place”. Whether constructed or happened upon, these experiences open questions about life and death, wildness and taming, seduction and aversion, in a place where “Can I touch it?” plays a fundamental role.
The project focuses initially on specific cases of whale death and exhibition, as a template for thinking more broadly about the freaked animal, and the spaces that exist (or are removed) between us and other animals. Our chance to touch the whale, to attempt a connection to wildness through physical contact, seems to overcome most common aversions. The instinct to touch is a milked reaction. That act seems both taming and confirming of otherness; it also reveals a shortcoming, an inability to know enough, despite physical proximity. It seems to mediate life and death, wildness and taming, desire and aversion.