‘Mocha Dick’ inflates Melville legend to life size

It is entirely fitting that staff members of the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) have joked about installing a “Mocha Cam” to capture visitors’ reactions to the museum’s latest installation, Tristin Lowe: Mocha Dick. Indeed, the lifelike 52-foot white whale, made of industrial wool felt, is sure to draw reactions of stunned surprise out of even the most skeptical of the institution’s visitors.

Contemporary artist Tristin Lowe’s 700-pound sculpture (if such a term can be applied to the work) will inhabit the cavernous space of the museum’s largest gallery until Aug. 8. Up to this point, viewers can come closer to encountering the elusive white sperm whale of literary legend than they might ever have dreamed possible. The work is based on the whale, described as being “white as wool,” that harassed sailing ships near Chile’s Mocha Island in the early 1800s and would later serve as the inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in 1851.

In a talk with WCMA’s museum associates last week, Lowe spoke about the ideas and process behind his enormous undertaking. “I wanted the whale to have a tactile quality,” he said. “I wanted people to have an experience with something they’ve never seen before, one of the greatest creatures on the planet. I wanted people to have a connection or a relationship with it.” The lifelike quality of Mocha Dick is rooted beneath the surface, where an enormous inflated plastic armature gives the whale its volume and sense of bulging, undulating musculature. The armature is kept inflated by fans that run constantly in the belly of the whale, invisible and barely audible from the exterior. According to Hideyo Okamura, chief preparator, should the museum’s power and backup generator fail, it would take a mere three minutes for the whale to deflate completely.

The verisimilitude achieved in the underlying structure of Mocha Dick is carried into Lowe’s intricate surface work. The felt skin of the whale stands in for the artist’s canvas, the paintbrush thrown out for the industrial sewing machine. Dents and scars from encounters with giant squid and thwarted whalers mix with barnacles and other marks to give the whale’s surface an intensely varied, almost narrative quality. Even the zippers that connect the felt panels are worked seamlessly into the design. In this way, Mocha Dick transcends the shock value of its size, encouraging viewers to move closer and rewarding them with the intimate experience Lowe set out to provide.

WCMA director Lisa Corrin suggests further layers of meaning that the whale takes on in its context. “The body and flesh of Mocha Dick remind us of an actual, physical landscape; the wool is almost like a topographical map,” she said in a museum press release. Melville wrote much of his famed novel in the Berkshires, finding in nearby Mount Greylock a natural approximation of the whale’s grandeur and form. “This sculpture will remind our students and all of our visitors of the extraordinary literary and artistic legacy that has made our region so culturally significant,” Corrin added.

Aesthetics and literary references aside, another factor is at play, one that is revealed in its full title, Tristin Lowe: Mocha Dick. Indeed, Lowe’s ego looms large in the exhibition, both in its conception and execution. The whale represents the culmination of six months of work in the Philadelphia Fabric Workshop, where a team of craftsmen and interns worked with Lowe to realize his vision. For the artist, this process was an intensely personal one that exceeded the final realization of the project in importance. “This project was like the story of Moby-Dick, taking on a journey, locked in on the call of the ocean,” Lowe said. “It’s more about the unattainable that Ishmael is after, not the whale itself.”

This tension between whale and artist signals larger tensions inherent in the exhibition. Lowe would have his viewers believe that the whale is being encountered either as a living being or as a ghostlike figure in a sort of dreamscape, and yet one cannot help but get a sense that Dick has beached on the gray carpet of the 1954 Gallery, lilting sideways under his enormous weight rather than swimming freely in his natural environs.

What’s more, there is perhaps a degree of sacrilege in the act of rendering the elusive white whale so concrete, so accessible and “real” that, were it not for the signs instructing otherwise, viewers might be tempted to trace its surface with their fingers or, in the case of this reviewer, jump on it like an inflatable castle. But this could be the very tension that Lowe is exploring with his work: that something could be at once so white and peaceful and beautiful, yet have led such a colorful, madness-inducing existence in the collective unconscious.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, however, encountering Lowe’s Mocha Dick is an unforgettable experience, one that will stay with you long after you leave the museum. Even if for no other reason than to have your initial reactions of shock, delight, befuddlement or fright recorded on the imaginary “Mocha Cam,” the whale is well worth a visit.

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