At Face Value: Review of Andrew Kötting’s The Whalebone Box

By Saul Leslie

In the North Pacific, a deaf whale sings. For thirty years this animal has swum through empty seas, has spoken out, but never yet received an answer. Taxonomically uncategorised, marine biologists in Cape Cod call this particular creature ‘the 52 Hertz Whale’. Through a hydrophone, its song registers at the ‘basso profundo frequency, just above the lowest note on a tuba’. By comparison, the song of blue whales is identifiable at 10-39Hz, and fin whales at 20Hz. Experts speculating about why this whale sings at 52Hz have posited that its hearing is impaired, making it unable to sing at the frequency of other ‘normal’ whales, and incapable of hearing their replies. As with humans, so with whales: both mammals have limits to what they can hear. As with humans, so with whales: both mammals experience impairment and disability. These kinds of equivalences between people and whales might have seemed strained if not for Andrew Kötting’s 2020 film The Whalebone Box.

The film is a merging of timeless currents, of age-old whale narratives and enduring disability experience. Eden Kötting, an artist ‘born in 1988 with a rare genetic disorder – Joubert Syndrome’, narrates the journey undertaken by her father and director, Andrew, and writer Iain Sinclair, as they transport a small heavy box made of whalebone from England to a beach in Scotland where the animal originally washed up. Sinclair, playing the part of ‘The Mariner’, tells the tale that he was given the box by sculptor Steve Dilworth three decades earlier, that the box retains a primal magnetism which draws it back to that beach on the Isle of Harris, towing those who hold it in its wake. In this way, everything abstract in The Whalebone Box is related to the physical. The journey is long, breathless, cold, windy; the box is heavy, cumbersome, textured. Its interior is lined with lead melted down from the weights of the net in which the whale was caught and drowned. The film consciously gestures towards connections between its themes, between characters and their encounters, nodding perhaps to a ‘rhizomatic model of disability’ (Jarman, Michelle 2012 p. 209-225), where a tangle of community networks, partial visibility and identities encapsulates aspects of lived disability experience.

As tightly as a whale ship’s rigging, Andrew Kötting entwines the twin narrative strands of the box’s journey northward and Eden Kötting’s dream sequences. Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan and another of the film’s many voiceovers, frames this as an intimate relationship that existed between animals and people in the pre-Darwin epoch, when

You could slip between species. The break in this connection came when humans found a way to kill remotely.
Hoare’s brief account of that moment of separation accompanies footage of a slain whale lashed with thick rope to the side of a ship, its underside bloated in death, floating in grey froth beneath a cloudy sky. Its exposed belly is corrugated and fissured like an escalator. Where does this escalator lead? Hoare describes the whale’s skyward trajectory:

The whale leaves that huge body of water which contains 90% of the biomass of the planet, and leaps out into the universe. As a kind of astral, extraplanetary whale.

The Whalebone Box is preoccupied with height and depth, with bodies moving vertically and horizontally through spaces: footage of whales cruising over deep, empty seafloors is followed by a clip of Sinclair’s Mariner scaling a mountain’s snow-capped summit. Initially, the mountain resembles something that Wordsworth would write about in winter, but as he takes those final steps up to a panorama of peaks, The Mariner breathlessly explains that this site at Montségur was visited by poets Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. These descents and ascents along vast vertical axes of physical and literary history are balanced by the film’s attention to enclosed spaces: the box must be kept level, insists The Mariner, presumably to keep the waters calm contained within the lead lining; the cramped interior of Eden’s bedroom; the restricted tunnel vision of her binoculars scanning a forest’s horizon for a rogue whale out of its element. The spatial oscillation between open and closed, ascent and descent, depth and height, is a tension of Gothic literary tropes. Andrew Kötting’s film remakes and transcends these, breeching the genre’s calm surface to reach a new dark Romanticism and forges a narrative as it splashes out over unmapped territories. This astral leap is achieved through Kötting’s use of different kinds of film – iPhone, pinhole, stock footage, trembling and grainy photos – aimed in the direction of a mixture of characters with different aliases, all telling conflicting tales, each sceptical of another’s yarn.

Eden and Anrew Kötting beneath the British Museum’s Blue Whale skeleton, a female beached in 1891 near Wexford, southeast Ireland .

It is to the film’s credit that so much of its storytelling is bound up with the intimacy of physical embodiment. Andrew uses Eden Kötting’s sequence of dreamscape rememberings as the verbal and vertebral sections of the narrative. Beyond the director’s skeletal structuring of the film, the experiences of non-normative bodies are thematically central. Here the film comes closest to directly addressing critical disability discourse. Eden Kötting’s Joubert Syndrome causes ‘cereberal vermis hypoplasia and several other neurological complications’. An unspecified woman’s voice explains that for the first couple of years of her life Eden was silent, ‘so there was a lot of catching up to do’. At least to my Deaf ear, ‘Eden’s sounds’, as her father calls them, resemble a lower pitched Hz of the murky-sounding Mermaid Song performed by MacGillivray in an echoing corner of a Norman church. Her storytelling is subtitled, or perhaps translated, by her father. Elsewhere in the film, he directs his daughter’s wheelchair through a sunny forest, around the knots of old tree roots and over the rough patches of mud and golden dust. This is all familial, celebratory, and visceral. ‘I love the spill of your liquids’, a voice whispers at the film’s beginning, recalling the ‘humorously perilous’ (Moby Dick p. 266) moment in Melville’s Moby Dick when the whalers must scoop out the ambergris from a dead whale. The novel’s narrator, Ishmael, acts as bowsman, holding the monkey-rope steady as his companion Queequeg descends into the whale’s soups and syrups, ‘Queequeg was now my inseparable brother’, Ishmael remarks.

As Queequeg must trust Ishmael, and as the daughter must trust her father, so the audience must trust Eden Kötting’s imagination to propel the story on, even when, as in Moby Dick, the plot is so subtle it almost disappears beneath the waves. In the opening few minutes Eden Kötting warns that ‘the whalebone box devours narrative’, then two-thirds later says of her father and Sinclair’s journey, ‘the further north they travel the more incoherent the narrative becomes’. And yes, the narrative does become incoherent or rather, like the 52Hz whale, it sings out and does not necessarily resonate with ‘normal’ narrative structures. Its pronouncements might seem incomprehensibly expressed, its face impossible to discern (‘Hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face’ (Moby Dick p. 314). But surely that is the point. In its resistance to linear storytelling, and in challenging viewers by positioning centrally non-normative bodies to tell fragmented stories, The Whalebone Box does significant cultural work in demonstrating the collage of disability experience.

Like the whale, the true urgency of disability experience is impossible to see in one piece. It permeates every part of society, seeps into every moment of every day, and yet its prevalence, the sheer vastness of the issue, means it can only be glimpsed in part: an eye or jaw here, a fin or fluke there, the echo of a song from somewhere else across an inaccessible expanse. This should be the task for cetologists and disability scholars alike, to make visible and amplify the issue of disability in order to ensure the future defence of our community. Like the 52 Hertz Whale, we sing out, and await your reply.

Saul Leslie is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Liverpool. His work looks at portrayals of disability in post-1900 prose and poetry. He is also the Accessibility Officer for ADDRESS, a user-led disability organisation based on Merseyside. He was recently the recipient of an award for short prose fiction, and will be published in The Great Read Anthology later this year. He likes being by the sea. 
Twitter: @postpost_its

Recommended citation:
Saul Leslie (2021): At Face Value: Review of Andrew Kötting’s The Whalebone Box. In: Public Disability History 6 (2021) 5.

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