Hull and Whales: the art of Hondartza Fraga

20131026-084337.jpgdetail of “Books to Sea” (2013) series of prints from pencil rubbings of old whaling books

Hull has been on my radar as a place worthy of serious exploration for a while, and so a serendipitous invitation to the opening of a show of new work by artist Hondartza Fraga meant a line through the diary on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a casserole in the oven on a self-timer, and a judicious decision to stop for petrol before hitting the M62.

I was expecting a fast drive through the autumnal sunshine, although some mystery person had reset the SatNav settings to ‘shortest’. So I ended up on a slow putter through the East Riding countryside, driving up to and under the engineering marvels of Drax Power Station and the Humber Bridge.

With hindsight, my musings on the incongruous beauty of these testaments to engineering brilliance were an interesting precursor to viewing the melancholy beauty of art inspired by the maritime industry heritage of Hull.

And maybe inspired too by the prevailing melancholia of Hull itself: quite possibly the emptiest city it has been my privilege to wander in the middle of a working day. Barely a pedestrian to be seen in the Old Town, and a surfeit of available parking spaces (although complicated and challenging to pay for: I entered and exited two car parks before I found a system I could handle and may consequently and unwittingly have incurred a penalty for driving where I oughtn’t).

Hull is really Kingston-Upon-Hull. It’s a sort of mirror equivalent (on a smaller and shabbier scale) to Liverpool. There’s that inimitable maritime feel and air and light, a peripheral consciousness and awareness of an exotic and adventurous past amidst the slightly tawdry and seedy charm of the Old Town. There’s a lot in a name, and I sometimes think that abandoning the “King’s Town” element here has resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline.

But I’m over-exaggerating. In maritime and whaling history terms, Hull has a seriously fascinating allure and has proved an inspirational resource for Hondartza Fraga’s “…a still better seaward peep”
An Artistic Perspective on Whales, Whaleports and the Marine Environment
whilst Leverhulme Trust’s Artist-in-Residence at the Maritime History Studies Centre, University of Hull.

The work is shown across various venues, and for a visitor unfamiliar with Hull, it’s a wonderful chance to place the project within the wider context of Hull’s heritage. The Maritime Museum, for example, is the type of idiosyncratic specialist museum normally to be found scattered throughout Paris, Musée de la Chasse-style.

I find an endearing eccentricity to collections of this sort: model ships; painted figureheads and ropy ephemera. And it was a splendid setting for Passages For The World (2013), a polished animation using old etchings of the search for the North West passage

20131026-094207.jpgThe Maritime Museum

There was a sensitive attention to detail in this mesmerizing animation. Clouds drifted, waves shimmered and crashed on the ice, and a barely perceptible rocking movement suggestive of languorous wave movement.

The middle sequence of the film momentarily brought Captain Pugwash to mind with the fractionally more obvious dipping of the whaler; but that was the only jarring note in the whole film. A darkening sky and vast ice masses and the eventual icing up and clever use of howling wind and crackling flame combined to portray the terror and horror and isolation of the search for the North West passage.

I found the marrying of old etchings and digital animation inspirational, and this for me was one of the many strengths of the show. The tangible heritage and artifacts of the past are not just informing the art in an abstract way, but in a real and direct fashion.

In the Art Gallery opposite the Maritime Museum, for example, large scale photographs (immaculately printed and presented on metallic paper) of “seascapes” in Seaward Bound (2013) proved to be constructed images of light shining on the textured leather of old books – also the source for the lovingly intricate set of pencil rubbings in Books To Sea.

The richness of these sparse yet emotionally charged images seemed emblematic of the whaling industry. I loved the monochromatic aesthetic simplicity of all the pieces which connected and linked them throughout the varied locations. There is also a beautifully bound hardback catalogue of the show (a final sympathetic gesture to, and acknowledgment of, the rich textual material underpinning the work) which is a steal at £10.

A Still Better Seaward Peep is on until 5 December 2013, and further details can be found here. There’s also a great map including details not just of the exhibiting venues but other places of interest in whaling and maritime history.

Go and have a great day out in Hull.

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