In the cold rain, the Captain Boomer Collective and I are roaming the wild beaches on the right bank of the Vistula River, wondering which spot will be best for displaying the 15-metre sperm whale.
“Great view,” says Bart. We are standing on the shore, near the Zoo, opposite Warsaw’s Old and New Towns. “If we placed the whale here, the photos would be great. Spectacular.”
It’s the second half of October 2017, a cool, windless, grey day. Bart, Stijn and Beata from the Belgian artistic collective Captain Boomer came to Warsaw to choose a place for their fake whale. They are planning to bring it on a truck in December. It’d be good if the location was picturesque, but it should also be easily accessible. The fibreglass statue of the marine mammal must somehow be delivered to the very edge of the water. It is not too heavy (it weighs no more than a tonne), but it is very long, 15 metres. It is transported in one piece.
“Our first whale was in three parts,” says Stijn. “It was easier to transport it. However, we always had a problem with concealing the connections. We draped it in ropes, tried various tricks.”
Łukasz Kaniewski: What happened to it?
We showed the statue in a few places, and then we gave it to other artists who took it to the Venice Biennale. They had this idea that they would live in it. That first whale did not gain much recognition, but funnily enough, as soon as we gave it away, some people from London called us – they really wanted us to show it by the Thames. We had to make another one. And actually, our venture began to be well known ever since that show in London.
How do people react when they see a sperm whale beached on the river? Do they believe, even for a moment, that it is real?
It’s unbelievable, but even if people know in advance that the whale is artificial, they often start to believe it is real on the spot.
How is that possible?
They are convinced by two things. The first is the smell. We use fish sauce and fish scraps, there is room for them in the belly of the whale. And the second thing is the scientists. There is probably nothing in the modern world that enjoys greater authority than science. And if the audience sees people in white hazmat suits, with research and disinfection apparatus, they begin to trust what they see. Some people’s minds switch between faith and disbelief several times. They are sceptical, but they can feel the smell, talk to the quasi-scientists, and they begin to think it’s true.
Do the actors deceive them?
Not really. Usually, people who come to see the whale ask the basic question: “Is it real?” But our ‘scientists’ do not answer directly. Instead, they say, for example: “Water washed him ashore in the morning, we suspect that there is a second whale in the river.” We present a fable and people want to believe in it.
In Paris, the whale was not even placed on the beach, but on a stone boulevard. And still, people thought it was a real animal?
Yeah. Of course, beach scenery is more realistic, because whales often go out on the sand for reasons that are not fully understood. But all you have to do is come up with a story that, let’s say, it was found dead in the river, so we pulled him out. And many people will believe it. In Paris, moreover, we observed the strongest emotional response – one girl was simply devastated by the view, we had to take her aside and explain that it was just theatre. The actors who work with us are always careful not to cross a certain line. They have to show great empathy, it’s more important than acting skills.
And people don’t blame you for tricking them?
Yes, it happens. Conservative people in particular are sometimes angry that we’ve ‘mocked’ them. But most understand that this is street theatre, that the perimeter security tape separating the whale from the public in fact separates the area of the stage. We don’t even care if someone is angry with us; someone’s anger is theirs, not ours.
We are walking on the beach. Heavy rain begins to fall. At this moment a boat arrives to take us to the second beach, near Poniatowski Bridge. Our interlocutors laugh with surprise – they did not expect that we would offer them a trip in an open boat during a downpour. We didn’t expect it either; no one expected rainfall. The situation is a bit absurd: we travel, wet, eating sandwiches and tomatoes. It is hard to stop laughing. “This is traditional Polish hospitality,” we explain to our guests. When we disembark onto the sand by the Poniatowski Bridge, we are already completely soaked.
“This beach doesn’t have such a beautiful view,” say the Belgians.
“But it is located centrally and has better access, more people will be able to get here and see the whale in person,” we explain.
“Yes, that’s important, too. So you have to think about what is more important to you: the photos that will appear in the media, or the possibility for people to participate.”
We desperately want to dry ourselves, so we go to a nearby café, where we can warm up and continue our conversation.
And the children? How do children react?
They are great recipients. Adults often focus on the ecological aspect of the message: when they see a whale washed ashore, they think primarily about human interference in the natural environment, how many whales have been exterminated, climate change, etc. Of course, this is an important context, but not the only one. Children look at the whale without ecological awareness and without feeling guilty. Their experience is more primitive.
What do you mean?
Children see the animal. Coming across such a large creature is a mystical experience for them. They see a whale, but it is not in the water – they understand that it has been deprived of its natural surroundings. They begin to understand that it is dead. They are confronted with mortality. It’s a powerful message. Whenever such a great creature washed ashore, it was an extraordinary event for the entire community, the depths of the water revealing some of its hidden secrets. This childish reception has some of this experience.
In addition, the children are not afraid to ask questions. When we were showing the whale in Germany, we had a situation where people came and watched but didn’t ask about anything; it was characteristic of this country. The viewers just stood there. A child broke this silence, approached the actors, and asked questions. And the adults came along, they still did not speak, but listened to the conversation between the child and our ‘scientist’.
Where did the idea for this artistic action come from?
It’s hard for me to say. It came to my mind and I was struck by the potential strength of such a staged situation, the multitude of meanings and reactions. I told my friends about it on New Year’s Eve and everyone burst out with enthusiasm, began to chant “whale, whale”. And then there was no turning back. Our late friend, the sculptor Dirk Claessens, got down to work and constructed the first whale. He also made the second one.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel
On 27th March 2020, a short documentary film The Whale based on those events will be screened in Sebastopol, California, as part of the Sebastopol Film Festival.