Can’t any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead..., 2011
Wood, paper, graphite, plastic model of a New Bedford whaler, 300 lbs of sea salt, soundtrack
Death to the living, long life to the killers.
Success to sailors’ wives and greasy luck to whalers.
Frederick Myrick – scrimshaw on whale tooth 1829
The drawing on the plywood frame is from the foreground of a photograph of the whaler Greyhound, one of the last whaling ships in the American fleet out of New Bedford, Mass. (The model ship is of a New Bedford whaler) The text, “Whaler Grayhound” (misspelled) was written on the photograph as well. The Greyhound had the distinction of outliving many of her contemporaries, which can be seen as a victory and a tragedy. This ship was not retired; the industry was replaced by the fossil fuel oil industry.
On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke addressed the Parliament of Great Britain. Burke was addressing the fear that the Americans were becoming too powerful and that a revolution may be near. As evidence of our spirit and bravery in the face of danger, he merely described the New England whaling industry:
…Pass by the other parts, and look at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the whale-fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Straits, whilst we are looking for them beneath the arctic circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of Polar cold, that they are at the Antipodes, and engaged under the frozen serpent of the South. Falkland’s Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry… No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils…
As you know, in “no climate” did we allow the whales to thrive. The American whaling machine very nearly drove whales to extinction.
Whaling ships did not return according to a set schedule, they returned when their tallow reserves were full. By the end of the whaling era, ships were gone for years at a time when they had previously been gone for mere months. (The Thule was gone for 27 months before running aground in the South Pacific. Which is little to speak of compared to the fate of the Essex.) Due to the whaling industry’s inability to meet the demand for whale oil, the use of crude oil was developed to light and lubricate the industrial revolution.
One can imagine being on one of these whaling ships, knowing that it could be their last voyage. Sailing into the unknown, into seemingly infinite space, above another infinite space. (I am reminded of Baudelaire’s use of the word vast and how, according to Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, even saying the word seemingly requires a whisper adding to the word’s specific and descriptive nature.) While in/on this infinite space, you are one of a crew that is to fight the largest animal to ever live on earth using harpoons from the bow of a rowboat.
When reading about a topic like the American whaling industry, I feel as though the whalers’ story speaks on several different levels. When this story is placed within a new context (title, setting, materials, scale, proximity…) we are left with an interpretation that will be slightly different for each viewer as the work is deconstructed in an attempt to recover the meaning of the piece. This activity is the same basic process that makes folklore and legends so powerful.