‘Harpooning Sperm Whale’ by Athena Papadopoulos
“Thinking more about the relationship of equivalence between whale and man, I think particularity about whales’ relationships whales have to one another, mirroring the ideal relationship between humans- one of friendship and play, of compassion and appreciation of life in the face of the notion of precarity and death.”
Harpooning Sperm Whale (c. 1830)
It is a historical painting in the genre of landscape painting. The painting itself is on a horizontal plane and bisected in two by seascape and sky-scape.
The sky-scape is depicted as largely bright, calm and peaceful while the seascape is depicted as a voracious entity, dark and tumultuous in it’s lustful suggestion of movement.
The sky-scape is perspectival- encroached upon by both the tail of the Sperm whale and with the cracked fishing boat flanking the right-hand side of the tail in the foreground; in the background, the sky-scape is broached by the sails of (presumably), the ships of the monarchy. Of the four boats depicted we see two discernable fishing boats in various stages of distress followed by two large sailboats in pristine condition, watching, or rather ‘lording’ over the picture, a safe distance from the struggle/fray depicted in the fore.
The sea water in the foreground of the painting is comprised of a conglomeration of blended dark blues with whiter areas connoting the spray of the waves- the waves are structured -moving in a continuous direction toward the whale (as opposed to against it).
The whale is depicted in the very same tonality of blue as the dark blue of sea colour, so much so that the delineation between the whale and water would be imperceptible if not for the varied application of paint by the painter- i.e. the smooth and slippery unilateral application of paint to the whale’s body vs. the articulated twist/twirl and almost staccato application of paint to the waves.
The expression of the whale is almost cartoon-ified/ personified; The face of the whale is depicted more intricately and with more human quality than those of the actual human fisherman featured in the painting.
Here, the painter has chosen to represent the humans he painted as equivalent to the harpooning sticks or rather as mere utility- background fodder in essence. They- like the harpooning sticks- are visually akin to the instruments which lackadaisically strike the body of the whale.
I would like to draw attention to the blow-hole of the whale, specifically the way in which it’ ‘fluid –output’ is rendered- i.e. to a somewhat flaccid inconsistency of flow- is noteworthy and perhaps deliberate- as we might usually see a whale with a geyser-like powerful blow-hole flow normally attributed to a healthy whale who is going about his regular business of the sea.
There is much symbolism within the painting and here I will focus on some of the points initiated within the visual analysis above and expand upon them briefly.
There is of course the ‘at first glace’ rather generic notion of man vs. nature- which must be mentioned in order to open to more complex notions that I am going to attribute to this work; for one the notion of colonizing and conquering; Man -in order to gain security or at least a personal perception of security- over the rather precarious natural world in which he finds himself- must show his virility via an attempt to control and render impotent and at his mercy the edicts of nature- his revenge at God’s dooming him to consciousness perhaps?
More specifically, here, we see as man vs. ‘beast at one with nature or rather beast with nature on his side.’ Could it be so that Man here intends not only to wrestle with the beast but to in effect render him as a mere exploitation of his whims- the animal will procure a vast potential of commercial uses of course but also, more cunningly Man here, as a result of his tiny victory will be able to show God and his fellow humans his own might in the face of the overwhelming goliath of nature.
But in this painting, strangely enough we see the tender nature of the painter, seemingly on the side of the natural world- and this is because as noted in the initial visual analysis, nature is depicted as personified, (the whale is so very human in his expression), whereas the men are depicted as equivalent in rendering and likeness to the harpoon sticks, perhaps a inference to the notion that these fishermen are mere instruments. But what are they instruments of?
Going back to an initial point, the first and most immediate quality that strikes me about this painting is the expression of the whale, not just that it is cartoon-like or rather personified, but more that his expression is one of ‘caught in the act.’ There is something sort of ‘knowing’ about his expression. The whale does not look to be experiencing any sort palpable fear, perhaps more so that he mildly annoyed or disrupted by the attempts of these little men.
Though to make matters slightly more complex, I would propose here there is a sense of ambivalence, between the whale and the men, not that the physical struggle but rather in the attitude of both creatures- somehow the fishermen seem to be just as unbothered by their various states of what would be physical duress, for instance one man who has been thrown from his little fishing boat –who might be in distress due to the prospect of his imminent drowning but instead, he is not frantically treading nor flailing about, but calmly floating.
Another aspect that struck me about the picture, is that there are pristine ships that are bathed in the gold sunlight of the sky in the background, a potentially obvious reference to the clean hands of the dirty activities of the monarchy- while the instruments of the monarchy (the fishermen i.e. potentially slaves?), are doing the ‘hard labour’- like men sent to war for no reason they seem to understand-and so my thinking quickly turns back to this notion of the calm nature of both the whale and the fishermen – perhaps the reason the fishermen are not depicted as particularly aggressive is because they too are mere casualties of the existential narcissism of the ‘clever’ monarchy who sees his human subjects as mere instruments akin to varying degrees of sharper or duller sticks- and if the whale in fact does have a destiny- in the eyes of the western monarchy- it is one of becoming… and I don’t mean in the spiritual sense, here I literally mean becoming soap, margarine, candles, ointment or perfume. 1
Whale and fisherman therefore are equivalent here, not by size or any sort of visually obvious narrative. The painter has chosen to swap the attributes- humans as faceless instruments and whale as human with pathos. This gesture produces a cancelling-out as it were, and draws me toward the implication that the painter wants us to focus on the fact that we are the whale. Of course, whales like humans are mammals, and just like humans they are warm-blooded creatures who breathe air through their lungs, have hair and crucially, give birth to their young, feeding them using milk suckling. Whales also have double hearts like humans with four chambers.2 We share hearts- the whales is bigger obviously. And that is because it is the ultimate benevolent creature. This draws me to the notion of Christian logic- that if man was made in God’s image, then surely whale even more so? Whales and human’s beings are so closely united in similarity but, not only through their biological imperatives but also and more interestingly- by social behavior and conduct, such as their great affection for one another and so on. 3 Whales are often seen as akin to God4 in their presiding over the sea in a masterful way- through benevolence- therefore they surpass human in divinity because of course- humans have been cursed with (self)-consciousness and therefore malevolence is part and parcel of their existence.
Expanding outside of the four walls of the picture (‘Harpooning Sperm Whale circa 1830), I would like to focus on symbolism of the whale more broadly- in mythology of various cultures, as well as literary, historical and cinematic depictions.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville5 comes to mind, in particular, not just because his story too focuses on the Sperm whale- one of the most dangerous whales in the ocean (who bit of the leg of one of the characters and historically was known to charge at the boats of fisherman attempting to harpoon it),6 but from a wider perspective- the allegory of the whale as both darkness and light, divine and physical (i.e. a physical manifestation of God on Earth) which comes from Hawaiian7 folklore. The whale is symbolically referred to as a kind of ‘stand-in for God,’ or the instrument of God on Earth- so if a whale destroyed a sailors boat it was seen as an action attributed by God- the wrath of God- a punishment to the sailors8.
This notion leads me to think about for instance, the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, where Gods sends a whale to swallow Jonah so he does not drown.9 This time spent inside the whale is a time for reflection- a sort of corpulent prison, or rather, a place of respite while he repents, praises and contemplates. We see echo’s of reference to this classic in the story of Pinocchio, where Jepeto (Pinocchio’s father) must be rescued from the belly of the whale by Pinocchio himself, therefore Pinocchio must face his existential burden and triumph over the problematic of sin and temptation which get in his way on the way to rescue his father- and in order to rescue his father i.e. his future self (his future) he must awaken.10
Therefore, the whale is the perfect symbol for this process of awakening and transcendence, toward the benevolent, the powerful, ‘come into my house to awaken the whale spouts’.
The whale has the capacity to be a ferocious killer- but chooses benevolence- and this is the true mark of the good and holy- to be able to do harm but choosing not to. I suppose this is where the knowing expression on the whale in the painting comes from.
Thinking more about the relationship of equivalence between whale and man, I think particularity about whales’ relationships whales have to one another, mirroring the ideal relationship between humans- one of friendship and play, of compassion and appreciation of life in the face of the notion of precarity and death. Somehow I am brought back to the opening of this paper as well as the opening in the whale- i.e. his blowhole. Particularly the blowhole of the Sperm whale depicted in our painting in question ‘Harpooning Sperm Whale’, (c. 1830). After watching the contemporary documentary ‘Blackfish’11 which exposes the unethical nature of attractions such as SeaWorld, I began to draw parallels between the body of the whale in the painting and those featured in the documentary. The whales become physically impotent in captivity, their fins, their blowholes wilt in perpetuity. In our painting the blowhole is not geysering water out as it should in a healthy scenario-but, is instead spouting like a pathetic little teapot or unthreateningly like a children’s playground water-fountain. Symbolically a whale’s blowhole is associated with unbridled creativity12 which is a very powerful tool when harnessed, it is seen as a Godly power when harnessed proficiently and for Good. A powerful expulsion of water therefore symbolizes creative fertility or virility. Perhaps the painting then is not really about a whale or fishermen or the monarchy at all- but instead about the painters own sort of artistic crisis? Perhaps he is feeling somewhat impotent in his facile attempt to create a history painting of the ages- a whale being harpooned is certainly no Raft of Medusa13 In the spirit of this reading I think it is apt here to open the discussion of the reading of this painting to a much more tangential one of the sort of say Walt Disney’s 1934 short ‘Mickey Gulliver Mickey’14, a pastiche of Jonathan Swifts Gulliver’s Travels15 which essentially itself is a satire of politics, religion and so forth, but also a play on thinking through morals and ethics via corruption- and therefore ties the whole thing back to the monarchy and existential crisis of man on Earth in the face of the precarity of nature and his narcissistic need to conquer via sinful behaviour in order to protect himself/deny mortality or so he thinks… Here, I see Mickey as a stand in for the Sperm Whale depicted in the painting in question. He is a goliath in contrast to the tiny men who attempt to tie him down- and like the whale in various modes of capture his expression is yet to break into hysterics- he too is just sort of, unbothered, dreaming of friendship and happiness while Earthly whims take their course. And of course, notably, in the land of dream psychology and symbology, if a whale makes an appearance it has been said to mean that everything will be okay, so for instance, if you are say anxious about a potentially life changing event the whale appears to signal acceptance.16 In the end, the whale, unbothered and unflinching in his decisive nature, goes with the grain of the sea, he embraces as opposed to fights against what is. As Buddhist doctrines support- the highest mode of living, of being is the acceptance of life and death17 as one just as the knowing whale does. That all bodies contain both life and death simultaneously – both are equally inescapable, therefore one ought to just go with it and if one needs a moment to think about it all- as we have learned- the belly of the whale is the optimal place for the ultimate meditation and reflection and by the way, ingesting the sashimi of the belly of a whale is no shortcut to prolonged transcendence.
1 P.467 Oxford Junior Encyclopedia, Volume II, Natural History, 1949
2 P.466 Oxford Junior Encyclopedia, Volume II, Natural History
5 Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, 1851
6 P.467 Oxford Junior Encyclopedia, Volume II, Natural History
10 Maps of Meaning lecture, J. Peterson, Marionettes & Individuals Pt 1, 2017 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EN2lyN7rM4E
11 Blackfish (documentary film), 2013, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
14 Mickey Mouse- Gullivery Mickey, 1934 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GosT4VRRHIY
15 Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726
17 Advice on Dying: And Living a Better Life, His Holiness the Dali Lama, 2002
Humpback Whale, ink on paper, 2019 by A.R.
Whale Cries Wolf
Whale: He could not move.
Wolf: Angry little men.
Whale: Afraid of the little man.
Wolf: They crept.
Whale: No, crawled!
Wolf: They cried!
Whale: But to sit by the lonely sea!
Wolf: They cried this way.
Whale: And that.
Wolf: But words, words really can!
Whale: Closer and closer.
Wolf: Deep deep blue.
Whale: The Enemy.
Wolf: Miss anything?
Whale: Help! I am waiting.
Wolf: For a tiny Emperor on the shore?
Whale: A happy friend! I am ready to leave.
Wolf: No Blubber!
Whale: No Thunder!
Wolf: No Blubber!
Whale: No Thunder!
Athena Papadopoulos (b. Toronto, Canada 1988) is a contemporary visual artist currently living and working in Hull, UK. In Papadopoulos’s work, she takes objects, texts and personal archival material apart and puts them back together creating homemade syrupy tinctures using her kaleidoscopic material vocabulary: dismembering furniture, slicing up stuffed toys and remixing medicines, meticulously scavenging personal archives, ghostly antiques and domestic detritus. Her works are still-lives: they are ‘personified things’ that are both strong and weak, joyful and hopeless actors who are at both the mercy of Papadopoulos’ violent transformations as well as fight back through their hulking undeniable thingness.
Papadopoulos completed her BFA specializing in Visual Art, Art History and Art Theory graduating in 2011 and continued on to complete her MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths, University of London graduating in 2013. Since then Papadopoulos sculptures, paintings and artist’s books have been shown internationally at various museums, contemporary art centers, galleries and art fairs. Selected recent solo exhibitions include Subjective Action, Soft Opening, London, UK (2021); Cain and Abel Can’t and Able, MOSTYN, Wales, UK (2020); The Apple Nun, Liebaert Projects, Kortijk, BE (2019); Holy Toledo, Takutsobo!, Kunsthalle Lissabon, PT (2019). Recent group exhibitions include Museo Madre, Napoli, IT (2021) and will be showing at The Condition of Being Addressable, ICA The Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, US (2022) and a solo exhibition at MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, CA (2023).