The dark cave of the box room where I write and make videos was the perfect lockdown hideaway to watch Andrew Kötting’s hypnotic odyssey The Whalebone Box. It’s a further collaboration with Psychogeographer in Chief Iain Sinclair, a dream ticket that began with Offshore in 2007 and continued through By Our Selves, Swandown, and Edith Walks (and you could add Iain’s book London Overground which I then filmed with Kötting playing a major role).
The star of this film though is the film-maker’s daughter Eden Kötting, now an established artist in her own right, who first beguiled us as a child in her father’s debut feature Gallivant (1996). Eden is the sage, the spirit guide for the journey that lies ahead, to return a whalebone box carved by artist Steve Dilworth on the Isle of Harris thirty years before, lined with lead and filled with calm water and placed in the care of Iain Sinclair. The Whalebone Box spent the intervening years on the London magus’ desk whispering to him as he produced a string of highly influential works predicting the future shape of London. Eden wonders if returning the ‘animal battery’ to its source will stop the flow of words.
The film unfolds as Eden’s dream in a forest, gun on lap, hunting. The box drifts through the pine trees like the Rendlesham Forest UFO. Later whales swim between the twisted trunks of a gnarly copse. Eden casts Sinclair as ‘The Man’ (in black) ‘he wants to tell things … (he has) knowledge about this moment’.
Writer Philip Hoare relates how whales have the heaviest bones as they are full of oil. And the box has been lined with lead, filled with water and sealed with beeswax. The aim of the quest is to return the whalebone box to the beach where the whale washed up, to test whether the calm water sealed inside possesses healing powers and return health to the body of the sick. The box must first traverse the landscape, mountain tops and forests, the Fells, a tower to be charged with ‘insane energy’. The poet MacGillivray enchants a mermaid voice into the whalebone box in a church through haunting song. Kötting trails Sinclair to the ruined Cathar castle at Montségur, ‘the plug of the entire mythological system’. Philip Hoare tells us that whales can breach dimensions. Eden hears witches in the trees. At the Callanish Stones Sinclair says that this is where ‘the person dissolves in the place … we’re in this long dialogue with our ancestors’.
The magic extends to the form of the film with its multi-layered soundtrack of present tense non-synced voice, sounds from the archives, whale-song, music conjured from peculiar instruments. The images merge between archive film, animation, and iPhone movie clips but in Kötting’s hands, ‘This isn’t a phone, it’s a 16mm camera’.
The whalebone box makes its eventual return to the beach where it washed up, accompanied on its final leg by the voices of Jonathan Meades and Peter Whitehead. Eden stands by the sea at night, in silhouette, it’s cold and she wants to go home. Is the journey complete? I’ve a feeling that this is another chapter in an on-going saga that will take us who knows where next.