Wu Tsang’s ‘Of Whales’ takes a deep dive into the cosmos of the ocean

The artist debuted an immersive new installation and film based on Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ at the 59th Venice Biennale

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend Venice’s revered Biennale, you’ll know just how chaotic it can get. Between navigating the winding streets of the labyrinthine Italian city while lacking a phone signal strong enough to actually load up Google Maps, figuring out where the hell the vaporetto departs from, and making it through the throngs of chic, chin-stroking people milling around any given artwork to actually get a closer look, there’s a lot going on. But within Venice’s Giardini and Arsenale venues, there are moments of calm to be found – this year, namely in the vicinity of subversive artist Wu Tsang’s stunning installation. 

Housed at the very end of the art trail within the Arsenale, an enormous 16 metre-wide screen dominates what is a uniquely serene space – the Giaggiandre is a cavernous, open-sided enclave with wide arches that allow the sun to dapple the water at its centre, as echoes bounce from its ceiling. With Tsang invited by artist Cecilia Alemani to show as part of this year’s The Milk of Dreams show, the screen loops with a dreamy film that takes viewers deep into the ocean, where luminescent organisms swirl and bloom like the cosmos. Part of Tsang’s multifaceted project centring on Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby Dick, Of Whales is a moving retelling of the tale from a different perspective – this time, seen through the eyes of the whale itself.

Supported by pioneering art and tech organisation VIVE Arts, Of Whales utilises innovative technology to bring the sperm whale’s world to life. “The whole thing uses game engine tech, so the ‘cosmos’ you see is completely computer generated,” reveals Leigh Tanner, VIVE Arts’ head of global partnerships. “It runs on a six-hour-long loop, from day through to night, so anyone who visits is unlikely to encounter the same part of the film twice.” Of Whales marks the first chapter of VIVE Arts’ collaboration with Tsang, with the company also set to translate the film into a VR experience that will debut at Switzerland’s Art Basel fair next month. “It’s going to be amazing to see how people react when they’re truly immersed in Wu’s deep sea world,” adds Tanner. 

Alongside the mesmerising Of Whales installation, Tsang also took over a gilded theatre ahead of the Biennale’s official opening to give her accompanying film Moby Dick; Or, The Whale, its Venetian debut. The silent, feature-length movie reinterprets Herman’s classic tale through a post-colonial lens, setting the story to the strains of a live orchestra with costumes by Telfar Clemens. Exploring the original’s rich symbolism and themes, which span race, labour, power, the environment, and beyond, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale is a deeply emotional journey aboard the Pequod, underpinned with an evocative and compelling love story – not just between protagonists Ishmael and Queequeg, but between the crew of the ill-fated ship. As Tsang confirms, however, this is not a ‘queer retelling’ of the novel: “Those things were always very obviously there,” she explains over the phone from her Venice hotel room. “We just brought them to the fore.”

“In the beginning, I was mostly inspired by the stories of the sailors and their relationships with each other. And then, as I got deeper into the project, I started to think about the whale itself as this metaphor for something unknown, or something that’s happening beyond our realm of understanding” – Wu Tsang

With Moby Dick; Or, The Whale originally premiered at New York culture hub The Shed, Tsang reveals Melville’s novel wasn’t originally a book she held in high regard. “I think, in my teenage years, I just wasn’t interested in reading a ‘Great American Classic’,” she says. “It wasn’t until I went to a reading of CLR James’ Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, by my friend Laura Harris, and she read some passages by Melville that got me really excited – she really opened me up to ways of thinking about the language and the subtextual meanings under the surface.” So excited was Tsang, that she decided she wanted to work on a project surrounding Moby Dick there and then. 

“And then, when I actually did read the book soon after, I was even more inspired,” she adds. “It’s one of those book’s that’s kind of a code for the whole universe or something. It has so many layers and goes in so many directions. It’s long and meandering, and also very surreal and beautiful, this vast cosmos of ideas about humans and how they relate to each other, and to the earth, and our place in all of that. In the beginning, I was mostly inspired by the stories of the sailors and their relationships with each other. And then, as I got deeper into the project, I started to think about the whale itself as this metaphor for something unknown, or something that’s happening beyond our realm of understanding. In particular, I think sperm whales are interesting, because they’re the deepest diving mammals. They can dive up to 2,000 metres or something crazy like that, and they can hold their breath for over an hour.” 

Where Melville’s original novel is pretty problematic to say the least – its casting of Queequeg as ‘a savage’ is just one example – Tsang’s retelling is unsurprisingly more inclusive. “I come from a mixed race, immigrant family, and so I feel like the kind of heroic novels that are so celebrated in America are ones I don’t see myself reflected in,” she explains. “Queequeg for example is referred to as a cannibal from the South Pacific, and there are a lot more racist depictions within the book. What I tried to do was offer a new way of celebrating that diversity, of that motley crew that comes from all over the world.” 

At the end of the day, though, Tsang hopes people will get lost in what is a thoughtful contemporary retelling of a piece of classic literature. “You don’t have to think too hard,” she says. “With Of Whales particularly I want people to just let their minds wander, and go with it wherever it takes them. That’s actually something I try to do myself, even within my work. Allow yourself to participate in the art without thinking too much about it. What I love about being an artist who collaborates with a lot of people is how I don’t feel like one person. I feel like I’m a part of something. I hope people will come and sit and get lost alongside one another.” 

Of Whales by Wu Tsang will be on show at the 59th Venice Biennale until November 27, 2022

Leave a Comment