Eccentric, romantic, anarchic: Andrew Kötting's unique take on Britishness

Steve Rose

With cinemas shuttered and blockbusters blocked, this is an opportunity to explore film-makers you might usually overlook. This week, I nominate Andrew Kötting. You wouldn’t confuse his experimental, low-budget, idiosyncratic films with a Marvel movie but, in his own way, Kötting is a national treasure.

In times of crisis, Britons tend to invoke a familiar, very limited idea of “national character”, invariably informed by the second world war, empire and royalty. But in his wanderings across the landscape, Kötting finds a very different vision of Britishness: eccentric, romantic, anarchic, inclusive, mysterious, yet down-to-earth and unpretentious.

His latest, The Whalebone Box (released on Mubi on Friday) is vintage Kötting. He needs little excuse to set off on a cross-country odyssey. In this case it is a strange casket, which he undertakes to return to the Outer Hebrides, where the whale from which the box was made was originally found. As with much of Kötting’s work, the film is a ramshackle collage of documentary footage, archive clips, music, sounds, interviews and digressions into folklore, history, art and dreams – often related to whales and boxes. Along for the trip are some regular collaborators: author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair; pinhole photographer Anonymous Bosch; Scots poet-singer MacGillivray (who provides otherworldly mermaid chanting); and Kötting’s daughter Eden, who has a rare genetic disorder called Joubert’s Syndrome.

We first saw Eden as a seven-year-old in Kötting’s 1996 feature debut Gallivant, in which the two travelled round the British coastline along with Kötting’s 85-year-old grandmother. At the time, Kötting was unsure how long either had to live. Today, Eden is an artist, and Kötting has undertaken many more intrepid excursions: in Swandown, a river journey from Hastings to the 2012 London Olympics site in a swan-shaped pedalo; in 2015’s By Our Selves, a walk to Northampton in the footsteps of 19th-century poet John Clare (with Kötting dressed as a straw bear). Each time he traverses the landscape, he uncovers new layers of history, mythology and strangeness, and adds another one himself.

Unclassifiable as he is, Kötting fits into a network of artists operating in this territory, many of whom he has collaborated with, including the comics magus Alan Moore and the comedian Stewart Lee. You can see a similar spirit running through the films of, say, Derek Jarman, Grant Gee and Ben Wheatley, or extend the tradition back through Peter Ackroyd, JG Ballard and William Blake. They are keepers of the flame for an idea of British culture that has largely been consigned to the margins – which is possibly where it’s happiest.