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A Semi-Legible Story Of Whales

March 25, 2024

Written by Julia Brukx

Of Whales is an immersive, extended reality video installation currently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA)The exhibition invites viewers to sit and think for a while, watching from the perspective of a sperm whale that surfaces every hour for a breath of air. The installation, which premiered at the 2022 Venice Biennale, is a site-specific yet universal story, because it's centered around the ocean, rather than the shores. 

Wu Tsang is a multi-disciplinary artist from Worcester, Massachusetts, who has created films, performances, and video installations that redefine and refocus the traditional artistic canon to include hidden histories and marginalized perspectives. Of Whales is a rethinking of Herman Melville's Moby Dick from the perspective of the whale, using extended reality technologies in order to immerse viewers in a meditative and slightly terrifying journey through the oceans and shores of Moby Dick. 

Walking into the darkened gallery is at first a disorienting experience, with only vague sounds of sea, waves, and song to guide you. Laid out across the floor are bean bags, each facing a huge screen that occupies the entire back wall. The space structure invites viewers to stop and lay for a while, looking not only at the screen in front of them, but also up. This position is a little uncomfortable to maintain but becomes increasingly clear as the video progresses. First is a calming rotation of animated jellyfish, created in different artistic styles that range from artificially symmetrical in a manner that reminded me of video games, to hand-drawn at a reduced frame rate that gave the impression of a Studio Ghibli film. This gives way to lightening colors, like greens and reds, which grow bigger and brighter as the music slowly begins to fade away. The comfort of the ocean dissipates, and a crushing feeling emerges as the toxicity of the water becomes inescapable. The sound is nearly entirely gone, and lying on the gallery floor, it feels like the weight of the water is crushing over you. And suddenly, we come up for air, greeted with the oranges and pinks of the sunset and the caws of seagulls. We bask in the light for a second, turning to look at all the clouds. Just as we are about to dip back under, far on the horizon, an oil rig stands in the ocean, identifiable with a burning flame, and the ocean scene is at once invaded by unnatural occupiers. 

The dynamically generated video dips in and out of the water, exploring the lights and darks of the ocean, which is shared by jellyfish, whales, and evidence of human presence. It is at once meditative and anxiety-inducing, our perspective taking us on a journey with no readable goal. The gallery is above the Boston Harbor, so if the visitor walks behind the screen they can look out to the water and contemplate how their perspective may have changed. Where I would once watch the boats, both little sailboats and bigger cargo ships, crossing the harbor, I now found myself looking at the water as it moves with the waves and bounces the little bit of light that peeks through the clouds. 

Of Whales is part of a trilogy of video installation projects that seeks to decolonize the story of Moby Dick by following different perspectives, including the crew and the whale. Inviting viewers to rethink a familiar story in a long-form, dreamy setting, Wu Tsang equates the story of the whale to the struggles of anyone who has had their home or haven invaded.

The narrative is clear, but not absolute, and there is still plenty of room for interpretation. It's not meant to be fully readable, which is frustrating at times but allows the viewer to fill in the gaps, making it more personal to each visitor. There's a part in the video where the only clear thing is that we are in danger. There are hints of red, beginning subtly but slowly getting more pronounced, and the waves get smaller and smaller, farther away. 

"Are we falling?" my friend, sitting beside me, asked. 

"Oh," I responded, "I thought we were rising." 

Whether we were sinking down to the ocean floor, unable to get to the surface for air, or being pulled up onto a whaling vessel, being yanked away from our ocean home, the end result is the same. What was familiar is shrinking away, and we can do nothing to stop it. 

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