Call me Ishmael. Just kidding. I've never read Moby Dick, a book so mythologized in American letters that high schools don't even bother requiring students to read it. Too long? Too hard? Maybe it was just the high school I went to? Or maybe it's enough just to know the basics: Ahab, the obsessive quest for revenge, Moby-Dick himself. But California College of the Arts' Wattis Institute has gone ahead and leapt into the book for the second in a three-part series based on American novels (the show based on The Wizard of Oz appeared last year; Huckleberry Finn will go up in 2010).
Like the book -- and the quest, and the whale -- the Wattis show is ambitious in scale: it takes up both of their galleries at CCA, and includes pieces commissioned for this show and older work: a Buster Keaton film and another by Kenneth Anger, Marcel Dzama drawings, and prints depicting a Richard Serra sculpture give a sense of the breadth. Rockwell Kent's vivid illustrations for a 1930 edition of the novel provide the exhibition's structure. 19th century whaling artifacts pepper the show. And overhead, TVs in each gallery play Orson Welles reciting excerpts from the play he based on the book.
Artist: Marcel Dzama
The show is best taken in from a distance. If you look across the room in the downstairs gallery Angela Bulloch's Night Sky shines in the middle while Hiroshi Sugimoto's black and white seascapes look dramatic against the deep blue walls on the other side and Orson Welles thunders away about fate.
Artist: Angela Bulloch
Upstairs a recording of whale songs playing in one corner provides an aural break from Welles's Moby Dick recitations. Mateo López accompanies the recording with a drawing of sheet music that morphs into waves with whale tails flipping up out of the staff. But the most striking (and largest) piece is Adrián Villar Rojas and Alan Legal's burlap, chicken wire and clay white whale that's sprawled across the floor, dominating the room. It's an up-close encounter with Moby Dick. And then the show comes to an end with the last period in the book, cut and pasted by Kris Martin.
Artist: Hiroshi Sugimoto
Not everything in the show is so striking. The quieter and smaller pieces are overwhelmed by the bombast of waves, whales, and dark walls, and some, while lovely, seem to have only a tenuous relationship with the book. But there's no need for pedantry here, especially since I haven't read the thing. And frankly, this collection of paintings, films, and artifacts made me want to try the book more than any Great Books list ever has. Meditations on the meaning of whiteness, obscure details of 19th century whaling, and vague homoeroticism, here I come!
Moby Dick runs through December 12, 2009 at CCA Wattis Institute in San Francisco. For information, visit wattis.org.