1.1 / Review


By Anne Colvin October 19, 2009

Call Me Ishmael, cries Orson Welles as he recites from his short performance adaptation of Moby-Dick. Powerful and dramatic, Welles sets the overarching tone for the exhibition at the Wattis Institute inspired by Herman Melville's novel. The obsessive nature of the recitals, the intensity of the repetitions, and the omnipresent video monitors hung high make it hard to escape his presence.

In the Ishmael gallery, Colter Jacobsen has drawn out the description of a painting hanging in the Spouter-Inn to create Sp(outer)(In)nomine Diaboli (2009), a tempestuous stormy sea and black starry sky depicted in gouache on denim stretched taut like a skin. The deep blue echoes the color of the walls throughout the galleries. Welles looms above, the juxtaposition of his voice booming, "whenever it's a damp November in my soul" against the swirling waves resonating in the mind's eye.

Colter Jacobsen. Sp(out)er (In)nomine Diaboli, 2009; gouache on denim; 46 x 64 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Further down a series of passages, Peter Hutton has choreographed a container ship into a silent film of motions while Welles' foreboding "you'll hear me crack" seems to be in sync with the shards of rain and ice falling in front of Hutton’s camera. Other sounds can be heard emanating from Tacita Dean's mesmerizing rotating view of the ocean, Disappearance at Sea II (1997 ), which evoked the sense of being deep in the bowels of a schooner. A low, almost mournful humming tone fills the room. A red light glimmers through a crack in the door to reveal a small storage-like space containing a pile of Felix Gonzales-Torres Untitled ocean prints covered in the corner.

On the second floor Welles cuts off mid-flow, rehearsing his lines over and over again. His menacing Omen. Omen. Omen. wears on the mind. A monstrous drywall whale constructed by Adrián Villar Rojas and Alan Legal commands the breadth of the gallery, a jagged plaster presence in complete unison with Welles's chorus, "He's chasing me and not him." Osedax (2009), an enclosed chamber and collaboration between Ellen Gallagher and Edgar Cleijne contains a kaleidoscopic marvel of glorious color and natural world abstractions in an immersive film loop and slide projection. Jean Painlevé combines pulsating microbes, music, and voice in a madcap surreal science ‘scape. Alongside, an audio recording of mournful whale song from Mateo Lopez and artifacts such as harpoons and scrimshaw add to the natural history museum feel of the exhibition. All of this is grounded somehow by Damien Ortega's towering sea salt and wood sculpture. One could almost smell the sea air.

Adrián Villar Rojas in collaboration with Alan Legal. My Dead Grandfather (Mi abuelo muerto), 2009; drywall, metal, wood, clay, and plaster; 8 x 48 x 12 feet. Courtesy of the Artist and Ruth Benzacar, Buenos Aires. Photo: Joanna Arnold.

The strength of this show lays not so much in the exploration of particular themes from the book—in fact some of the darker motifs were lacking—but in the psychologically and viscerally tense atmosphere it creates. The curator Jens Hoffman immerses us in his scenarios through the use of highly evocative sound, film, voice, ephemera, and intervention. He draws on our senses to the point where one could almost imagine what it must have felt like to be trapped on the whaleship Pequod. Hoffman teases out connections and extends story lines to complete the curatorial hybrid.

In the words of Herman Melville as spoken by Orson Welles, The image of the ungraspable phantom of life, this is the key to it all.


Curated by Jens Hoffman, Moby-Dick is on view at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts until December 12, 2009.

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