The Mystery Of Jonah, The Giant Whale Who Toured The UK In The 1950s

No one would ever forget the smell. As extraordinary as the sight of a 70-ton finback whale aboard a 76ft lorry would have been in 1950s England, the overriding memory, the thing that brings this strange story flooding back to those who were there, was the dreadful stench of sea mammal decomposing.

“It smelled awful,” says the artist Fiona Tan, who has been exploring this odd footnote in European natural history for her latest work, which opens at the Baltic in Gateshead in July. “When I explained the project to a technician at the gallery, he said, ‘I saw it as a kid. I’m positive: I remember that smell.’”

But to most people who gathered to gawp at Jonah the Whale as he trundled through Barnsley, Worcester and other British places seemingly impassable for a truck, the memory seems like a dream.

“The story of Jonah slipped through the cracks,” says Tan. “People didn’t think it was important, so it didn’t really get documented. I spoke to people who thought they had made it up, who were laughed at when they mentioned it. There’s only been one small BBC radio programme about it, and one book.”

Fiona Tan

The story began in Trondheim, Norway, in 1952. A mysterious and as yet unidentified organisation harpooned three fin whales off the Trøndelag coast. The whales were preserved “in vast amounts of formaldehyde” and placed on custom-built refrigerated lorries (said to be the largest in the world at the time) before they embarked on their 20-year odysseys across Europe. The three whales – Hercules, Goliath and Jonah – passed through various owners. Sometimes they were presented as “educational”, sometimes as a freaky sideshow for a circus.

For Tan, an Indonesian-born Australian artist who now lives in Amsterdam, the story of Jonah led on from an earlier piece of film footage she discovered while raiding the Netherlands film archive, EYE. “I found this incredibly powerful, and very sad, film of whales being skinned. It’s possibly 100 years old, and my guess is that it is in America, although it’s unidentified.”

In the film, which will also be shown at Tan’s Baltic show, a huge whale hangs from a hook in a harbour. “A man with a scythe is splitting it open like he’s done it a million times, like it’s the most normal job in the world,” says Tan. “The whales’ innards are spilling out, and people are climbing on top to get the blubber off. One man even steps inside the whale.”

Fiona Tan

It is a dystopian vision of the biblical Jonah, and Tan says it shows how far our attitudes to whales have come. “When Melville was writing Moby Dick, whales were still monsters,” she says. “They were the leviathan – a dark, unknown, devilish power. Today it is the exact opposite: we see them as these poor, sad, intelligent creatures on the edge of extinction.”

Once Tan read about Jonah the giant whale, she set off on her own journey, delving into natural history museums to find out more. “I am very interested in the idea of collections,” she says. (Her previous works include an imaginary museum curated by Marco Polo, shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and a film about John Soanes’s museum full of antiquities in London.) “What is a collection, and what is someone trying to tell me with it?” wonders Tan. “Some are huge – the Netherlands’s natural history museum has 37m specimens.”

Thinking of Jonah preserved in formaldehyde and glared at by thousands, you are reminded of Damien Hirst and his dead creatures suspended in time. At the Baltic, Tan has built her own version of the 76ft lorry (“quite a logistical challenge”), which will fill the former grain silo. Invitations have been sent out, mocked up like an 18th-century newspaper advert, inviting spectators to come and see “the monster whale”.

But climb inside Tan’s huge lorry and something isn’t right – there is no whale. Instead, viewers will find 59 “beautiful glass models of sea anemones”, which Tan has borrowed from a museum, as well as a “meditative” video installation.

Fiona Tan

“I didn’t want to recreate that rather ridiculous event that happened in the 50s,” she says. “Instead, I want viewers to feel awe and curiosity, to think about Newcastle’s forgotten history as a major whaling port, and remember how much we still don’t know about whales.”

So what became of the real Jonah? Hercules made it as far as Spain, before the smell became too overpowering and he had to be disposed of. Goliath is thought to have ended up in Italy. Jonah, according to Steve Deput, author of the book The Barnsley Whale, ended up in cold storage in Belgium, but is rumoured to have been bought by a UK showman who plans to resurrect him.

Tan won’t be rushing off to track him down, though. “I’ve never seen a whale, and I don’t want to,” she says adamantly. “This has been one of my strangest realisations. I want to hunt the whale in a different way, so that I don’t catch it. I always want it to escape.”

Fiona Tan’s Depot is at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 10 July to 1 November.

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