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Tristin Lowe: Big Mocha Dick at the FWM


May 7, 2009   ·   28 Comments

Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, industrial felt over inflated form

The body is a trickster in the art of Tristin Lowe–it inflates, it deflates, beyond the owner’s control. It’s all a little embarrassing. And yet it’s not to be dismissed or ignored–so much ourselves and so much something beyond our control.

Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, industrial felt over inflated form

Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, industrial felt over inflated form

But Lowe’s whale, Mocha Dick, which debuted at the Fabric Workshop and Museum Friday, swims well beyond the limits of body metaphors. Lowe’s bad-boy charm of deliberately frayed construction and abject, self-deprecating forms of macho has been replaced here by a Blake-ian respect. Mocha Dick is like William Blake’s Tyger, at once admired, feared, and wondered at. Yet Mocha doesn’t pretend to be divine in the way it was fashioned, but rather was made by basic fabric and sewing.

Mocha Dick’s scale–based on the real-life scale of today’s sperm whale population (a 52-foot monster, considerably smaller than some of the 85-foot whale skeletons that we have from the past, according to Lowe, who is up on his whale facts as well as his Melville), turns us humans filling the gallery into an army Lilliputians. And like all armies, we have wreaked destruction with our dominance.

Tristin Low, Mocha Dick, view of barnacles on front

Tristin Low, Mocha Dick, view of barnacles, zipped seams and zigzag-stitched wrinkles

Lowe’s white whale is a thick-hided creature of industrial-strength felt. The hide covers an inflatable designed by Lowe. The covering was designed like a dress pattern, with zipper seams providing a means of dressing the balloon as well as delivering a sense of form and style.

Tristin Lowe, detail of barnacles, Mocha Dick

Tristin Lowe, detail of barnacles, Mocha Dick

Terraced scars are carved into the felt, and zig-zag in stitches across the body. Beautiful barnacles are appliqued, flowering across the old survivor’s skin in colonies.  In Melville and in Lowe, it is man’s nemesis, man’s alter-ego, and the engine of man’s greatest folly.

He is named in part after Mocha Island, near where the original inspiration for Moby Dick terrorized whalers. I suppose we can also presume, given Lowe’s sense of humor, that the Dick part of the name was retained as a salute to the whale’s maleness. By the way, if you haven’t read the In the Heart of the Sea, by Nathaniel Philbrick, which retells the facts behind Moby Dick as it examines the 19th century whaling industry, check it out. It’s full of shocking details as well as a warty picture of a society’s time of prosperity–and the price it paid.

Tristin Lowe,  Mocha Dick, front view showing eye and fin

Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, front view showing eye and fin

Another fact from Lowe’s compendium of whale facts (he’s like one of Melville’s cetology chapters once you get him going), which he shared at the opening night artist’s walk-through: The whale has a 20-pound-plus brain. Now there’s a metaphor for you. We and the whale, for all our braininess, are out of our depth!

“The whale is not beached,” said Lowe on opening night, Friday, explaining that he was trying to create an experience of The Other. Me, I can see that, but I can also see that he has created an experience of The Other in ourselves.

So in this Lowe has created with the Sublime of the whale that same sort of self-horror that inhabits the other extreme of his art-making.

Tristin Lowe, Alice, 1998

Tristin Lowe, Alice, 1998, image from XConnect,

This is the Philadelphia artist’s second FWM collaboration. The other, in 1998, resulted in a giant, fan-inflated naked, blue girl named Alice, with one giant eye for a face.

In addition to the Fabric Workshop creation, Lowe will also be exhibiting other works about the folly of what it means to be human, also in felt, at Fleisher/Ollman in a show with Paul Swenbeck, opening May 14.

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28 Responses to “Tristin Lowe: Big Mocha Dick at the FWM”

  1. Meg DC says:

    Author Gary Dexter wrote about how Moby Dick got his name. There was a real whale named Mocha Dick. For the whole story, see

  2. Jen Z says:

    This whale is amazing – so much about the Sublime and the Gigantic seem to be tied up here – we are miniaturized in relation to it – like the Lilliputians, as Libby mentions, an as such have to come to terms with our more insignificant role. So the whale is not beached, and is maybe even being kept alive by the internal fans inflating the inner ballon — this all reminds me of what Susan Stewart writes: “The confontation of so much life results in an experience of profound aloneness…” Of course, the catch here is that humans did kill this whale eventually. So much to think about, it’s keeping me up at night!

  3. libby says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Meg. The Mocha came from the island named Mocha Island, near where the combative whale hung out.

  4. libby says:

    There’s another catch–we are destroying life all around us. And soon we will destroy ourselves, at the rate we are going. We’ll have to look to the universe for the sublime. In a way, I think that’s why we see so many paintings with crystals in the sky. It’s about the search for the sublime beyond the Earth, which soon will no longer be able to supply sublime experiences.

  5. GIERSCHICK says:

    The search for the “sublime beyond the Earth” can go either the way you state – towards the universe, the macro-direction – or the micro-direction, to the universe within ourselves. (Or The Other in ourselves, as you said it, Libby.) This is another reading of the use of the body in Lowe’s work; thus the monumental size has less to do with intimidation, and more with the enormity of the space it takes up in our identity and consciousness. In other words, it’s not just a physical monumentality, it’s a psychological and spiritual monumentality. One is often a metaphor for the other.

  6. libby says:

    Well said. I totally agree. And I love the added layer of psychological and spiritual monumentality, although in some sense, I think Lowe is always stepping back from that interior monumentality, creating an ambiguity and having it both ways–man as less and man as more.

  7. roberta says:

    Also at the opening, Tristin said his use of of the material, felt, was about stillness. He called felt “stiller than still.” It’s a material whose dense, matte seductiveness goes well with this blindingly white object. People were having trouble keeping their hands off the whale. (You are allowed to touch the little “moon rock” of ambergris that’s on the floor if you want to feel what the whale feels like).

    Tristin also talked about whales deep diving and being able to stand the pressures of the deep sea which he said have been compared to having four jumbo jets on your back. Stillness and strength under pressure — sounds like characteristics of a Zen master.

    Whales like all animals are pretty un-knowable. If Tristin had made a gigantic white felt Captain Ahab that’s somehow easier to get your head around as a symbol and an object. But a big white whale will always take us to places where we can think thoughts about the wonders of the universe and that’s pretty spiritual.

  8. libby says:

    Somehow, the whale seems friendlier than the alien deep-sea origins. We did, after all, want to touch it, partly because the material turned it into a jumbo stuffed animal. But of course the playfulness was nearly an aside, making the fearsomeness of the creature easy to swallow, easy to contemplate. On an aesthetic note, the shape of the whale is beautiful–the drape of its tail and flippers. The white felt dryness and absorbency reminds me of the powdered pigment ohms of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures, where negative and positive impressions of space vibrate back and forth until you’re not sure just whether you’re looking at a hole or a circle. There’s some more Zen for you.

  9. That’s huge. Its really cool for me to see how those create and design things that are larger then life because I have great interest in stage design.

  10. libby says:

    Hi, Anthony, Tristin has long used inflatables. Some of them are pretty hilarious and aggressively low-tech, with the fan source right out in the open, pushing air into some kind of shaped balloon. Good luck with the stage design! The theater I often go to, the Arden,, creates some madly inventive effects with a minimum of fuss! Often the plays are worth seeing for the sets alone.

  11. […] “Mocha Dick” fixes that. Sewn in quarter-inch white felt, this 52-foot inflatable sculpture is a life-size depiction of the rogue white sperm whale for which Moby Dick is thought to have been […]

  12. […] [2] More of Lowe’s finely made, full-scale felt sculptures were on view at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. The works there relating to Mocha Dick prompted similar feeling of unlikely confrontation. Lowe’s quotidian objects, such as a chair and whiskey bottle, also on view, emphasized the beauty of his handiwork and suggested a softer, even tired, version of reality. Also see Libby’s review of the FWM show. […]

  13. […] Lowe is the artist behind this 50-foot whale made of industrial felt over an inflatable form. No jokes about the name, please. Via […]

  14. […] Lowe is the artist behind this 50-foot whale made of industrial felt over an inflatable form. No jokes about the name, please. Via […]

  15. […] Lowe is the artist behind this 50-foot whale made of industrial felt over an inflatable form. No jokes about the name, please. Via […]

  16. Zoe Strauss says:

    This is a beautiful and awe-inspiring piece.

  17. […] What an enormous undertaking, creating this 52-foot Whale out of Industrial Felt and the details throughout this sculpture are incredible.  Tristin did use an inflatable base as the armature for this wonder.  The use of Industrial Felt is just in its childhood as far as creating awesome items like this Whale.  Artists are discovering that felt is realistic, durable and tactile for many applications.  There is a fascinating article about Tristin Lowe and Big Mocha Dick on “The Art Blog” […]

  18. libby says:

    Awe-inspiring as much for its scale as for its details and the way they were sewn in. Amazing!!!!

  19. […] out there in the world of marine handicrafts. I wish I was in Philadelphia right now to view Tristan Lowe’s incredible 50-foot felt whale at the Fabric Workshop and […]

  20. […] whale is called Mocha Dick after the supposedly-real whale that inspired Moby […]

  21. […] stole some pictures from this wonderful blog, whose authors did a much better job of describing the artist, his work, and the details of Mocha […]

  22. […] hat Lowe deutlich in Filz hervorgehoben. Und Roberta Fallon & Libby Rosof vom Artblog finden in Tristin Lowe: Big Mocha Dick at the FWM: Terraced scars are carved into the felt, and zig-zag in stitches across the body. Beautiful […]

  23. […] More info. #gallery-1 { margin: auto; } #gallery-1 .gallery-item { float: left; margin-top: 10px; text-align: center; width: 50%; } #gallery-1 img { border: 2px solid #cfcfcf; } #gallery-1 .gallery-caption { margin-left: 0; } […]

  24. […] Art Imitates Art: Tristin Lowe’s Inflatable Fabric Whale – Tristin Lowe, an artist based in Philadelphia, unveiled a massive project earlier this […]

  25. […] of art that I wanted to know more about.  My favorite was the Fabric art of Tristin Lowe called Mocha Dick.  I couldn’t believe the enormousness of the whale and the materials used to make it.  It […]

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