Reflections on Material Motion in Moby-Dick and Beyond

Introduction or: personal thoughts on how my project changed over time

The goal of my project was to envision and capture the concept of “material motion” in Moby-Dick. In the quiet space of the library, surrounded by shelves of books and silence, I asked myself what it meant to visualize motion, and how material transformation embodied said motion. Using the lens of both art and travel, I came up with the admittedly abstract concept of motion as a transformation of objects and subjects – if to travel means to displace oneself and to shape oneself according to one’s shift in location and space, then travel must surely mean change. As Herman Melville stated in his lecture in 1860, “To an invalid it is travel, change, to go to other rooms in the house. The sight of novel objects, the acquirement of novel ideas, the breaking up of old prejudices, the enlargement of heart and mind, – are the proper fruit of rightly undertaken travel.”[1] The traveling artist who seeks to capture and share this sense of change within the self and the other (that is, to capture the transformative action of travel) also experiments with art as a form of transformative motion. Tim Ingold in his Redrawing Anthropology writes, “The builder or artisan, destined thus to follow the material, is necessarily an itinerant or wayfarer. He or she must go where the material goes, finding the grain of the world’s becoming and bending it to his or her evolving purpose.”[2]

When I began the plan for my project, I was focused on the end product, and how the various works that I would produce would convey a sense of ‘material motion’ in the viewer. I wanted the objects to speak for themselves; this was the reason why I thought of bringing in the kaleidoscope glasses in the viewing experience. On one hand, I wanted my works to speak to the theme of material motion in Moby-Dick; the way in which the white whale is a constantly elusive figure who cannot be ever depicted, whichever one tries. On the other hand, I wanted my finished works to embody a sense of motion to be put on display. To be a bit frank, I saw the project as a performance in the most basic sense of the word – to produce something that could be showcased and interpreted by someone else.

But performance is more dual-sided. For example, on one hand, it is what we expect: an action or an object that is to be judged by others, and to bare the product of one’s work up for criticism and analysis. But on the other hand, it is inevitably an action performed by the self, and involves “coming to terms with one’s own interiority and exteriority.”[3] That is, by the very virtue of my framing my work as ‘performance’ also induces a kind of self-introspection and awareness of my own “doing” – my act of painting and drawing. If I had imagined by project as a performance geared toward the ‘other,’ the act of creating and executing my plan made me aware more of the self-performative aspect of this endeavor.

Isn’t that what meditation is? Mindfulness and awareness: sensing what is often unseen and taken for granted. Perhaps this is the reason that Melville writes that “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” Meditation on one level is a form of self-reflection and introspection, in which the embodied self (we are often not cognizant of our bodies as much as we are of others) is reflected and brought forth to the surface. In terms of how meditation works in Moby-Dick – the process of trying to arrive at some unifying universal truth by studying the whale, the ultimate other – water often functions as an invisible medium that is constantly brought into consciousness by Ishmael/Melville. Ishmael for example argues that a true depiction of the whale is impossible since the creature belongs in the water – and how does one really capture the whale in his true environments? How do you ever capture the ever fluid, ever-changing medium that is water? Thus, meditation in both everyday life and Moby-Dick functions as an act of contemplating the often ignored and the ephemeral (the ever-elusive moment of the “now”), but at the same time also the absolutely fundamental.

In completing my project, performance and meditation went hand-in-hand. I never really thought of myself as an artist – I used to draw as a child, and I often find myself doodling for fun or when I’m zoning out (like the hollow-eyed young men that Ishmael pokes fun at).” To approach Moby-Dick through the angle of visual arts (to become the creator rather than the critic… to stand on the other side), and then to display it as an act of performance – this made me hyper-aware of how every stroke, line, and blot on the page was in effect a reflection of me, the creator. As I worked through my thought processes on the class blog (the class blog was very much part of the project – both in the performance and execution process), updated my friends on my progress (“Wow Helen, I didn’t know you were an artist!” – But am I though? What does it mean to be an artist anyway? Technical skills of the hand that are slightly above average? I’d like to flatter myself and say that perhaps I am an artist, but this question is a lifelong one, I think), and reflected on my work on both an aesthetic and theoretical level, I became more aware of my intimate interaction with my own work. It was as though I was bringing my thoughts into the realm of physical manifestation, the realm of the here and now.

I defined material motion as an adaptive and creative process of locating oneself within a physical and imagined space in relation to external beings and objects. It is at once a passive and active movement, as it both perceives the fabric of spatial and temporal network of beings, and impresses oneself onto such a network in an effort to understand it. To put it simply, material motion could be seen as a form of transformative motion. During the process of carrying out my project, this definition of material motion carried a different meaning for me. In thinking about, embodying, and representing material motion, I became cognizant of the way I, myself, located myself in relation to my works and to Moby-Dick, and to Frank Stella’s rendition of Moby-Dick.

Thus, under the umbrella of this conjunction, the idea of material motion that I had started with also evolved. Material motion became a little more personal – if I had been thinking in terms of how the audience of my work would interpret and ‘receive’ the notion of material motion in my work, I now thought about how the very act of my painting was an act of transformative motion on me. That is, the act of creating art – and reflecting on the performative side of it – became an act of meditation, and thus of inner transformation.

Exhibition A: The Monstrous Pictures of Whales

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the act of observation itself changes the object being observed once you get down to the subatomic level. The closer you look, the less you actually see. Moby-Dick begins with a rather humorous joke of the enterprise of the novel by mentioning how the sub-sub-sub librarian has provided the abstracts, “gone through the long Vaticans and street-stalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could always find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.” To a certain extent, Melville’s novel is at once a serious endeavor to parse the gigantic whale into digestible bits and pieces (perhaps a whale could swallow a man whole, but the reverse situation seems altogether an impossible dream), and a self-directed joke at the absurdity of such an endeavor.

How to understand the whole when all you have all the parts? No – further, how to understand the whole when you can’t even properly identify, observe, and collect the parts? The interpenetration of the part and whole is an interesting and recurring theme throughout the novel, and one that is never really resolved. On one level, it subscribes to the running preoccupation with binaries – self vs other, land vs sea, sympathy vs monomania, and so on. On a deeper level, the relationship between part and whole is constantly shifted and reworked throughout the novel. Do the parts make up the whole, as the hierarchy of crewmen and each individual man make up the Pequod? Or how the parts of the whale – the skeleton, the flesh, the different anatomies – make up the whale? Or do parts merge with the whole – that is, each part is a microcosm of the whole, in which the parts don’t fit into a whole, but rather generate the whole? The perplexity of the nature of the binary is perhaps best reflected in Ahab’s rant: “Here’s the ship’s navel, this doubloon here, and they are all on fire to unscrew it. But, unscrew your navel, and what’s the consequence?”

The binary is frustrating, and yet necessary. To understand an object in isolation is impossible, as it is impossible to look at the object by itself – nothing exists in vacuum. As Melville writes in Moby-Dick, “…there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” This concept is especially pertinent to thinking about motion, since motion is perceived and experienced in relativity. (For example, imagine watching a dot in a black screen moving – the only way we can see that it moves is because of the position of our eyes as stationary) By juxtaposing two paintings together, I wanted to both think about this concept of the binary and material motion as the two paintings interplay with one another to create a unifying, or overarching meaning.

The interior and exterior are ungraspable concepts. This is something that I wished to explore in the juxtaposition of my two paintings. Color is a unifying element in both paintings: I used the same color palette for both works: yellow, blue, red, green, and purple. It was a conscious choice to use watercolor as a medium, and to choose color as a predominant theme for both. Color reflects motion on a fundamental level due to its constant change; it looks different in certain lights, certain mediums, and certain quantities. Watercolor, I felt, was especially prone to expressing this aspect of color: the balance of water and paint, the lightness or strength of my brush’s stroke, the absorbency of the paper, the merging of different colors in the fluidity of the water – all these physical elements work together to create a variegated effect. Even though I used the same paint pigment for both paintings, the color scheme actually looks quite different – “Fancied Measurements” (the one with the skeleton) looks more ephemeral and light than “Plum Pudding.”

Goethe says about color: “When considering, with reference to color, the objects that constitute the world, it is quickly noted that these fleeting appearances, which so readily appear and disappear through certain angles of these objects, are not accidental but are dependent upon definite laws…each alteration of external appearances leads to significant inner changes.”[4] Color thus adds to how the exterior is perceived, especially in relation to opacity and our strong desire to penetrate the “pasteboard mask” to get at the interior. Dolphins and whales see with sound – as Peters writes, the human vision “distantly touches on the opaque surfaces of things” – to see without color would perhaps be a way to see transparently: “Seeing with sound would not be equivalent to seeing with light: the topology of inside and outside would be different, and colors would matter less. Bodies without opacity: an oxymoron for us, but perhaps mundane for dolphins.”[5]

Finally, the colors were pulled from Frank Stella’s work on the chapter. Colors in Frank Stella’s work serves as both marking and erasing boundaries; on one hand, they emphasize the shapes of individual ‘objects,’ but on the other hand, they add to the abstract collapse and unknowability of each separate shape.

Frank Stella’s paintings embody these ideas on multiple levels. On one fundamental level, his works play on the dialectic of abstract formlessness and the formation of meaningful signs. Stella said about his works, “It’s pretty impossible to have truly abstract painting, even if you begin with an abstract, non-figurative base…as you relate to painting, and work at painting, you do relate to the history of the past, so even though you started with abstraction, figuration comes back in from the other side.”[6] Looking at Stella’s work embodies my definition of material motion – not just in the ways in which the abstract shapes and different colored forms collide and intermingle with one another to construct some meaningful form, but also in the way that the viewer and the work interact with, and transform, one another. I wanted my paintings to also capture this element – what W.J.T Mitchell class “uncanniness of images, their ghostliness or spectrality, their tendency to look back at the beholder, or seemingly to respond to the presence of the beholder, to “want something” from the beholder.”[7]

As I worked on my paintings that tried to engage with both Moby-Dick and Frank Stella’s renditions of the novel, I wanted to play upon the idea of two (or more) elements interacting with one another. Two such interactions that were in my head: one between word and image (a central trope in Moby-Dick), and another between form and formlessness. As for the first, I wanted to make sure that my paintings were playing directly with the themes and imagery described in the chapter “Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.”

“Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all. For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape…all these are permanently lodged in their fleshy covering, as the human fingers in an artificial covering… you must needs conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world which much remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.”

One of the problems of depicting the whale is that one cannot separate the whale from its environment; the whale “afloat” the ocean is part of its existence. That is, once you separate the whale from the ocean then it no longer becomes an accurate picture of the animal. That is, the boundaries of the whale are uncertain. As Wallace writes, “…[Ishmael] can never entirely separate the one kind of pursuit from the other. Nor, he realizes, can the body of the living whale entirely be separated from the buoyancy of the sustaining wave…”[8]

I also hoped to engage in the trope of the interpenetration of image and word embedded in both the narrative of Moby-Dick and the nature of analyzing visual works. W.J.T Mitchell writes about the trope of word and image, “It is a dialectical trope because it resists stabilization as a binary opposition, shifting and transforming itself from one conceptual level to another, and shuttles between relations of contrariety and identity, difference and sameness.”[9]

Exhibition B: The Hunt

If “Exhibition A” is preoccupied with the concept of binaries, then I hoped to carry on the notion of motion in terms of the narrative movement within a temporal-spatial dimension that underlies ‘travel.’ That is, I had started out the project with a rudimentary interest in the way in which travel contributes to, and complicates, the imagination of material motion.

The process of drawing these three works was a reenactment of sorts of Ishmael’s observations and experiences. Lines became a major preoccupation in this project – the way that it starts with a beginning, and follows a sweep of the motion of the hand and pen that is also endowed with metaphorical meaning, and ultimately ends. The line was an embodiment of travel – the way that it followed its own path from beginning to end; if one was to visualize the motion of someone’s progress through space, the line would in some ways be the most accurate and appropriate way to depict it.

I wanted each of the drawings to represent a significant event in the novel. It starts with the first work, “Midnight-Spout,” which is supposed to capture the elusiveness of the whale. The lines here curve, twist, and sweep. The second picture captures the nature of the hunt – I realized that it was impossible to draw a straight line using my hand alone. My hand naturally trembles, my wrist uncontrollably jerks. I needed the help of a ruler – the very act of drawing this was a significant process for me as I ruminated on the way in which the hunt is in many ways the interpenetration of the machine (the tool) and the organic (the hand). Another quote from Peters’s book is relevant here: “We are conditioned by conditions that we condition…we are shaped by the tools that we have shaped.”[10] The third marks the final scene of the book, in which everything seems to disintegrate into the uncertain realms of the dream:

“The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooneers still maintained their sinking lookouts on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.


Conclusion or: The Phosphorescence of my Project

In terms of what I would have done differently, or what I would like to do in the future, the idea of displaying and curating my works in a physical space is tantalizing to me. Because my works are physical objects rather than the written word, I feel that the space in which they are displayed, and the way they are ‘geographically’ placed would alter the experience of viewing them. For example, if I were to display “Exhibition A,” I would take into consideration how far apart these two paintings would be from each other, whether they would be juxtaposed vertically or horizontally, whether they would occupy an entire wall to themselves, whether they would be displayed among everyday objects (in my living room, for example), or in a more formal setting like a ‘gallery’ of sorts. This aspect of my project would again speak to the idea that Melville proposes in Moby-Dick, which is that an object’s environment cannot be ignored, as the object cannot exist (in both meaning and being) without its ‘habitat’ so to say. I feel that further consideration of the space that my works would occupy would contribute to the exploration of the way in which the ‘organism’ and the ‘habitat’ coexist, with each altering the other. As John Durham Peters in his The Marvelous Clouds writes, “We are conditioned by conditions that we condition…we are shaped by the tools that we have shaped.”[11]

The reason why I had not pursued the kaleidoscope lenses as I had first planned was because my definition of ‘material motion’ began to shift its weight from the exterior display of motion to the transformative exchanges that occurred in the more abstract space of the interior of the self, the space between paintings, and the space between image and word. I also felt that the kaleidoscope would be geared more toward the enhancement of the audience’s experience of viewing my works. However, if my project were to expand, especially in the ‘display’ aspect, I think the kaleidoscope lenses would add to the experience of seeing and therefore of perceiving. The viewing through the kaleidoscopic glasses – not just the act of seeing, but the viewer’s own agency of when and how to utilize these glasses –emphasizes the way in which the mind functions in vision – the way in which “the mind resists meaninglessness, invent stories to explain haphazard incidents…”[12]

I personally think that understanding Moby-Dick is a lifelong project of its own. We may approach it in parts and pieces, but to digest the entire whale of a book is both a textual and personal challenge. How do we really understand our location in the universe, when everything seems to be constantly changing, even ourselves? Material motion, to a certain extent, poses this question: if the self itself is changing, how do we constantly keep track of it, and really know that the self is the self? If nothing stays the same, and if our knowledge is a snapshot of a certain moment, how do we really know anything? My understanding of myself changed by embarking on this project – if I had previously seen myself as a literary scholar, digging up books and parsing words for meanings, then this project helped to redefine my identity as a “creator” of sorts.

“And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”

[1] John Howard Birss, “‘Travelling’ a New Lecture by Herman Melville,” The New England Quarterly 7, no. 4 (1934): 727, doi:10.2307/359195.

[2] Tim Ingold, Redrawing Anthropology: Materials, Movements, Lines (Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011), 4.

[3] Marvin A. Carlson, Performance: A Critical Introduction (Routledge, 2004), 72.

[4] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Color Theory. Arranged and Edited by Rupprecht Matthaei, 1971, 14.

[5] John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 68–69.

[6] Robert K. Wallace, Frank Stella’s Moby Dick: Words and Shapes (University of Michigan Press, 2000), 9.

[7] “W. J. T. Mitchell: What Do Pictures Want?,” accessed April 18, 2017,

[8] Wallace, Frank Stella’s Moby Dick, 24.

[9] Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, Critical Terms for Art History, Second Edition (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 57.

[10] Peters, The Marvelous Clouds, 51.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century, y First printing edition (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 106.

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