Tessa Campbell Fraser: Whales

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PREVIEW: Friday 4 October, from 6pm. BOOK PLACE


This exhibition forms part of the Active Environmentalism programming at Messums Org which is founded on the principle that action begins with knowledge. British sculptor and climate change advocate, Tessa Campbell Fraser aims to unravel the interspecies communications between man and animal that are currently at the forefront of scientific research. Three monumental (5.2m, 4.6m and 3m respectively) sculptures of sperm whales will hang from the roof of the tithe barn. The open timbers and roofbeams of the barn are reminiscent of an upturned boat, carrying subliminal associations with the industrial scale whaling which reduced sperm whale numbers to critical levels in the 19th century, when their waxy spermaceti oil famously oiled the wheels of the Industrial Revolution. The sculptures offer a response to the environment whereby the viewer becomes immersed into an imaginative world of the whale whilst the surroundings reflect man’s increasing ecological impact on the world’s climate.

Campbell Fraser deliberately seeks out and employs sustainable, natural, recycled or repurposed materials. In this exhibition she is using recycled ghost netting, silk chiffon, latex, and synthetic (recycled) paper, made with almost no water. Using haptic techniques with these materials, she creates fluid, protean pieces in two-and three-dimensional forms to explain the dialogue between herself and nature.

In-depth exploration of sperm whales led to Campbell-Fraser’s research in to Project Ceti and the incorporated of the science of communication into her art. Over five years, the science-based experiment in Dominica has gathered vast amounts of Sperm Whale data, using underwater hydrophones to capture and record their distinctive ‘coda-clicks’. Along with studying their behaviour and methodologies to interpret the whales’ sounds. They have already discovered that whales have varying dialects and twenty-three different patterns of ‘coda-clicks’. AI has already been used to translate two unknown human languages without the need of a ‘Rosetta Stone’. Scientists are hopeful that it may be able to do the same with whale coda.

Campbell Fraser’s exhibition is inspired by both the exploration of interspecies communication through decoding together with her own immersive experience swimming with the whales in Domenica. She describes, “I didn’t quite know what to expect being face-to-face with these giant creatures in their environment. I hoped I would hear them coda click, and indeed I did, but it wasn’t these sounds that gave me the intense feeling of an inter-species communication, it was more the fact that I was one female in a group of other females and I felt part of their clan. I had no sensation that I didn’t belong in the underwater world or that we were alien to each other or that I was in any way in danger. It was almost as if we’d come from the same beginnings. Perhaps we have; after all they have finger like digits in the pectoral fin, left over from 15 million years ago when they were walking land animals with a skin-like texture on their bodies.”

She continues, “Really, what I experienced in those moments was a far more knowing conversation about myself, my personal views of being a woman today- perhaps I was connecting, like the Inuit people do, on a deeper and more spiritual level, with these magnificent mammals. I certainly surfaced from the water with a clear message from our encounter that to exist in this world, peacefully and fulfilled I would do well to listen to this ancient tongue with its truly primeval message. A romantic I may be, but it certainly made me realise this world is uniquely special and worth saving.”

“In sculpting the whales as I have- transparently, using ghost netting- I want to convey the need for mankind to realise that these great beasts will not be around in our world if we don’t act now to prevent catastrophic global warming. Rising sea temperatures will disrupt the entire ecological balance, causing these sea creatures to become mere ghosts to us, transparent in the extreme. And yet even within the whale’s story we can learn from nature. When a whale dies, its carcass, which has accumulated carbon during its long life, sinks to the bottom of the ocean, locking away 33 tons of co2.”

Campbell Fraser is fascinated by the potential of scientific decoding, “the enormity of the breakthrough to mankind if we really can have an interspecies conversation – it could reshape how we coexist with nature.” In her response to the science, she has devised her own form of a Victorian Eidophone, using the vibrations of whales’ coda clicks to make her own visual interpretations of their conversations. These visceral responses float across and through transparent paper, echoed by mirrors suspended in space like an evocation of a fleeting spoken conversation. In another collaboration with a music technician, she also attempts to have her own – and the viewer’s – version of a conversation with the whales.

The presentation of Tessa Campbell Fraser’s whales in the tithe barn at Messums West will travel on to Winchester Cathedral where they will be shown from 9 January – 27 February 2025 as part of the 250th anniversary marking Jane Austen’s birth and the accompanying ‘Festival of the Word’ celebrations at the Cathedral.

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