Material Motion in Moby-Dick

April 19. 2017

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)

The major point of exploration of my project is that of “material motion” in Moby-Dick: the idea of moving in relation to other objects, of undergoing change through these transformative motions.

Frank Stella’s paintings embody aspects of “material motion” — which are yet to be defined. 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.”[1] 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.”[2]

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…”[3]

The interior and exterior are ungraspable concepts. This is something that I wished to explore in the juxtaposition of my two paintings. I used the same color palette for both works: yellow, blue, red, green, and purple. The interior of the whale becomes the exterior ‘ocean’ in which the skeleton of the whale resides.

I also hope 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.”[4] I’m intrigued by this constant ping-pong motion between word and text, and I think this is a concept that I’d like to complicate and extend further.

On a closing note, the color palette was one of the most important aspects of my works. The colors were pulled from Frank Stella’s work on the chapter. Colors in 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.

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

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

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

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

April 25, 2017

“Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” (Moby-Dick, Ch 1)

I’ve been mulling on how to add to my current two paintings. I keep switching back and forth from the abstract to the more structured, and how my choice reflects on how I define motion. (As an aside, I think the definition of “material motion” is a long-term project (perhaps a life-term project?) – it encompasses so much of everything, from skin-to-skin contact, to the negation of space and time with modern technologies and the growth of “cyber” space/communication/transportation technologies)) Do I think of motion as a blur, a more subjective torrent of feelings and peripheral glimpses? Or is motion more like a composite of snapshots, so if I dissect it at a certain point in time, I’ll get a crystal-clear image? This dichotomy of both blur and form – I hoped to capture this in my two watercolor paintings… but how to move on?

I was sitting in a café, looking out the window. ‘Motion’ was on my mind. I watched the rain spatter on the concrete, a rush of people weave in and out, the traffic stop, go, stop, go. It struck me how motion is on a certain level invisible. That is, we often see the objects moving, but we often don’t pay attention to the path. When I depict a person running, I’d probably draw it like this:

But motion – the way the object travels in space – can also be depicted like this:

Lines. I think lines also occupy that liminal space between formlessness and familiar shapes. They are at once alienating (“what could that possibly represent?”) and intensely familiar (lines are the basis of all shapes, mathematical, scientific or artistic…I’m sure all our earlier drawings began with simple lines).

**April 26, 2017** (From Canvas)

I wanted to share a cantata based off of Moby Dick, written by Bernard Herrmann, and premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1940. He originally wanted to write an opera for the novel, but thought that it was too huge of a project to pull off. Bernard Herrmann composed music for motion pictures – Vertigo, Citizen Kane, and Psycho just to name a few. I think you can see his penchant for drama translating to his composition for the Moby Dick cantata. There are many clips on youtube, but I thought this piece was especially interesting: (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

It’s titled “And God Created Great Whales,” and (I believe) is performed at the beginning of the sequence. It’s very dramatic, and you can really visualize the entrance of the whale as a kind of monster. I was reminded of the “Extracts” section of Moby Dick, where we get a series of quotes about the whale, and it made me think – what is it musically, visually (imaginatively), and textually in “And God Created Great Whales” and the “Extracts” that makes us construct the whale as a monster? The extracts are a sort of extremely condensed version of the spirit of the novel; it approaches the whale in various ways to try to understand it. What is interesting is that among the scattered and seemingly chaotic collection of bits and pieces of knowledge about the whale, “Extracts” seems preoccupied with the image of the open, devouring, and destructive jaws of the gigantic fish; the first page begins with the terrifying image of a whale swallowing up Jonah, and ends on the last page with the yawning mouth of the whale: “…he saw the distended jaws of a large Sperm Whale…threatening it with instant destruction…” (lii) The whale’s mouth functions to render it monstrous, and consequently the mouth becomes a location of both horror and fascination, a theme that continues throughout the novel as it delves deeper into the voyage.

If we think of “eating” and “consumption” as epistemology, then the site of the mouth becomes paradoxical and convoluted. For example, in the chapter “The Whale as a Dish,” Ishmael tries to understand the whale itself as an object of consumption… but he also tries to understand Stubb (the eater) by ruminating on the eaten. To put it roughly, I think the chapter (as well as various other chapters in the book, like the clam chowder scene where Ishmael reflects on how eating clams and cod so frequently made people turn into the same essence of their food) is pondering the notion of “You are what you eat.” It is here that Ishmael asks the infamous question: “Who is not a cannibal?” There’s the sense that – on one hand, consumption provides the structural binary with which to understand the cosmos, but on the other hand, it (especially through the idea of cannibalism) uncomfortably blurs the binary and seems to suggest that you really can’t know anything, because the structure doesn’t hold. So…I think on one level, we can see Pequod’s quest to capture the whale for societal/economic consumption, and Ahab’s vengeful desire to “strike through the pasteboard mask,” and Ishmael’s longing to digest his experience to find meaning – these can be seen as cannibalistic ventures of sorts.

Consumption in the novel functions to reveal the deeply unsettling anxiety of the book, which is the question as to whether man can truly unveil the secrets of the universe by embarking on a journey of discovery and self-discovery. If man is stripped of the reasonable and protective, epistemological structure of duality, and attempts to “unscrew his own navel” (taken from “The Doubloon”: “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?”) to dismember, and ultimately devour, himself, he finds himself in the eternal and vicious vortex of cannibalism. And that’s how the journey ends – with a vortex: “Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion….”

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