A Whale of a Tale

It wasn't deliberate, but several artists have been united by their affinity with whales - Charles Anderson reports.

At Sir Geoffrey Palmer's Wellington golf club, more people remark to him about the need to save whales than they do about the problems with alcohol reform.

Whales are rooted strongly in the feelings of people, New Zealand's representative on the International Whaling Commission says. They are mammals like us, but we know so little about them.

Until the 1970s, the great whales had rarely been filmed below water. We do not understand their strange language of clicks and groans. We marvel at the leaping of humpback whales without knowing why they do it. We do not even know how long they live. What we do know is that whales are very, very big.

Suter Gallery curator Anna-Marie White was listening to Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand one morning when a writer with a profound interest in whales began to speak. "I was absolutely captivated," she recalls.

The speaker was Philip Hoare, the author of Leviathan, or The Whale, a part memoir, part travelogue, part literary critique, which explores the gaps in our knowledge about whales and why a fascination for them endures.

Several days after that interview, Golden Bay artist Robin Slow was recounting to Ms White his experience of the Whale Watch in Kaikoura.

She told Slow, who has been witness to several whale strandings, to read the book. He came back with a wall full of inspiration.

When Sally Burton is struggling to sleep, she thinks of humpback whales suspended upside down and vertical off the Kaikoura coast. It brings a measure of peace, she says.

Before Ms White knew, the stars were lining up. Alfred Memelink, of Christchurch, phoned her to say he was working on a series based on whales. She knew that Steve Fullmer was also working on a series based on whales.

"Everyone was doing it, so I knew we had to bring them all together."

The result is Tohara Whales, artists respond to whale stories. The exhibition features eight New Zealand artists who are inspired by whale tales from Maori legends to Moby Dick and, more recently, coverage of the anti-whaling protests in the Southern seas.

Ms White wrote to Phillip Hoare asking if she could use extracts from his book to help explain some of the subject matter in the show. He wrote back an entire introduction for it.
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All the artists have their own whale stories.

Memelink's first recollection of whale art was a painting he did in primary school. He says he always felt an affinity with the mammals.

"I have got the sea in my blood. I need to be at sea and get frustrated if I'm on land for any amount of time."

Memelink, a marine engineer by trade, has travelled to Antarctica twice on research trips.

That was the first time he saw whales close up. Two blue whales came to feed on krill off the side of their boat.

"That was just an amazing experience. It was rare sight."

Those sights, whales free beneath the ocean, are now rendered in water colour.

Carver Brian Flintoff always had a fascination with whales and kept a wishful look out for them his whole life. However, he was in his 40s before he saw his first spout. Some of his carvings in the exhibition he never expected to see again. They belong to "two of the most powerful people in the South Island", according to Ms White.

Sir Geoffrey, at the exhibition opening last week, said a measure of wonder with whales was hardly avoidable.

"We think they are like us."

But there is also a measure of guilt. Whale oil fueled the entire industrialisation of whale hunting. The scent of burning whale oil from street lamps once pervaded the streets of London.

Whale oil greased the wheels of the industrial revolution, and New Englanders found an ingenious way of turning the whale's baleen or feeding apparatus into umbrellas. The consumer age left practically no part of the whale unused.

Now artists have used their fair measure of inspiration from the whale as well.

* Tohora Whales, artists respond to whale stories is at the Suter Gallery until February 20, 2010.


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