- Courtesy of Sam Simon
- "Skin Ego"
It's not often that you get to watch videos from inside the belly of a whale. For the Old Testament's Jonah, the stomach of the "giant fish" who swallowed him was a safe haven of salvation and prayer. For Richmond-based artist Rebecca Weisman, a whale's caverns, skin and viscera become the site of a prolonged investigation of surface, interior and what it means to have a body.
In 2013, Weisman stumbled across an online photo that captivated her: a dead finback whale washed up on the southern coast of Ireland. At her recent artist talk at the BCA Center in conjunction with her show "Skin Ego," she described the image: A man in rubber and neon fisherman's workwear incised the massive animal, spilling its guts out onto the sand. Weisman recalled being entranced by the shapes, colors and textures in the picture; she printed it out and put it up on her wall.
"I sat with the mystery of this image for some time," she said, "trying to get beneath [its] surface."
Ultimately, looking was not enough. "I decided to reenact the image," Weisman said. "I wanted to feel that moment of rupture."
So, for the past six years, the artist has worked to reconstruct her chosen scene, engaging simultaneously with heavy theoretical inquiry and the practical challenges of making a facsimile of a rotting whale carcass. In her talk, Weisman noted that she allowed curiosity to draw her forward, not knowing where her process would take her.
"It's an unfortunate situation," she said, "that we find ourselves needing to understand something before it's created."
Sparse in presentation, her exhibition takes form in fragments. There's the "whale," the four video vignettes inside it, and two large-scale, intestine-like sculptures. A sort of tableau of the fisherman's workwear is splayed across the northern gallery wall, accompanied by (fake) whale teeth, a dried approximation of whale effluvia, and the small, scythe-like implement used for cutting through a whale's skin.
The whale itself is a somewhat abstracted piece of the whole animal, built from cardboard, foam and latex paint along a temporary wall in the front of the gallery. Its sumptuous, layered gradations of pinks, purples and blues hint at Weisman's more superficial attraction to the original image. Spilling from a hole in the whale's middle is a sculptural gnarl of "guts" — nylon tights stuffed with recycled polyfill and painted in watery, bloody hues. Two giant clusters of these same oddly tantalizing innards hang from the gallery ceiling; hidden motors make them sway almost imperceptibly.
The meat of the show — or the heart and soul, if you prefer — is Weisman's video work, in the belly of the beast. From this vantage, the whale seems like a structure built to enshrine the artist's most important labor. The four captivating videos help viewers understand that the exhibition comprises mere remnants of Weisman's re-creation process, which are not necessarily meant to be taken at (sur)face value. The videos are accompanied by soft audio of Weisman interpreting whale sounds, as well as five quotes, spoken by videographer Karl Grabe, from Sigmund Freud and Didier Anzieu, a French psychoanalyst he influenced.
- Courtesy of Sam Simon
- Video of "Skin Ego"
As the key to the show, the looping video works demonstrate Weisman's preoccupation with inserting herself into a time and place she never inhabited. The camera takes interior and exterior vantage points that place viewers both among the spectators to the whale's disembowelment on the beach and inside the creature. Weisman layers image on image: The original video from which her still photo was excerpted collides with scenes she staged herself. We see her shoveling synthetic whale guts and donning the industrial fisherman's costume; she perforates and tears the image of the real dead whale on one screen while making holes in the fake dead whale's nylon skin on another. Reality and imitation are mashed together; body, image and material are shown to be permeable skins. Viewers who pay attention might start to feel existential vertigo, or at least queasiness.
Weisman seems to be suggesting that re-creation offers a route to understanding a particular event or moment in time. This rich premise, integral to acting, performance art, historical reenactment and crime-scene investigations, emphasizes that realms of knowing can be located in the body, beyond words.
What kinds of knowledge can specific embodiment impart? How is experience transmitted between skins, among bodies, across time and space? (It's worth pointing out that "Skin Ego" is a work about the body by a female artist that is not centered on the human female body.)
It feels the weight is mostly on the viewer to extract clues from Weisman’s beautiful and complex videos (which, in different circumstances, could have benefited from being screened in larger format). A provided gallery guide offers some of the crucial information that Weisman articulated elegantly in her talk: namely, that “Skin Ego” began with the decision to reenact a single found image, and that The Skin-Ego is the name of Anzieu’s 1985 text expounding on Freud’s thoughts about ego and surface. Without this information, viewers may be left wondering if Weisman is a whale-bent environmentalist, or what.
Those willing to dig and think — or at least fully to absorb Weisman’s videos — may experience valuable mind bending and feel respect for the depth of her process. The richest and most gripping elements of Weisman’s inquiry take place out of sight, as elusive as the space between body and soul.
Correction, March 18, 2019: An earlier version of this review inaccurately represented what contextual information was made available in the show.