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The relationship between humans and cetaceans has long been something of a paradox. We are drawn to their mystery and intelligence, in awe of their size and grace, yet we hunted many whales to near extinction, and use dolphins for military maneuvers and entertainment. Philip Hoare has been exploring the human interaction with cetaceans for the better part of his life. He’s the author of several books including “Leviathan or, The Whale” and, most recently, of “The Sea Inside.” He’s also curator of Cape Whale a week long exhibit at the SEA Space Gallery at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read.
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
Ever since Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, the whale has provoked a paradox. As huge as it is, so is its mystery. No other animal so personifies the fraught meeting between human and natural history. Now, more than ever, writers, artists, poets and film-makers are fascinated by what the whale means to us. For a generation we have seen whales in terms of natural spectacle or environmental threat. But what of their cultural impact? It’s a question which becomes ever more urgent as scientists suggest that whales themselves have a culture of their own.
These are the issues to be addressed by Cape Whale, a ground-breaking event sponsored by the Appearances Eco-Arts Festival, supported by the Provincetown Cultural Council, hosted by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’s SEA gallery space, and curated by award-winning British writer and friend of Provincetown, Professor Philip Hoare, author of The Whale and The Sea Inside.
Negotiating fast-changing scientific, environmental, and cultural issues, Cape Whale will bring together provocative and lively debates, performances, art and films from artists, writers and scientists from the Cape and beyond. It will examine not only the physical power of the whale, but what it has to say about identity, sexuality, and race, as represented in cultural reactions from Moby-Dick to Whale Rider and beyond.
As scientists and conservationists propose whales as ‘non-human persons’ deserving of their own rights, Cape Whale will raise the implications of such moves. Have we discovered ‘aliens’ among us? How can art help us deal with the challenges facing an animal which could be said to be the presiding spirit of Cape Cod? How does the way we have dealt with the whale in the past reflect on our present and future?
Cape Whale will consist of a ten day exhibition of multi-media art work by leading local and international contemporary artists, responding to our theme. This adventurous project will be accompanied by three specific events:
1. An evening of remarkable short films interspersed with readings and responses
2. A panel on ‘whale culture’ involving experts in the fields of art and science.
3. A whale watch trip that will bring us close to the animals themselves, and which will invite immediate literary and artistic responses from participants.
The best podcasts for stories, fiction and poetry
The best story and poetry podcasts including short stories, readings of fiction and real-life dramas, selected and updated by Pete Naughton
Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder of his then girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999
By 5:45PM GMT 14 Jan 2015
Created by the team behind , Serial is an innovative, gripping and artfully constructed weekly podcast that’s been topping iTunes’s charts on both sides of the Atlantic since its debut in early October. Presented and executive produced by the journalist Sarah Koenig, it’s a real-time investigation of some murky inconsistencies in a real-life murder case: namely, that of a Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, who was killed in 1999 and whose ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is currently serving time for her murder — even though there are some compelling arguments for his innocence.
Close on twenty years ago, the American poet and novelist George Dawes Green set up a New York-based storytelling group inspired by the languorous summer evenings in his home state of Georgia, where people gather on porches, amongst dozens of fluttering moths, and shoot the breeze. It soon gathered momentum, spreading to other cities and expanding to include a variety of live events, a radio show and this fantastic podcast. Each episode features one or more storytellers recounting an episode from their own life in front of a live audience; participants range from the famous (Salman Rushdie, Annie Proulx, Malcolm Gladwell) to the unknown — and they almost never fail to hold the attention.
Growing up I remember trying to leap from my bedroom door to my bed frightened of a crocodile I imagined lurked beneath, once in bed I worried about the imminent Russian invasion and the threat of nuclear war. I was delighted to be born in 1959 a female, so I would not have to go fight in the trenches, tanks or similar. It would seem every generation has it’s own crocodiles that patrol our mortality.
What fearful scenarios invade our children’s imaginations today? Faceless and masked terrorists, Ebola, famines, global warming, environmental catastrophe to name but a few. It has become difficult to form allegiances to support and to address such issues when there are so many; we become ‘war weary’ and tend to bury our heads in the sand.
Fifty years on it is still difficult to address some of these issues. I now imagine a crocodile on my ceiling as an escape from some of the harder realities of life. Is it any more comforting to know that the mortality rate attributed to the common cold or flu is significantly higher than those who have sadly recently died through Ebola, 500,000 flu deaths a year world wide, perhaps more alarmingly 1.24 million die each year world wide from car accidents.
How do we culturally and ethically address such issues without injecting fear into the veins of the mass population by media hype? Should we stop reading the news or approach such matters obliquely. Personally I try to do the latter confront the evidence or research and repackage it in away that is digestible to my own sensitivities. Through a curious visual language often exploring metaphor and myth.
If the science, or “truth’ gives us fact and evidence to solve questions, art creates curiosity. It asks questions rather than gives answers, creating space for ambiguity, new narratives – and more questions. Importantly art allows a viewer to think for themselves as a conduit the work offers the viewer scope to fill in the missing gaps and engage in a new narrative the work might evoke- thus creating dialogue, new responsibility and new potential ownership of an idea.
It is five hundred years since the Wunderkammer housed a united field of interdisciplinary enquiry, in an age before disciplines became separate under museums of science, nature and art. Fifty years ago CP Snow’s lecture on ‘Two Cultures’ mourned such separation; Edward O Wilson’s recent call echoed the desire for consilience of disciplines through a unity of knowledge.
Perhaps through a reunification, of art, science and nature, exploring a curious even subversive gaze we can confront the sceptical and represent the undeniable evidence of our trajectory through wonderment and engaging visual narratives to reflect upon our actions.
Like the crocodile under my bed these fears and realities may or may not exist but may remain mythical in their effect. We have to confront the issues of the world we inhabit, it is with what gaze we wish to communicate our enquiry, which is of interest to me.
Curiosita- Pewter, Leather, Vegetable Ivory Whale, Teeth, Eye Shell and Claws
With technological advancement of the democratised access of the Internet perhaps we can now facilitate worldviews exploring our natural curiosity through creativity and the rational. Now in the 21st century, we can investigate and explore a global dialogue between art, science, and our environment through collaborative partnership in context of current ethical debate.
– Pewter, Pearls Teeth, Horseshoe Crab Carapace
Trench Foot, Wax, thorns, lipstick, barbed wire.
The robin is a fiercely territorial bird and fights to defend its territory, here they congregate together in protest against war at the start of their journey to St Pauls Cathedral, London… lest we forget
364 robins cast in wax, gathered in a single, nervous mass. As in Hitchcock’s The Birds, the sense of something yet to happen leaves the viewer with a heightened sense of awareness, a primitive superstition, like a walk under ladders.
We may overlook one robin, a nostalgic seasonal delight, but en masse their presence transforms the space they occupy into an ambiguous and contemplative one.
Cockayne uses her curious mixture of materials with wit and irony. Bird’s beaks are made of thorns, their feet from hair grips and breasts coated with lipstick.
Thematically, the work continues her interest in the poetics of objects and the implication of inherent meaning. She divests objects and images of their conventional meanings, and invites them to address the viewer directly.
Any day now is a work in transit, it can change, it may split, pairs may separate from the flock to find new homes. Or the birds could band together to fly across the ocean to gather in another small town or city.
For now, they are wild, they perch where they don’t belong and we can’t quite read the omen they’ve brought with them. Good fortune, or to augur catastrophe that might never happen, a danger too tenuous to be put into words.
Latitude: 50.183106N Longitude: 5.246911W
The Ark Embrace is a tabula rasa, through a consilience of international public action it will become a wunderkammer of anthropogenic legacy.
An interdisciplinary digital project embracing human achievement across the both the arts and sciences. This curated vessel of nominations will house both things and thoughts worth keeping- celebrating, a someone, something; art, music, text, an invention, an endangered species or simply an idea for the future.
This cabinet of curiosity subverts our gaze, a public action rather than utopic vision- socially, politically and ethically, should the balance with the natural world and environment no longer sustain us.
As the New York Times declines to publish the opinions of climate-change deniers and ecocides,..it may be time to ditch the doom rhetoric and reflect on things for safe keeping
climate change is happening
ice caps are melting
and sea levels will inevitably rise
The world will not end but scientists now believe the sixth mass extinction may have already begun through over harvesting, habitat destruction, pollution, and unsustainable use of natural resources. We are at a pivotal point in history, nature will address the balance if we continue to consume unsustainably in a finite system and simultaneously destroy our environment in the process. Our fallibility appears to be an inability to think and act long term in a global context.
Perhaps its time to Embrace the future
The project aims to encourage public engagement with a cross disciplinary dialogue exploring art, natural science, myth and ecology, to celebrate the bridging of wonderment, intuition, reflection, and metaphorical ambiguities with evidence, experiment and exploration through the theme of Wunderkammer aboard the Ark Embrace.
Now in the 21st century, a generation born digital, our aim is to investigate and explore a dialogue between art, science and ecology through collaborative partnership; a reunification of cultural disciplines to confront the skeptical and represent the undeniable evidence of our ecological trajectory through wonderment and engaging visual narratives.
This digital cabinet of curiosity, microcosm or memory theatre will be a vehicle for solace, contemplation, wonder and knowledge transfer through a creative dialogue in an age of critical thought, post-media and negotiated meaning. This juxtaposition of ideas, objects and narratives will be a unique collection, finding analogies and parallels for global cultural exchange. If science gives us fact and evidence to solve questions, art creates curiosity; space for ambiguity, new narratives and more questions.
This interdisciplinary project aims to generate, produce and curate new work for a new generation and consciousness. Work which transmutes the curious gaze, which establishes a dialogue on a scientific-artistic expedition that explores anthropogenic ecocide.
Exploring the links between art and nature in context of a contemporary global consciousness using technology of an international digital platform our hope is to provide a conduit that acknowledges our environmental responsibility through curiosity and wonderment and a subversive gaze.
What would you nominate to preserve to place on board?
‘He swam the seas before the continents broke water; he swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies’ ch 105 Moby-Dick Herman Melville