The “Unnearable” Condition of Whales and Ships
- Contemporary Artists
by Rachel Reese
French naturalist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier wrote that “no family of mammals is more difficult to observe or more incompletely described than whales” in his most famous book The Animal Kingdom (1817).
Savannah is a coastal city, and we are familiar with whales—North Atlantic Right Whales, specifically, calve off our coastline every winter. We’re also a historic port city that has grown into an international super port: the largest single container terminal in North America, and the second-busiest U.S. container exporter after Los Angeles. Freighters carrying shipping containers are a frequent site on our waterways, and our port traffic can even be tracked and followed online by live video.
These two subjects: whales and vessels, are not mutually exclusive. People have been whaling for thousands of years, but whaling as an industry reached its peak in the United States in the mid 1800s, not coincidentally right about the time when Herman Melville was writing Moby-Dick (1851). Because of centuries of overhunting, it became increasingly difficult for 19th-century American whaling fleets to find whales near the Atlantic coast, so they expanded operations throughout the world’s oceans, including the waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. Nineteenth-century technology also made whaling more efficient, and so, by the early 1900s, whaling was a multimillion-dollar industry. Some scientists estimate that more whales were hunted in the early 1900s than in the previous four centuries combined.
Today, the global shipping industry moves more than 80 percent of the world’s commodities. An industry that affects all of us today as consumers, it is also one that we might take for granted because of its seeming invisibility, a labor force that is just beyond our knowing or understanding (for more on this topic, see Allan Sekula’s work, Fish Story, on view at the Jepson Center). Sperm whales have a life span of up to 70 years (possibly more), and right whales may live to 100 years. What changes would a living whale of this age have seen in its lifetime in terms of fishing and hunting traffic, commercial shipping, and climate change? While scientists are uncertain how many sperm whales that exist today, there are presumably some older whales in our oceans today that were alive in the early 1900s.
These were all certainly important ideas to ponder as I curated the exhibition Summon the Sea! Contemporary Artists and Moby Dick. As with any major exhibition, there is a typically long planning process, and this exhibition was no exception, taking about two years to formalize into the version you see in our galleries. But the seed of this idea was planted quite earlier, perhaps in 2009, when I moved to Philadelphia and met Tristin Lowe.
In 2009, Lowe had just completed the making of Mocha Dick with a large team of assistants (a crew of sorts) at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, and over the next few years I worked at the gallery that represented him (Fleisher-Ollman Gallery), which gave me the time to get to know him and his work. A few years ago, when initial conversations about bringing Mocha Dick to Savannah began, I asked Lowe if Mocha Dick had ever been shown in conversation with Frank Stella’s Moby Dick series, and was surprised to learn it had not. I built the exhibition around this initial pairing.
Created over 12 years, Stella’s Moby Dick series, which comprises 266 total works, is in the words of Dr. Robert Wallace “a known, knowable entity, but its component parts are as widely dispersed as the whales of the ocean…his series itself is complete, but any individual’s experience of it is necessarily incomplete.” Stella’s “gradual, incremental process” of creating and revealing, where not any of us will ever see the entire body of work, is like how not many of us, if any, have ever seen a whale in nature, in its entirety. And Melville’s word for this condition in Moby-Dick is termed “unnearable.”
In Chapter 55 of Moby-Dick, titled “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales,” protagonist Ishmael considers well-known graphic depictions of whales. He says that to a whaleman who has actually seen whales, most historical, mythological, and scientific sources are blatantly inaccurate. He concludes “the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which must remain unpainted to the last.” The only solution that Ishmael sees for one who seeks to know what a whale looks like is to have an actual encounter with one, in the ocean. Yet still, in the ocean, only portions of a whale are visible at any one time, the majority of the animal being underwater or in constant movement—revealing and concealing parts of itself.
I loved thinking about this chapter of Moby-Dick with regard to the epic scale of Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick, and the enormous scope Stella’s series. Both artists take on representations of the whale: Lowe, through monumental life-size sculpture, and Stella, through energy and repetition of form. Lowe had the advantage of 21st century technology including contemporary video and photography of whales to view, source, and devour online when making the work, and he cites using available scientific data and wildlife photography to analyze details of sperm whales in the wild. These details were then translated and compiled into maquettes, clay models, and ultimately the final full-scale version of Mocha Dick, which admittedly takes first-hand accounts, anecdotal information, and a healthy bit of artistic license. Standing in front of Mocha Dick gives us the opportunity to imagine ourselves submerged in the ocean next to a living sperm whale, which, unless we are a specialized expedition diver, we will not have the opportunity to ever do so. Most sperm whale sightings occur as passing moments on tourist boats, or unfortunately, as seen beached and deceased (as is the case of exhibiting artist Patty Chang’s firsthand experience recorded in her video installation The Wandering Lake, part 2.)
Stella’s predetermined yet open-ended series was an artistic exploration that changed over 12 years, and as a series, it defines his greatest sustained career engagement as a subject matter. On view at Telfair Museums are 17 works (of 266) from his subseries of etchings, deckle edges, and domes, dated 1991-1993—just about 6% of the entire series. Wallace, an English Professor and Melville Scholar at Northern Kentucky University, first came across Stella’s Moby Dick series by chance with friends visiting a gallery in Chicago in the late 1980s. This encounter began his own decades long engagement with the artist, and inquiry into the subject matter of how artists take on Melville’s literature through visual form. In his book, Frank Stella’s Moby-Dick: Words and Shapes (2000), Dr. Wallace claims that “Melville was a representational writer who became increasingly abstract when faced with the challenge of conveying a whale in words. Stella was an abstract artist who became increasingly figurative when faced with the idea of whales in paint.”
I would encourage you to think about that as a public, we will never see Stella’s series in its entirety in one viewing, and that concept is a nice tie in to how we might or might not ever see a whale in its entirety (we might see about 6% of a whale in one snapshot!). Some things, it seems, remain best as “unnearable” because ‘unseeable’ topics such as whales and shipping provide a wealth of interpretation, exploration, and ingenuity and therefore, enable and encourage our innate human curiosity to question our knowledge of such topics.
Want some Moby-Dick trivia knowledge?
Read about the significance and history behind Melville’s dual title Moby-Dick; or The Whale and how it relates to 19th century copyright law here, and, if you want more backstory, dive into this 2013 article from The Atlantic!