Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. [Photo: New York Times]

Tristin Lowe’s life-sized sculpture Mocha Dick, executed in industrial felt covering a specially designed balloon, is tribute to the whale that served as one of the inspirations for Melville’s Moby-Dick. You’ll have to travel south of New York to Philadelphia to see it, though: it’s on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, which is devoted to “creating and exhibiting new work in new materials and new media in
collaboration with emerging and established international artists.” 

The whale Mocha Dick terrorized sailors in the waters near Mocha Island off the coast of southern Chile in the early nineteenth century, and he was, according to legend, almost entirely white. You can read first-hand accounts of the whale in a piece by the explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds
entitled “Mocha Dick: Or The White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a
Manuscript Journa
l” and published in the May 1839 issue of The Knickerbocker magazine. Reynolds notes one unusual feature of this particular sperm whale:

Viewed from a distance,
the practised eye of the sailor only could decide, that the
moving mass, which constituted this enormous animal, was not a
white cloud sailing along the horizon. On the spermaceti whale,
barnacles are rarely discovered; but upon the head of this
lusus naturae, they had clustered, until it became
absolutely rugged with the shells. In short, regard him as you
would, he was a most extraordinary fish; or, in the vernacular of
Nantucket, “a genuine old sog”, of the first water.

The barnacles feature prominently in Lowe’s depiction of the whale. According to The Artblog, “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.” [You can read their full account of the sculpture here.]


Mocha Dick, detail. [Photo from The Artsblog]

The entry devoted to Reynold’s account at reminds us of Herman Beaver’s theory of how “Mocha Dick” became “Moby Dick”:

“By July 1846 even the Knickerbocker Magazine had
forgotten its earlier version [of Reynold’s article], reminding
its readers of ‘the sketch of “Mocha Dick, of the
published in the Knickerbocker many years
ago…’. That account may well have led Melville to look up the
earlier issue, in the very month he rediscovered his lost buddy
of the Acushnet and fellow deserter on the Marquesas,
Richard Tobias Greene, and began ‘The Story of Toby’ [the sequel
to Typee]. May not ‘Toby Dick’ then have elided with
‘Mocha Dick’ to form that one euphonious compound, ‘Moby Dick’?”

If you’re interested in venturing down to Philly to see Mocha Dick, take a look at this recent New York Times article, which discusses a variety of exhibitions currently on view in the city.