Making the Whale
Image courtesy the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI
©Tristan Lowe. Mocha Dick, 2009. 52 feet long. (Industrial wool felt, inflatable armature, vinyl-coated fabric, internal fan. Created in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia.)
In last week’s post I framed Sørina Higgins’ poem on the gentle humpback whales by noting the near-universal mixture of fascination and fear with which we greet such awesome creatures, especially when we meet them in their own element rather than ours. This week’s artistic treatment of the great whales takes as its subject a more-storied and decidedly less-gentle member of the family, but returns to our fascination with and desire to know about whatever is dramatically not us: a 52-foot-long inflatable felt sperm whale on display most recently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.
Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick is a recreation and interpretation of the albino sperm whale that, in the early nineteenth century, attacked as many as twenty whaling ships near Chile’s Mocha Island in the South Pacific Ocean, sinking more than a few of the smaller vessels. In an 1839 article from The Knicker-bocker magazine, a New England sailor described him as “white as wool . . . as white as a snow drift . . . as white as the surf around him.” The whale was a source of inspiration for Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, and with this work, Lowe gives us an opportunity to consider the relationship between ourselves and creation in terms of human and divine making.
Lowe works in a variety of different media (including edible ones), but in recent years sculptural and installation works have been the main part of his practice. Often they are considerably less grand that Mocha Dick, tending instead towards absurd and occasionally somewhat vulgar “wry re-imaginings” of ordinary objects: chairs that spontaneously fall apart, beds that wet themselves, and—early in his experiments with industrial felt—an overturned trashcan. But there is also a sense of wonder, curiosity and even awe at the frailty of the human condition built into the seemingly-ironic works. And while the idea of human making is contrasted to natural creation in Mocha Dick, the trash-can and his large-scale felt model of the moon and Apollo lunar lander contrast the hands-on, personal side of creation with industrial and technological processes.
To create the life-size whale, Lowe first spent time in very science-like pursuits: incessantly watching video footage of sperm whales in the wild, studying and sketching their anatomy to understand the muscular structures underneath the smooth exterior as well as their movements through the water. Next, he developed an inflatable vinyl armature to serve as the supporting understructure, manufactured for him using the basic techniques and materials that go into the “bounce houses” or inflatable “moon walks” popular at fairs and children’s birthday parties. (Art and science should not devoid of fun, after all.) The sections of the armature were built to mimic the muscle groups Lowe had studied in the live whales, and the bundles of air-filled chambers are kept under tension by a network of ropes that criss-cross the hollow center.
Creating the exterior of Mocha Dick also required collaborative effort, as the entire armature is sheathed in sections of thick, white industrial felt held together with very long, large white zippers. Artisans at Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop used skills borrowed from upholstery and dress-making to fit the skin of the whale to the structure underneath, again conforming it to the bundles of "muscles." Finally, the whale was given a wonderfully naturalistic finish in the form of a complex network of wrinkles, scars, and appliquéd barnacles like the ones that are found on seagoing whales, but all crafted from the same basic felt material and stitched thread. Again, Lowe paid close attention to the natural context and activities of sperm whales as well as the historic story of this particular whale, and the scarring includes carefully placed marks corresponding to the injuries such whales receive from battles with their chief natural adversaries and prey—giant squid—in addition to injuries from the harpoons and ship hulls that earned Mocha Dick notoriety and literary fame.
Seeing the whale in person is a marvelously fun experience—beginning with finding such an enormous “fish out of water” (pace marine biologists who will note that whales are mammals) in an institutional art setting, but continuing as one tries to figure out how it was made. A viewer can hardly help tracing the length of the zippers, peering into the barnacles, and imagining the giant white tentacles that must have wrapped around the whale’s face in its battle with the equally mythic giant (felt) squid. Indeed, the desire to touch the whale, pry open the seams a bit, and see if there might be even smaller felt creatures hiding in the barnacles on its giant prow is so common and compelling that the museum needed to add a small piece of the same felt on a wall nearby, so that children and adults alike would have something to touch, if not Mocha himself.
This drive to touch the giant felt whale is likely very much the same as Lowe’s own drive to build it in the first place, and is also analogous to the curiosity that leads scientists to investigate, take things apart, and then try to build them again. It speaks to the God-given longing all men and women have to touch the world around us, make sense of it, and know and understand the ultimate source of things—what Paul describes as having “eternity in [our] hearts.” Below the artist’s name and the work’s title on the wall of the museum was this quote from Lowe himself:
“The project was like the story of Moby-Dick—embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea. It is not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.”
That search and the longing from which it comes are not exhausted or cheapened by discovery of specific mechanisms or processes by which God created the great whales, any more than our fascination and delight in Lowe’s Mocha Dick is diminished when we see (or read) how it is put together. The last mystery is not to be found in the process of the making, after all, but in discovering that there is a Maker who would do such a thing for us to discover. And in contrast to Lowe’s suggestion that such meaning is “unattainable,” or the VMFA’s admonition that we should only touch the “stuff’ of reality and not the thing itself, the ancient witness of the Scriptures and of generations of believing scientists is that we can know something true about the world and its Maker by looking and touching. Even more, both Scripture and the witness of Christian scientists assures us that even as we reach out to touch the creation, the Creator has already and is even now reaching out to touch us.
Philadelphia resident Tristin Lowe studied at Parsons School of Design before earning a BFA from Massachusetts College of Art, Boston. In addition to the exhibition of Mocha Dick at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Lowe has had solo exhibitions at New Langton Arts in San Francisco, the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, and the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin, among others. A more complete list of work and record of his exhibition history can be found here.