In August 2018, the carcasses of nearly 120 deep-diving beaked whales washed up along the coastlines of Iceland, Ireland, the Faroe Islands, and Scotland’s Hebrides archipelago. Scientists concluded they were victims of the sonar signals from naval exercises, which can confuse the echolocation systems the animals use to survive.
Mhairi Killin’s multiformat collaborative exhibition “On Sonorous Seas” departs from the story of a Cuvier’s beaked whale that beached that month on the Hebridean island of Iona, where the artist lives. A Constellation of Strandings (all works 2022), a forty-five-minute video-and-sound piece created with the Biome Collective’s Tom deMajo and composer Fergus Hall, samples hydrophonic recordings of cetacean calls, military sonar, and boat engines gathered during Killin’s field study on a research vessel tracking the NATO-led naval-war game Joint Warrior. An ambient sound composition accompanies visuals wavering on the edge of aquatic, the celestial, and the topographical. Connections can be drawn with other recent artworks translating nonhuman communication into music, such as Hanna Tuulikki’s bat-sonar disco, Echo in the Dark, 2022. This is interesting territory to occupy, creatively and politically, as we attempt to muster empathy for other living creatures at a time of epochal species loss.
There is a craft-led, almost homely visual beauty to much of the other work on display, complementing its conceptual vitality. Killin is a jeweller and cast silver features notably in a second work titled A Constellation of Strandings, a wall hanging of silver whale-ear bones. “Ossuary,” a poem by Miek Zwamborn, is graphically rendered by calligrapher Susie Leiper on sheets of paper embossed with whale-bone shapes, evoking the tradition of Scottish concrete poetry. A line from Zwamborn’s elegy reappears, etched on a silver plate attached to a suspended beaked-whale skull, in a work poignantly titled Extant.