Tristin Lowe’s latest artwork could have saved Herman Melville a lot of time. In Moby-Dick, Melville devotes chapter upon chapter to the shape and bulk of the sperm whale, painting a mental picture of this elusive underwater beast for his 19th-century readers—and for generations of irritated students to come.
Today’s students have YouTube to help them understand the shape of these creatures, but it’s still hard to conceive of their size unless you’ve gone eye-to-eye with one, as Melville had.
Lowe’s “Mocha Dick” fixes that. Sewn in quarter-inch white felt, this 52-foot inflatable sculpture is a life-size depiction of the rogue white sperm whale for which Moby Dick is thought to have been named. The work is on display through summer’s end on the eighth floor of Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum.
Standing next to this scarred, barnacle-encrusted felt leviathan, you can begin to understand the awe common to people who have seen whales in the flesh. Looking placid and slightly put-upon, the whale seems to be waiting patiently for humans to evolve to the point where they can get over their need to gawk at him. Given our enduring fascination with sea monsters, though, that may be a long time coming.
Lowe—a fan of Melville, Hawthorne, and other scribes of the dawn of the industrial age—says the idea for the whale came to him while he was sewing “empties” out of white felt. Feeling depleted after the completion of his last large-scale piece, a humongous folding deck chair, Lowe had been depicting throwaway vessels, including “six packs, trash cans, 40-ouncers,” while waiting for his next big inspiration. “Felt is the oldest fabric in the world, and it’s almost made out of dust, in a weird way,” he says. Contained in that dust is both destruction—”an ash, emptiness”—but also possibility for a new beginning, he adds: “It’s waiting to be filled up.”
Thoughts of the industries that create trash like his “empties” turned Lowe’s mind to Moby-Dick, Melville’s 1851 paean to the then-dwindling whale-oil industry, which was soon to be done in by the rise of petroleum as a fuel source.
While hanging out with some friends who were playing psychedelic rock music—and having been invited to collaborate with the Fabric Workshop’s sewers on a piece—Lowe decided to create a felt sculpture that represented both “the birth of this petroleum industry” and also a sort of magnificent, timeless knowledge, “like some crazy, big grandfather to bestow some sort of wisdom to you.
“With all these little empty bottles,” he says, “I somehow caught a whale.”
“Mocha Dick” is showing at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, through summer 2009.
Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.