After completing a residency on Fogo Island, Berlin artist Isa Melsheimer has created Year of the Whale, a solo exhibition that explores the tension between the natural and built worlds.
In the last five years, Fogo Island has become a travel sensation. That, in large part, is due to entrepreneur Zita Cobb and architect Todd Saunders, who developed Fogo Island Inn – a stilted boutique hotel that has attracted the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and the Trudeaus. But while it has become a favourite of the well-heeled, Fogo has maintained its cultural connections: famously, the inn integrates guests with locals, and thanks to Fogo Island Arts’ studios, it has attracted international artists to take residence on the rugged island.
One such artist is Berlin-based Isa Melsheimer, who occupied one of Fogo Island Arts’ studios in the fall of 2017. Renowned for her meditations on forgotten architecture – her biography calls her an “archeologist” of neglected buildings, and she has previously focused on Brutalism and the concrete structures of the 1950s through to the 1970s – Melsheimer’s stay in Newfoundland had her contemplating the relationship between humans, the natural environment and the built world. The result is Year of the Whale, the artist’s first Canadian solo exhibition, which opened on March 9 at the Fogo Island Gallery.
Curtain (Year of the Whale) (2018) is a work that directly reflects Melsheimer’s time on Fogo Island – in fact, it depicts the view from Squish studio. At seven metres tall and three metres wide, the hand-dyed fabric curtain uses its giant scale purposefully: objects in the background appear higher in the image, a technique used to depict perspective in traditional Eastern art.
The perspective, says the artist, implies an “all-knowing and domineering gaze over the landscape.”
Plants native to Fogo appear in the foreground, while codfish and humpback whales hover over sketches of the sea, intertwined with waves – signifying the immediacy of the ocean, and its long-standing relationship to the community.
Elsewhere, Year of the Whale showcases four different gouaches on paper, which explore the relationship between the built and natural worlds – and often, how the latter reclaims the former. Nr 439 and Nr 440 display Brutalist structures as beautiful, menacing and crumbling – a depiction of St. John’s City Hall is battered with waves, while the University of Toronto’s Andrews Building is encroached upon by an iceberg. Nr 437 and Nr 438 focus on Fogo Island Inn itself, with the building alternatively battling a kraken and being cradled by humpback whales.
Melsheimer’s gouaches were inspired by multispecies feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s work, specifically her critque of the Anthropocene, which views humans as the current era’s principal protagonists. Melsheimer, in particular, preferred Haraway’s alternative concept of the Chthulucene, which calls for an era where humans and other species will evolve together and live in harmony with nature.
It’s a concept that Fogo Island, with 11 tiny settlements off the coast of Newfoundland, surely knows intuitively.
Isa Melsheimer’s Year of the Whale runs until June 9 at Fogo Island Gallery.