April 4, 2016

Artist submerges Moby-Dick in the ocean, calls it sculpture


Last year, MobyLives wrote about the theatre company planning a staged version of Moby-Dick on a ship, remarkably the first naval adaptation of Melville’s classic novel. Nothing seemed more fitting.

Visual artist Lawrence LaBianca seems to have been thinking along similar lines when he conceived his recent site-specific sculpture, What Lies Beneath. As DJ Pangburn describes on the Creator’s Project, LaBianca, whose work often “harness[es] natural phenomena to generate art,” created a mixed media sculpture by putting Moby-Dick in its natural environment: the ocean.

Pangburn explains:

“LaBianca, encased a copy of Moby-Dick in water housing, then submerged it in the ocean…tethering the sculpture to a rock, LaBianca took a photograph, which shows Moby-Dick opened to Chapter 36, ‘The Quarter-Deck.’”

Perhaps because viewers could hardly be expected to don scuba gear to view it, the finished work consists of the photograph of underwater Moby, mounted on the gallery wall, which is connected by a thin cord to the actual book in its waterproof chamber, sitting propped beneath the photo on a low pedestal. This is where, ostensibly, viewers can kneel down to peruse the first two pages of that iconic scene when Ahab makes his true intention known to his crew? (Why just two pages?) And then ponder the implications of art that “engages” with its setting. Of texts as containers of environments—dispossessed of physical objecthood? Of the power of context and the author’s complicity in creating it. Of the abstract (Melville’s text, the metaphorical ocean) ceding to its physical origins (the book, the actual ocean)—yet never completely lost. A recursive system whereby the cord (umbilical?) becomes both symbolic and achingly real. And then, like, the recontextualization involved in bringing the work into the gallery, where new resonances bound, bounce—and burst?

Drape Wuthering Heights in rain gear in situ in the moors. Encase Under the Volcano in titanium and launch it in the flows of Popocatépetl. This is the kind of adventure art we could get into. And, for $8,000, What Lies Beneath could even be yours.

Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.