Edgar Cleijne and Ellen Gallagher’s Osedax Etchings are inspired by the discovery in 2002 of a previously unknown “bone-eating” worm, identified among the remains of a massive gray whale. In “Cape Whale,” the current exhibition at SEASpace Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the etchings are presented alongside maritime and biological ruminations by John Waters, Pat de Groot, Matt Kish, and others.
Here, Philip Hoare, the exhibition’s curator and author of The Sea Inside (2014), reflects on the ocean’s essential role—and particularly that of the elusive whale—in art and literature.
They were nearly all Islanders in the Pequod, Isolatoes too, I call such, not acknowledging the common continent of men, but each Isolato living in a separate continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel, what a set these Isolatoes were! An Anarcharsis Clootz deputation from all the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth, accompanying Old Ahab in the Pequod to lay the world’s grievances before that bar from which not very many of them ever come back.
—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
They came from Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Verde, the Azores, and New Zealand; Starbuck, Stubb and Flask; Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo; New Englanders, Native Americans and African Americans, islanders all, set out to seek the whale. Conjured out of Melville’s metaphorical prose, these men sail out in their ship of fools, led by the monomaniacal Ahab in search of a great white whale, which may or may not have existed.
Melville’s extraordinary act of imagination veers out of his past and into our future. His book drew on contemporary artists such as J.M.W.Turner, as well as Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a visual sensibility evoked in chapters such as ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, and ‘Of The Monstrous Pictures of Whales’, ‘Of Whales in Paint; In Teeth; In Wood; In Sheet Iron; In Stone; In Mountains; In Stars’. In digressive, subversive text, Melville interrogates our frenetic attempts to encompass these enigmatic animals within our culture. It is just another aspect of the prophetic nature of his prose that, a century and a half after his book was published, contemporary whale scientists are exploring the notion that whales themselves have a matrilineal culture, passed down in immemorial generations that outlive our own.
In Ellen Gallagher’s work we trace that same association between meaning and symbol, between beauty and abuse. The artist’s Isolatoes are bitten and inscribed like scrimshaw, with ghostly faces that evoke a mysterious other world, perhaps even a kind of watery Utopia. This could be the world of the Ancient Mariner, too, haunted by the death of an albatross which glimmered out of the ‘white Moon-shine’, as much it evokes the ‘grand hooded phantoms’ of whales which suffuse the pages of Moby-Dick. Such layers lie upon layers like the memory of bones and teeth, shapes forming and reforming, sliding between gender and identity, between belonging and loss. The whale’s whiteness becomes blackness, and Ahab’s sway is overturned. In the end, it is the whale who wins.
So we too are overturned by the whale. But this is a different whale from the one that once represented fear and finance and industry. Our whale swims freighted with our new besetting sins in an altered climate. Where it once lit and lubricated our world, now it acts as an avatar of change. As Melville proved, only art has the power to encompass these psychic slips, so abruptly accomplished in the space of a generation. When I was a boy, the port city of Southampton where I was born was still receiving ships from the South Atlantic, laden with whale oil destined to enter the food chain, or to become the make-up on my mother’s cheek which brushed mine as she kissed me good night.
Here on the Cape, from where I write—itself only an arm of sand held out into the Atlantic—whales occupy a fluid space, in a place which is hardly a place at all. Out here, as I write from my desk overlooking the bay, in whose chilly rising waves I have just swum, as I do every day, the blue-green sea is coursed by leviathans. I watched them yesterday, scything through the waves, their sleek glistening bodies both part of and apart from the world. Humpbacks, right whales and fin whales, feeding furiously as gannets dioved explosively, dolphins and porpoises leaping like outriders about them. These are the presiding spirits of the Cape and islands, as eerie as they are physical. Little wonder that Melville imagined Nantucketers sleeping with herds of walruses and whales under their pillows, or the captains of New Bedford who dragged their houses up from the bottom of the sea as their harpooned bounty of whales.
Their ghosts, human and cetacean, imbue the Cape with its sense of merging. Out on the beach at Herring Cove, where the bay meets the ocean, the winter storms have uncovered gigantic fragments of a shipwreck, which might as well be a Phoenician galley or an alien craft. One summer, swimming in a temporary lagoon formed by a sand bar there, I looked down to see another wreck beneath me: the remains of a decomposing humpback whale, its giant flipper all but beckoning to me from below. This place embodies our tentative apprehension. It is an abiding reminder of the fatal meeting of human and natural history.
“Cape Whale,” which includes Ellen Gallagher’s Isolatoes and Edgar Ceijine’s Crater in the series, The Osedax Prints, is an attempt to bring together artists and ideas around this watery part of the world: from Matt Kish’s ambitious project to illustrate every page of Moby-Dick, to John Waters’ admission that, in all his fifty summers in Provincetown, he has only ever seen a whale from the plane. From Conny Hatch’s Narwhal, created out of beach-combed salvage, to Pat de Groot’s meditations on the sublime conjunctions of sea and sky. From Timothy Woodman’s beaten copper panel impressed with the opening lines of Melville’s epic, to Jo Hay’s portrait of a whale, approached in the same way John Singer Sargent might have painted an Edwardian aristocrat, and Angela Cockayne’s phrenological pewter whale, marked with the departments of its soul.
“Cape Whale” seeks to bridge that gap between human and whale, between our two-dimensional world and that which lies beneath what Melville called the ocean’s skin, the membrane that divides us: a three-dimensional world containing ninety-per-cent of all life on earth, and yet about which we know almost nothing. But art, like science, can only propose more questions, and having written hundreds of thousands of words about the whale, Melville could only conclude, “I know him not, and never will.”
“Cape Whale,” featuring work by Ellen Gallagher, Edgar Cleijne, John Waters, Pat de Groot, Matt Kish, Angela Cockayne, Timothy Woodman, Jo Hay, and others is on view at SEASpace Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts through May 3, 2015