Thursday, April 1, 2010

Beached Whales on South Broad

Shay Church - Gray Whales: Philadelphia, 2010

This week, in conjunction with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference presently in Philadelphia, you might be taken aback by an odd apparition across from the Kimmel Center: three beached gray whales, languishing in the open gravel lot. The artist Shay Church has previously built installations such as these, creating whales, elephants, and other large-scaled natural fauna. In all of the works, the creatures seem to be in some sort of distress, slumped or lying on the ground, compounded by the manner in which the wet clay, used to surface the animals, begins to dry and crack. For works this massive, he enlists community volunteers to help with applying the clay over the armature that give it its shape. The handprints and finger streaks remain as an essential characteristic of the finished work.

Tristin Lowe in collaboration with FWM - Mocha Dick, 2009

Just a few days old, these poor beasts were already looking worse for wear, but I think that the compressed lifecycle of the works is essential to the artist’s message. A beached whale does not last very long out of water; these sculptures will last only a bit longer than their real counterparts. There is something about being confronted with the heft and mass of nature’s grandest creatures—whether the real thing or a recreation such as these—that stirs deep-seated emotions in the viscera. One inescapable aspect is awe at the sheer size, but there is also identification that these mammals are not too distant from humans. I naturally think back to Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick at FWM last summer, a much healthier-looking specimen, when I would note visitor’s reactions, as well as my own. The experience of looking into the whale’s eye, on both pieces, triggers a totally anthropomorphizing sympathy in the viewer.

Shay Church - Gray Whales: Philadelphia (detail), 2010

Tristin Lowe in collaboration with FWM - Mocha Dick (detail), 2009

Click here for Citypaper’s coverage on the creation of the whales. More of my images follow below:

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