A series of sculptures have been selected to commemorate the deeply emotive human history of Grytviken in South Georgia, once the largest centre of industrial whaling in the early 20th century. Designed by Scottish artist Michael Visocchi, the powerful commission is set to be one of the most remote art installations in the world.
Conservationists in South Georgia have recently witnessed the return of humpback whales, rare blue whales, and long-lost bird populations. But although South Georgia now brims with wildlife, for decades the site was used to process whale meat. Even the local bird species was decimated by infected rodents that came off the whaling boats.
It is this shift from exploitation to conservation that underlines Visocchi’s site-specific piece. Called ‘Commensalis: The spirit tables of South Georgia’, the huge installation involves many low, round tables that are encrusted with shining silver rivets. Each table will symbolise a species of whale that was slaughtered and processed on the island.
“Quite early on I made the connection between the rivets that hold the sites – and of course the whaling vessels – together, and how they resemble the barnacles [on whales’ skin],” explained Visocchi. “So, I used the rivet as a unit to express the numbers of whales taken and the number that have recovered.”
Visocchi’s artwork often reflects the human impact on habitat, using wood, metal, card, thread, paint, rope, and resin. In 2005, he became the youngest artist to be elected a member of the Royal Scottish Academy. Construction of the new stirring installation, which has been delayed due to coronavirus, will start in Autumn 2021.
In 2019, the international competition launched in search of a design that highlighted the incredible conservation work carried out on the sub-Atlantic island. “The competition was tough,” remarked Alison Neil, chief executive of the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT).
“But the entire judging panel was impressed by the level of research Michael had undertaken and were struck by how his concept so effectively captured the essence of the brief, which was to shine a light of hope onto what can often seem a bleak future for our environment.”
Since 2005, the SGHT has worked closely with the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands to restore the devastated ecosystem. Neil noted that the new installation will “sit at the heart of the work we are embarking on as part of a cultural heritage programme to tell the world more about the human story on South Georgia.”