“Consider the subtleness of the sea;” wrote Herman Melville in his 1851 novel, "Moby Dick," “how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure..... Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”
The Telfair’s newest exhibition "Summon the Sea" is comprised of six internationally-recognized artists who provided their own interpretations of the cross-section Melville presented in his famed novel between the maritime industry and the natural wonders of the world that lends itself like a mirror to present a portrait of modern American Industrialization.Get Savannah arts and culture news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our morning, afternoon and Dine newsletters
“Not every piece in the exhibition is a direct correlation to 'Moby Dick,'” said Rachel Reese, Telfair Museums’ Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, “but I wanted to talk about the great allegories and themes that Melville prophetically predicted in his writing. He was ahead of his time in considering the battle between man, nature, and globalism. Greed in the whaling industry significantly depleted the whale population in the 19th century and these works make us ask how that plays out today with how we consume fossil fuels or natural resources and what are the legacies it’s left behind?”
“Each artist's body of work connects back to the novel in different ways. When planning this exhibition I was looking specifically at artists who had either made work over a long period of time or that was epic in scale and required steeped engagement with the subject matter much in the same way Melville was consumed with his great novel.”
Tristin Lowe’s 52-foot woolen whale Mocha Dick is an astonishing display of craftsmanship and dominates a single gallery space alone with its soft but imposingly large presence.
“Mocha Dick was made in 2009 at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia by Tristin Lowe with the help of 12 assistants over a period of six months,” said Reese. “Through researching sperm whales and their individual identifying markers, he was able to piece together the markings that would make up Mocha Dick’s identifiers. Mocha Dick was the name given to a real albino whale who was spotted by whaling ships in the early 19th century multiple times evading capture and attacking ships.”
Frank Stella’s Moby Dick series was made over 12 years. “Stella made 266 works in this series, one for each chapter of the novel, so each work's title corresponds to the title of a chapter within the book," Reese said. "Making the prints themselves could involve a twenty-step process and they may be run through the printing press a hundred times. You can see the many layers, sometimes they’re physical layers and sometimes they’re just where these wild printmaking processes come together. The idea to make this all on one print is unreal, you might have some acid-washed etching right next to some screen-printing.”
Corey Arnold’s work as a documentary photographer and commercial fisherman provides deep insights into the occupation.
“I love that sort of duality in him,” said Reese. “He brings ideas of what commercial fishing looks like today and documents not only the landscape and vocational hazards but also his fellow crewmen. He’s a National Geographic correspondent, and his photo essays are published everywhere. A lot of his passion is talking about the Aleutian Islands and the communities that live up there and protecting them against oil and gas industry exploitation.”
“Allan Sekula’s work, Fish Story was sort of his Magnum Opus over 7 or 8 years,” added Reese, “he passed away in 2013 but was very well regarded as a professor and photo theorist whose work is a combination of photo and text. Sekula both wrote the text and shot the images documenting global port cities and talking about the seas as the ultimate site of globalization, an unregulated space that’s sort of just beyond our knowing.”
“He wanted to talk about who’s employed, how they’re employed, and how all these political powers are intertwined and complicated. In particular, this series talks about the ship as the site of political remaking and revolution, specifically talking about those deep political undercurrents that may exist between nations through a container ship or something like maritime trade.”
Patty Chang, an artist from Los Angeles, work is comprised of two separate videos from a piece she made over eight years, titled “Invocation for a Wandering Lake” which according to Reese, “…discusses geopolitics, personal journeys and experience through landscape.”
“After being guided to the Uzbekistan side of the Aral Sea, she (Chang) was able to see the dried-up seabed and encounter the ships that were left behind when, due to the geopolitics of Russia re-routing and land grabbing waterways, the Sea dried up. Leaving behind communities that supported healthy fishing villages for millennia to descend into poverty.”
In the videos presented Chang sets to work ritually washing one of the abandoned boats in a process Reese called “mournful.” The second video consists of Chang washing the corpse of a dead sperm whale which she encountered during an artists’ residency on Fogo Island, Newfoundland, a historic cod fishing community, Reese said, “hasn’t fished cod for the past twenty-five years due to population decline.”
Chang spent 45 minutes in the water washing the whale that day which Reese calls a commentary on “death, mourning, and our connection to capitalism. Being in the water with a beast of that size really made her consider her own mortality.”
Last but certainly not least is Guy Ben-Ner’s short film itself titled “Moby Dick”, an Israeli artist who relocated from Tel-Aviv to New York City in his pursuit of an art degree, Ben-Ner turned his camera inwards to create do-it-yourself renditions of classic American tales using his young family as the cast.
“I was thinking of Guy Ben-Ner’s work through the lens of the immigrant experience,” added Reese, “he was new to New York and was living in Brooklyn with his young family. He was thinking about these great American novels and how to interpret them in his current life situation, living in a small apartment with his young child. The video is a short silent film that nods to early American Vaudeville cinema and slapstick, where he makes all of his props in his home and uses a ton of great lo-fi camera shots and tricks as well as a part in the film where Ben-Ner breaks the fourth wall to attend to his domestic duties in giving his daughter a bath before getting back to the film.”
The museum will also offer a free family day on November 9th, from 1-4 p.m. exploring ocean ecology and whale-themed crafts. The museum will offer an afternoon of informal learning, music, activities, and presentations. Children’s activities include a nautical photo booth, origami whales and paper scrimshaw.