Biography of a Whale

Gabriel Orozco. Installation view of Mobile Matrix (2006) at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Graphite on gray whale skeleton. Biblioteca Vasconcelos, Mexico City. Photo: Charles Watlington. © 2010 Gabriel Orozco

Every work at a museum may compel a viewer to wonder how it was made or where it came from. However, there are some works whose genesis provokes a special degree of collective fascination. Gabriel Orozco’s Mobile Matrix, currently on view in MoMA’s Gabriel Orozco exhibition, is one such work.

Currently gracing MoMA’s atrium, this whale skeleton is the centerpiece of this important Mexican artist’s retrospective and will be discussed in great detail at a panel at MoMA on February 9. The panel will bring together the artist; museum curator and anthropologist Marco Barrera Bassols, who helped engineer the production of the piece; and art historian Molly Nesbit, to expound on Orozco’s work in the public space. This is a rare opportunity to get a “behind-the-scenes” look at the creation of a major artwork.

Gabriel Orozco. Whale in the Sand. 2006. Chromogenic color print. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. © 2010 Gabriel Orozco

This whale has experienced many journeys, in life as well as in death. An Eschrichtius robustus or gray whale, belonging to the suborder of baleen whales, this marine mammal once measured around 44 feet in length and weighed around 30 tons. According to Marco Barrera, Eschrichtius (we will just give him this name) was likely born in Scammon’s Lagoon, also known as Laguna Ojo de Liebre, in Guerrero Negro, Baja California—along the Mexican Pacific coast—an area where these whales come to give birth and teach their calves to swim and survive. Whales are migratory mammals, and Eschrichtius likely made an annual trip to the Chukchi Sea in Alaska (a 10,000-mile distance). In December 2004, he set off, along with thousands of other whale colleagues, on the return trip back to the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur. Unfortunately, some time around May 4, 2005, Eschrichtius died as a young adult near Isla Arena in Guerrero Negro, where he beached himself.

“Judging from the calcification of the cervical bones,” Marco Barrera writes, “we can be pretty sure that the whale had lost mobility and this caused it to drown. This kind of calcification amongst whales is common from bumping their head onto the keel of a ship.”

Usually that’s where most whales’ stories end, but Eschrichtius could have never anticipated what was in store for him next. On February 8, 2006, his remains were rescued by a team of specialists who, after obtaining permission from the Mexican authorities, picked up his 163 bones and extracted their natural oils—whale skeletons have a lot of grease inside. (Once the oil is extracted, however, whale skeletons are relatively light compared to the bones of large land mammals, since in the water they don’t have to support the full weight of the animal’s internal organs.)

Over the course of the following year, 6,000 pencils were employed under Orozco’s supervision to create the concentric circles on the skeleton, and a metal armature was created to reassemble the structure. After that, and now with a new name, Mobile Matrix, Eschrichtius hung for three years in the central lobby of the vast Biblioteca José Vasconcelos in Mexico City until his presence was requested in MoMA’s atrium. Eschrichtius’s trip from Mexico City to New York was thankfully a relatively uneventful journey. There is of course the return trip, but knowing that this whale has had plenty of experience traveling long distances, this may not be much of a challenge.