PRINT Summer 1985

From Inside the Whale

Metaphors face extinction
in a situation which itself is a metaphor.
And the whales are facing extinction
in a situation which is itself a whale.

—Miroslav Holub1

THE FIRST YOU USUALLY KNOW of a show is when the announcement arrives in the mail. This one was black, a really well-printed, flawless black. White lettering announced Sheer Fluke by Richard Wilson, at Matt’s Gallery. “Sheer Fluke”? It’s what you say when a beginner makes a lucky shot at billiards—pure chance. I’d never heard of the artist, but I’ve been to most of the 31 shows at Matt’s over the past five years. Matt is the name of an old English sheepdog who used to be the codirector of the gallery with Robin Klassnik until the Inland Revenue noticed the tax deduction for dog food. For Klassnik, who has been involved in mail art, found art, and olfactory art, the gallery is now his artwork, run with a professionalism and zeal for precision that should put the Tate Gallery to shame. Most of the shows only last a week, some a matter of hours, but are the outcome of long preparation, often in the studio in which they are held, and always sensitive to the particular qualities of its 36-by-21-foot space.

On the back of the card is a photograph: the gallery in darkness with what looks like the tail of a whale outlined in flame and reflected on the floor; behind it stands a ghostlike shadowy figure. The picture reminded me of Henri Georges Clouzot’s famous film of Picasso drawing with light: in a similar way it is the photographic image that completes the work, showing what could not be seen with the eye alone. And, yes, “flukes” are also defined as the two lobes that make up a whale’s tail.

Matt’s Gallery is in Hackney, a borough of East London where many artists live and work amid urban decay, housing projects, and patches of gentrification. Having followed a passageway through a complex of artists studios and climbed an outside cast-iron staircase, you might have hit your head on a dully gleaming metallic beam projecting into the corridor that, after a left turn, leads into the main rectangular space. At such close proximity the aluminum of the beam looked as if it had been poured into a mold to solidify in folds like strata of cooled lava. The way in which attention was immediately drawn to the specific qualities of material and the process by which shape had been formed reminded me of earlier sculptures that Richard Serra had made by splashing molten lead into the intersections of wall and floor. However, this area of the gallery was bathed in a blue light, which is hardly consistent with Minimalist literalism. On turning the corner the beam could be seen to be suspended from the ceiling to form a slightly undulating arch arranged diagonally . across the gallery. It terminated just to the right of a black shape blocked out on the end wall, recognizable as the whale flukes from the card turned upside down. Now it looked as if the whale, instead of diving into the floor, was rising up beyond the ceiling. But something else had happened in inverting the shape and illuminating it from the center with the warm incandescent glow of a floodlight on the floor: the contour had become incredibly sexual, like the curved dips of buttocks rising to a cleft. The artist insists that this connotation is entirely unintended—a “fluke,” perhaps.

Coming up close, you could see that the wall drawing was made from soot, a technique also employed by Jannis Kounellis, with a feathery upper contour resulting from the use of an acetylene torch. Totally mat, it absorbed all light, creating a “black hole,” a negative space in the wall. You felt attracted, sucked in. This sensation reminded me of the experience of looking at paintings by Jackson Pollock. He had originally intended to name Pasiphäe, ca. 1943, after a favorite novel, Herman Melvilld’s Moby Dick: in the painting a stick figure of a man is discernible, skewered to the belly of some huge totemic animal. One of his early painted bowls includes a picture of a boat in the center, possibly a reference to the “night sea journey” which according to Jung symbolizes the return to the mother’s womb as a prelude to psychic rebirth. And who, looking at the deep blackness of the flukes, wouldn’t think of Jonah in the belly of the “fish”? But whatever my train of associations, I was always brought back to the literal experience of materials in the space of the gallery: aluminum, soot, the shadows cast on the wall, my body moving through the space. The beam became a great rib arching across the darkened room, looking now longer, now shorter, depending on the point of view. It appeared simultaneously to project toward the whales tail and to hold it at bay.

A description of the building of a life-size model of the blue whale, extracted from A History of the British Museum (1981), by William T. Stearn, was framed at the entrance to the gallery and included as the “introduction” to the publication that accompanied the work. “A trapdoor left open on the stomach enabled workmen to climb inside for secret, and probably forbidden, smoking; Jonah in the belly of the great fish could not have been so comfortable. . . . ” The model of the whale in the Natural History Museum, which I went to inspect afterwards, is, in effect, a vast piece of sculpture, eliciting the same sense of wonder as that of a child who sees a ship in a bottle for the first time. Although constructed, it has something of the eerie quality of the stuffed animals elsewhere in the building, dead specimens which are simulacra of living nature. Wilson may be drawing an analogy between the neutral, scientific space of the museum and the contemplative relation to objects elicited in the art gallery. In Sheer Fluke the whale was present only in its absence, as a shadow or trace: there was no attempt to simulate nature for scientific scrutiny.

Leafing through a copy of Moby Dick in a bookshop, I found a whole chapter devoted to “The Tail.” In it Ishmael says of the whale, “Dissect him how I may, then, I go but skin deep; I know him not, and never will.” He describes the tail as the concentrated essence of the mammal’s force–“Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it”—combined with the “exceeding grace” of its flexions, a coupling of masculine and feminine qualities. Of its diving he says, “this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven.” That just the image of the tail almost filled the end wall of the gallery conveyed metonymically the vastness of the animal compared with the size of the room. It was like the sublime vision of a disappearing god. In reality, the blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is a species that has been threatened with extinction by overhunting.

Sheer Fluke was, in part, a positive and negative memorial to work—as the expression of human purpose through the transformation of matter, with its implications of phallocentric mastery and the domination of nature. On the wall at the entrance to the installation, and included in the publication, were photographs showing Wilson, with the assistance of Klassnik, making the beam—ladling molten aluminum from the furnace into a sand mold supported on scaffolding, something which makes the arch at this stage look like a giant viaduct or railway bridge, the theme of one of Wilson’s earlier installations. These photographs record the conversion of the gallery into something like a foundry; the darkness of the installation recalls the way in which light in a foundry is habitually kept low so that the temperature of the metal may be judged for casting and annealing. If there is a reminiscence of Vladimir Tatlin’s utopian Monument to the Third International, 1920, for example, it is elegiac: the engineer is no longer a hero, and human physical work is ceasing to be central to Western society.

Today we are reluctant to think ahead: the future is a dark shadow, and it is not just the blue whale that is threatened with extinction. In his Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke sites “vastness” and “blackness” as two of the causes of the sensation of the Sublime, providing a psychological esthetic for the modern, autonomous subject. Just as the category of the Sublime appeared to precede the Industrial Revolution, so it has re-emerged to mark its close, each time as the irruption of an awesome Beyond; intimating, respectively, the forces of divided labor and the new microelectronic and military technologies. Theodor Adorno argued in his Aesthetic Theory (1970) that the Sublime contains a critical, dialectical moment, as a reminder of the limits of human domination and the integrity of a nonconceptual primary nature. What happens, though, when the Sublime is a confrontation not with nature but with the reified technologies of surveillance and domination? The world once again becomes a spectacle for the alienated subject. “Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it,” as George Orwell diagnosed the attitude of political passivity which, in his 1940 essay “Inside the Whale,” he associated with Henry Miller’s ability to capture the texture of life.

Sheer Fluke alluded to nature as an absence through the “trace” of the whale’s tail. And despite the physicality of the materials, and the immediate experience of moving through the space, there remained a paradoxical feeling of removal. The aura and secrecy of the sacred, as in cave painting, was combined with the theatricality of a display in a natural-history museum: as if the genre of the site-specific installation, at once a challenge and a provocation to photographic reproduction, has by now become, already in the first instance, a representation of itself. In the age of the computer, the instantaneous processing of information at the press of a button, and the robot production line, a physical, sensuous relation with the world might well have come to seem archaic.

Michael Newman is a critic who lives in London.



1. From “Whaling,” in On the Contrary and Other Poems, trans. Ewald Osers, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1984.