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The "Whale" Sculpture is Swimming Out

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

By Lucy Abigail Albright

Photo by Tyler Thompson

Listen to the full interview with Rachel Owens:

After five years at Purchase, “Inveterate Composition for Clare,” a sculpture better known as “The Whale” among students, will leave campus. On Oct. 7, the beloved sculpture will return to the studio of its creator, Rachel Owens.

Associate Professor of Sculpture, Rachel Owens, constructed the work with the help of five Purchase students, and first put it on display in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza in 2011. Since then, it’s been displayed at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, and ended up at Purchase when Owens needed a place to store it. After about a year in storage, Owens put it in its current location, next to the Visual Arts building and the graveyard.

Ryan Brady, a music major in the studio production program, remembers being shown the sculpture during a college tour. They hope that a new piece of art will be put in to replace “The Whale,” and said that the empty space will bum people out.

“It’ll be kinda weird for tour guides, who will have to, kind of, glide past that area where they would have shown it off,” Brady said.

Made of replica military humvee parts and painted white, the 11 foot tall sculpture looks like an iceberg with tires, headlights and other vehicle parts sticking out of it. The sculpture plays a recording of whale song from a set of speakers inside, while the lights on its body dim and brighten.

Avery Schwarz, a visual arts and biology major, said he’s sad to see the sculpture go.

“I have a lot of fond memories of that statue,” Schwarz said, “especially when it was still operating and making all those sounds at night, just the atmosphere it created was really mysterious and weird.”

Photo by Tyler Thompson

“The Whale” doesn’t seem to be making sound as much as it used to, which Owens attributes to a possible problem with the timers inside the sculpture. These timers control when the speakers activate and sometimes need maintenance.

The sculpture has also gotten a bit of wear and tear over the years, both from the elements and from humans. Owens doesn’t mind when people climb the sculpture—or skateboard on it as they did in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza—as long as they don’t get hurt. Once it’s back in her studio, Owens plans to fix it up and find it a new long-term home.

Owens named “Inveterate Composition for Clare” in honor of Clare Weiss, who was the Public Art Curator for NYC Parks and the first curator Owens ever worked with. Weiss was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away while working on the project with Owens.

The work’s title is also in reference to the phrase “inveterate composer,” a term Owens found during her research which has been used to describe whales and their capacity for song.

Owens said that the sculpture’s themes deal with the connection between violence against humans and violence against the planet. She had the idea for the work around 2008, when she had been thinking about how the wars in the Middle East and climate change both relate to oil.

“I was really thinking about this bizarre, cyclical thing that was happening at the time, between the horrors of war and the direct connection to the consumption of oil,” Owens said.

And as early symbols for environmentalism, and sources of oil themselves, whales are a part of that legacy.

At Purchase, the sculpture has no plaque or sign, leaving its meaning and official name unknown to students. Owens said that because the installation at Purchase was somewhat ad-hoc, she never got around to putting one up, something she regrets. But to Owens, creating public art requires relinquishing control over the work and allowing people to interpret it themselves.

“Whether people get to my intended meaning or not, I think the work is effective,” Owens said. “It definitely charges that space. It captures people's imaginations in some way.”



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