Large art project celebrates whale protection around South Georgia | Polarjournal
This is how Scottish artist Michael Visocchi and the South Georgia Heritage Trust envision the installation: large steel tables, each with steel rivets representing a live whale per rivet. But proportionally, areas will be free for the whales killed. The whole installation will be set up in Grytviken, formerly the largest whaling station. Image: Adam Proctor

The history of Antarctica and its exploration is closely linked to whaling. This becomes particularly clear during a visit to South Georgia, as this was once a center of whaling and over 175,000 animals of various species were killed in the region and processed here. However, thanks to intensive conservation efforts, numbers are slowly on the rise again. A major art project now aims to celebrate this success while inspiring visitors to the island to protect the large marine mammals and the environment.

Six large, rust-colored tables, on which steel rivets stand for each whale alive again today and also for the whales killed around South Georgia, and a table showing the proportions of each whale caught around South Georgia, and all of it set up in Grytviken, the center of industrial whaling in the Atlantic sector of the Antarctic, this is the installation project “Commensalis” by Scottish artist Michael Visocchi, the South Georgia Heritage Trust SGHT and the administration of South Georgia GSGSSI. This is not only to commemorate the history of whaling in South Georgia, but more importantly to show the recovery of whale species in the region. At the same time, the project is also intended to promote the still necessary protection of the large marine mammals among visitors.

The GSGSSI and the SGHT had called for an international competition to celebrate the successes of conservation efforts around the island. Because these had contributed considerably to the fact that South Georgia became again a nature paradise, on which seals, penguins and numerous bird species could take their places. Around the island, too, the large marine mammals slowly returned after the gruesome whaling decades. Around 150 international artists responded to the call and submitted their projects. Michael Visocchi, who lives and works in Scotland, convinced the jury of experts with his project “Commensalis”, which he had designed since 2019. According to the artist, the name is derived from the biological term “commensalism”, which describes the relationship of two organisms in which both sides benefit from each other. “The term comes from Latin and means “eating from the same table,”” Michael Visocchi explains. “With this I want to propose how we should interact with nature and our environment.” After being selected, Michael Visocchi was able to spend several weeks in Grytviken, where he was inspired by the atmosphere and the environment.

Designed by Michael Visocchi, the “Spirit Tables,” named in reference to the spirits of whales killed and the history of whaling still felt on South Georgia, will be erected at the site in Grytviken where the whales had once been landed. The tables, which are between 5 and 7.5 meters in diameter, are placed at an angle and thus rise only up to 1.3 meters in height. “I wanted something that was low, so it wouldn’t interrupt the view of the skyline of the site,” Michael Visocchi explains in a video. “Because it’s a heritage area.” The tables are arranged in such a way that visitors can easily look at the steel rivets specifically arranged for each species and at data written on the edges of the tables. Here, the arrangement of the rivets represents specific meanings of the individual species. For example, the rivets on humpback whales are arranged in a spiral and represent the bubble net that the animals use to hunt their prey. The rivets are also the link between the station and the whales: “The rivets hold the place together and also resemble the whales’ follicles on their skin,” Visocchi says. Each rivet can be sponsored by a donation, with three different amounts that also have a specific meaning. Each person will be assigned a specific steel rivet, ensuring a permanent presence on South Georgia for as long as the installation exists.

For many decades, South Georgia stood not as an example of successful conservation, but as a monument to the reckless exploitation of natural resources. For as early as the 1820s, sealers were on the island here to hunt fur seals. Whalers also came to the region, lured by the reports of fur hunters. With the advent of explosive harpoons, fast ships and not least the construction of the first large whaling station Grytviken, the systematic hunting of whales began. However, after only a few decades, populations came to the brink of extinction in the region. When the last station closed in the mid-1960s, 175,250 whales had been killed and processed. In addition, reindeer, rats and mice had been brought to the island, causing massive damage to bird species and plants. However, thanks to the most intensive conservation efforts on the part of the SGHT and the GSGSSI, this damage was slowly repaired, the pests were removed and the nature of South Georgia was restored to its original diversity. This success, which also benefits visitors to the island, will receive a worthy representation with the “Commensalis” project.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the SGHT donation pagefor “Commensalis

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