Tristin Lowe

Tristin Lowe, "Mocha Dick"
Tristin Lowe, in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia, Mocha Dick, 2009. Wool felt, vinyl coated fabric armature, and internal fan. 126 x 180 x 624 inches. Collection of the West Collection at SEI. Photo Credit: Will Brown.

Tristin Lowe’s Alice is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as well as more general ideas about the role of fairytales as stories that inspire curiosity and wonder. He began to develop the idea for Alice after reading Carroll’s book, and further expanded his ideas after subsequent visits to the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where Lowe studied the first draft of Alice in Wonderland, along with many of the author’s letters, paintings, and early photographs. Lowe learned of Carroll’s background as a mathematician at Oxford University who began accompanying an Oxford dean and his children—one of whom was named Alice—on canoe trips and picnics. Carroll made up stories to entertain the children along the way, and one of these he later published as Alice in Wonderland.

Lowe was intrigued by the mythology surrounding the gifted yet purportedly reclusive and deviant Carroll, who was said to be more at home with children than with adults. The feeling of curiosity and surprise that the story of Carroll’s Alice evokes in its readers matched Lowe’s own artistic preoccupations. A driving impulse in the artist’s work is a desire to experiment with “non-art” materials (balloons, motors, kickballs filled with concrete) in part to unburden himself from the weight of art history, but also to intrigue, surprise, and challenge the viewer with the spectacle of these often awkward materials and ideas.

Lowe’s Alice is a 23-foot inflatable, vinyl-coated fabric, bright blue girl. She is unclothed, with shoulder length hair surrounding a face defined by one large eye. The sculpture, which was made in an edition of two, is a blow-up figure, evoking Carroll’s Alice who grows and shrinks depending on the food or potions she imbibes. Alice, like her fairytale counterpart, offers a rich metaphor for the universally fraught transition from childhood to adulthood. This blue stand-in for a child is full of ambivalent yet intriguing qualities—she is sexually undeveloped (yet in many cases Lowe installs the two Alices together in what are unmistakably sexualized poses), larger than life in scale, at once naïve and terrifying. Her single eye—reminiscent of the rabbit’s hole that begins Alice’s journey of self-discovery—references an Eastern spiritual concept of the mind’s eye, or the unconscious, unexplored territory within ever y individual.

Tristin Lowe collaborated with FWM’s studio staff to create the 52-foot-long sculpture Mocha Dick (2009), a re-creation of the real-life albino sperm whale that terrorized early nineteenth-century whaling expeditions near Mocha Island in the South Pacific. An 1839 article in The Knickerbocker magazine chronicled Mocha Dick’s notorious attacks and unique appearance: “As white as wool…as white as a snowdrift…white as the surf around him.” This detail is especially striking because sperm whales are normally dark gray, brown, or black. Ultimately, this legendary and elusive whale inspired Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick (1851).

For his sculptural interpretation, Lowe drew from Mocha Dick’s name, anatomy, and color, as well as Melville’s novel and maritime history. He worked with FWM to build a large-scale vinyl inflatable understructure sheathed in white industrial felt. The completed sculpture weighed approximately seven hundred pounds. Clusters of appliquéd barnacles cover the whale’s body and scar-like stitches zigzag across its surface. These naturalistic embellishments reference the beleaguered whale’s years at sea.

Artist Bio

Tristin Lowe (American, born 1966)