Saturday, 3 October 2015

DEPOT: A Baltic Residency

Fiona Tan's DEPOT, Baltic (2015). Photo my own

Europeans have long kept memories of an enormous green tarped lorry bearing the painted logo 'JONAH' passing through their cities and towns. In Bible stories, Jonah is a man thrown overboard in a storm and swallowed by 'a great fish'. In some translations that fish is a whale, which was the very cargo of the lorry

Fiona Tan's DEPOT, Baltic (2015). Photo my own.

Carrying a seventy ton blue whale, it was not an aquarium on wheels that drove Jonah from the waters of his capture near Trondheim, Norway in 1952 but a moving coffin. Pumped full of 2,200 gallons of formalin to preserve his flesh, the whale's internal organs were removed before they expanded with gases and pressure enough to explode. Quite a sight, although I don't recommend searching that on Youtube until you've had your tea.

In this bizarre take on the travelling menagerie, Jonah the 23 metre whale was driven around Europe as a fairground showpiece, followed by a trail of petrol and formalin fumes. Stopping across the UK, fifties beauties climbed in his mouth, toddlers held his fin and couples circumnavigated his reeking frame which was held up by his skeleton and glossed up like the body of an incorruptible saint. The fumes have stuck in the memories of many Newcastle residents and now, over sixty years later, Fiona Tan has brought reputedly the world's largest lorry back to the Tyne. 

Baltic's Viewing Platform with
Quayside Reflection. Photo my own.
As part of my Write Around the Toon residency at Baltic and my PhD research with Newcastle University, I wanted to respond to the installation with a poem. When I heard the backstory of Jonah the whale, I was excited to visit 'DEPOT', Tan's recreation of this most unusual lorry and cargo. Following the viewing of Leviathan, Tan's projection of archival film of whale peeling and a fantastic conversation with David Reynolds, one of the loveliest members of Baltic Crew, I have started writing. 


'Write Around the Toon' is a Newcastle University NCLA project in which five selected PhD researchers and poets take residence and write poems in response to a range of Newcastle-Gateshead's finest cultural venues. The residencies conclude with readings at Culture Lab this December. Tickets are available here.

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