Book review: Dominium – A Whale Symposium

Artist and writer come together in a leftfield look at Earth’s largest mammal

Author: Pat
21st October 2012

Dominion – A Whale Symposium is a beautiful and thought-provoking look at the whale and its place alongside human existence over the last few centuries.

Have you ever seen a whale? Perhaps not on a dive, but by a lucky sighting from the shore or from a boat loaded with keen whale watchers. Even if you’ve only admired Earth’s last giants on a TV screen, these magnificent animals have impacted upon your life – and those of your recent ancestors – more than you might imagine.

art works, poems, music and original photographs

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick less than two centuries ago by drawing on his long stints aboard a whaling ship. The industry of the 1800s was hunting the animals to extinction in search of whale oil, meat, leather and bone materials aplenty to a rapidly developing world. Commercial whaling may be as dead as thousands of the animals, yet even today whale products find their way into our lives. Ambergris remains a prize sought by beachcombers hoping for a cash-ready perfumier, while high above our heads the Hubble Space telescope whizzes past, lubricated with whale oil.

In early 2011, artist Angela Cockayne staged an exhibition about the whale called Dominion. Celebrated writer Philip Hoare had previously penned Leviathan, or, The Whale, a stunningly written tome detailing his lifelong obsession Melville and these gentle giants of the sea. With a similarly multi-disciplinary approach to their respective arts, Cockayne and Hoare joined forces to produce the Peninsula Whale Arts Festival in Plymouth.

Dominion – A Whale Symposium is a representation of the festival in book form packed with curious art works, poems, music and original photographs from the world of the whale. Hoare draws upon his earlier work by recounting a personal search for whales off Newfoundland, but his contributions are more than an ethereal meandering: there’s a stretch of dialogue with Canadian scientist Hal Whitehead, discussing the cultural life of sperm whales. It’s book-ended by an essay on John Huston’s 1953 classic movie Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck. Angela Cockayne discusses ocean pollution with a marine biologist, interspersed with pieces from her exhibition.

The physical source of her materials is the sea itself, providing an unending source of whale bones, flotsam and jetsam, and discarded man-made pollutions. In this way Dominion is exactly that, a re-assembled view of objects from another world. Angela scours coastlines in her quest for that next construct, and finds it in a piece of bone or wood. She’s happy to sculpt using pewter, plaster of paris and man-made objects where it suits though. Consider the two tiny squid figurines made from discarded tampon applicators, an amusing and equally depressing scene of human waste.

Despite the occasional ugliness this book contains a series of stunning full colour images of whales in the oceans, swimming, preparing to dive, and together in groups. It is both hard to relate to these huge beasts and yet possible to see how Melville’s generation saw them as such. Nonetheless there’s something about the eye of a whale. It stares right at you from within the picture, a mammalian intelligence housed in a body the size of a bus. As a human it’s natural to be awed by big things, and as the biggest living things on the planet the whale will always be an impressive sight.

Our relationship with them has changed, but the pressures placed on whales today are both more subtle and potentially far more threatening than those of Melville’s time. As Cockayne and Hoare point out, our seas are filling up with plastics and dead whales with hydrocarbon stomachs are a great cause for alarm. It’s not an eco-warriors book, a picture book or a history book, but if Dominion – A Whale Symposium isn’t a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.


Wunderkammer Press

Dominion – A Whale Symposium is published by Wunderkammer Press. Operating within Bath School of Art and Design, the Press publishes the exciting, the curious and the thought provoking in a variety of two and three dimensional media.  Price: £16.99 + p&p ISBN: 978-0-9566462-4-8

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