Shotgun Review Archive

Moby Dick

By Shotgun Reviews October 4, 2009

Testosterone abounds in Jens Hoffmann's handsome Moby Dick, as it does in Melville's saga of vengeance and the sea. From Kenneth Anger's randy Fireworks (1947) to Adrian Villar Rojas's (with Alan Legal) My Dead Grandfather (2009)--a giant, impaled white whale of unfired clay--and Orson Welles' booming voice intoning Ahab's words throughout the galleries, male energy and hubris are in evidence everywhere. It is a Moby Dick of Shakespearean proportions, as Hoffmann leavens the tragic with the antic, and gives us some really great curatorial surprises. Buster Keaton's 1921 film The Boat greets viewers and creates a welcome foil to Ahab's darkness. Rockwell Kent's original wood engravings for the 1930 Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick are marvels of visual conciseness. In casting a wide net, Hoffman offers Kirsten Pieroth's Die Farbe der Meere (The Colors of the Seas) (2002), plastic bottles filled from the world's oceans. Mateo Lopez's modest Love Song (2009)--ten sheets of imaginary notation for songs of the Humpback Whale--features penciled staves that morph into waves. Whale song echoes through the gallery, and scattered bars of "the ship, the black freighter...." from the Three Penny Opera sound a cautionary tale.

Peter Hutton. At Sea, 2007 (still); DVD (transferred from 16-millimeter film), color, silent; 60 min.

Peter Hutton's extraordinary 60-minute silent film At Sea (2007) is worth a visit all its own. A merchant marine veteran, Hutton practices a scrupulous, almost Zen-like brand of filmmaking: he holds still and waits. The film progresses from ant-size workers constructing a container ship of vast proportions to a wreckage-strewn beach in Bangladesh, the backdrop for a "ship-breaking," where barefoot men hack at an immense rusted hull. At Sea is stately, balletic, and profoundly humane. Sampling sea-inspired works from a range of disciplines, periods, and aesthetic perspectives, the exhibition expands the metaphorical implications of Moby Dick, paying tribute to Melville's multi-layered work and offering a richly nuanced experience for the viewer.

Moby Dick is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco through December 12, 2009.

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