Quick- whats the first thing that popped into your mind? Yeah me too but it’s time to get your head out of the gutter and to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see their new installation of Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick (2009). Which, to be clear is not a black genital, nor is it that asshole at Starbucks that always orders a mocha. Rather, Mocha Dick is a life-size, fifty-two foot inflated sculpture of a sperm whale constructed out of wool felt and vinyl. Lowe collaborated with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. The craftsmanship of the work is quite amazing; take for example, the minute scars that are rendered via stitches in the felt or the appliqué barnacles that cluster on the surface of the felt skin.
Below: Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, 2009. Industrial wool felt,inflatable armature, vinyl-coated fabric, internal fan.52′ long. On loan from the West Collection, Philadelphia.Created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia
So why “Mocha Dick”? According the VMFA website, Lowe based his sculpture on the legendary albino sperm whale that terrorized the waters around Mocha Island in the South Pacific in the early 19th Century. If a ship-attacking albino sperm whale sounds familiar (and it should) it’s because this whale also inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick (1851). According to Tristin Lowe:
This project was like the story of Moby Dick– embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea…It’s not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.
What’s wrong with it? Primarily, the placement of the work is pretty terrible. The gigantic sculpture is crammed into the second story 21st Century gallery. This gallery space is divided into two rooms, the smaller of which seemed to make the most sense to the VMFA when they decided to install a 52 foot, 700 pound whale. While the viewer is able to walk almost all the way around the work, one can only do so provided there is not a crowd, it’s quite tight on the back side of the creature especially since you can’t complete the circuit and have to back track. The whole space is taken up by the sculpture, creating a claustrophobic, threatening atmosphere for the viewer rather than expressing the questing/ journey/ awestruck aspect that the artist was intending.
The sculpture is a showstopper, so why not treat it like one? Put the damn thing in the atrium, where the whale can be viewed entirely, with enough room to fully walk around and where the sculpture won’t be oppressive.
Secondly, although the piece is to the scale of a whale, it seems to be flirting with trendy gigantism like other recent summer blockbuster sculptures (ie: Chicago’s Forever Marilyn), in order to bring in and awe the crowds.
What is impressive about this work is its materiality, the use of fabric in the sculpture that defies our common assumption of sculpture as created in permanent material (stone, bronze) to be permanent. This piece, however is constructed out of the malleable fabric and inflated to give it shape, zipped and stitched together like clothing- as if in any second the inner being will shed the whale exterior.
Also on view at the VMFA:
Faberge Revealed: July 9- October 2, 2011
Modern Masters: Sean Scully and John Walker: July 23- November 27, 2011