Every single person is guaranteed to have a Melvillean moment when walking around the UNNATURAL multi-media exhibit at the Bass Museum Miami Beach. The whale. You see it out of a side-glance when entering the main exhibition hall. Dar-she-blows. Children will run feverishly across the room toward it. Adults will surely want to, but etiquette dictates following the unspoken museum protocol that anyone over the age of twelve should not run cackling toward large-scale models of megafauna. But like Ahab, every visitor feels the presence of the whale.
Sperm Whale, 2009, by Israelis Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan is a video installation projected on three screens split on to a massive rectangular structure. It simulates a full-grown sperm whale in a holding tank entirely too small for the great beast. The viewer looks upon the listless mammal in awe. It seems cringing, moaning, yearning for the expanse of the ocean, and a gargantuan metaphor for humankind’s current sensitive relationship with the natural world. We are in awe of nature, we try to contain it, and sometimes in its containment we feel a pang of guilt for its plight. There is a surprising solace in knowing that a full grown sperm whale cannot actually be kept in captivity, and that freeing this leviathan would only leave us with an error screen.
UNNATURAL, curated by Tami Katz-Freidman, is an exploration of how contemporary artists are now approaching the idea of nature through digital culture. Uneasiness and beauty seamlessly magnetize the audience into a cabinet of unreal curiosities. It is a science museum of the fantastic.
Hilja Keading, The Bonkers Devotional, 2007-2009, four-channel HD video installation, sound,13:20 minutes; Cameraman: James Zucal / Courtesy of the artist.
The Bonkers Devotional, 2007-2009, is projected video in an enclosed space depicting the brave American artist Hilja Kaeding cohabitating with a mature black bear. The word “Bonkers” has a layered meaning here; it is both the animal’s name and the feeling you consider to be the artist’s mental state allowing a live bear to paw at her. At times the scene is beautiful, recreating a magically unreal interspecies domestic environment, yet there are moments of acute anxiety, when the bear grabs at the artist, or when the animal’s trainer can be heard off screen trying to control its actions with his voice or a completely alarming air horn. An air horn in an enclosed space, even on video, is frightful.
The most charming visual of the show is a film of a slow moving interconnected spiral of watermelons floating in the Dead Sea entitled DeadSee, 2005. The soothing beaded whirlpool of fruit eventually reveals the naked Israeli artist Sigalit Landau. The skins of some of the watermelon have been scooped, revealing a stark red amongst the monochrome green. As the spiral slowly unravels, a stunning and beautiful moment occurs when the created magic of the scene drags Landau peacefully off screen. It is an intimate moment, in which the artist is a part of the cycle of life and the viewer is taken along for the poetic ride.
Sigalit Landau, DeadSee, 2005, digital HD video, silent, 11:39 minutes; Courtesy of the artist.
Soaking in these elements, the UNNATURAL show forces the viewer to reevaluate nature—and humanity’s understanding of it—through a blend of fantasy and reality. It is one of the best shows Miami Beach has seen in quite some time. The resonant sounds of each multimedia piece can be heard interspersing the experience; it is a created environment recreating environments. Much like nature, the show is a joy for children and adults alike. Just know walking in that an unspoken part of the human condition is to reckon with the natural world, and these artists are blowing softly into our ears, giving us a delicious and inspiring case of the goosebumps.
(Image on top: Meirav Heiman and Yossi Ben Shoshan, Sperm Whale, 2009 , four-channel HD video installation, sound , 216 1/2 x 521 5/8 x 194 7/8 inches; Courtesy of the artists and Bass Museum of Art.)