Dreamcatcher Harpoon, 2010
5-channel video installation, glass, steel and wood
-text by Phillip Deen, Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Wellesley College, “Calculated Risks,” the Davis, 2010. 56-60
Plato drew a sharp battle-line between philosophy and art when he claimed that, while both reveal Truth, only the philosophers could give a rational account of it. The artists were only half-mad vessels of muses and gods, unable to articulate and, therefore, to know. Philosophers claimed to have risen from μῦ to λόγος, from myth
to discursive reason.
So there is something suspect and ultimately fruitless in asking a philosopher to speak about art. To the philosopher’s pretensions of fully articulated Truth, the artist replies that if what he wanted to express could be stated in words, there would be no need for the artwork.
Dreamcatcher Harpoon is crafted out of those things that lie on the other side of reason, openly frustrating our desire to make sense of it. The central image is that of the whale, reflecting Olsen’s time in the Pacific Northwest and the animal’s place in Native American myth. They are unhurried and timeless. They are not of this world, but wear the tattooed faces of the artist’s sister’s imaginary friends. They are a dramatis personae fashioned out of children’s fantasies before we have reached “the age of reason” and become accountable for what we do.
These mythological whales and childhood fantasies are threatened by our desire to know them. As we approach the central figure modeled on Herman Melville’s Ahab, a man driven to death and madness by obsession, chaos breaks out. When we look into the recess of Ahab’s heart, harpoons modeled on Native American dreamcatchers—originally designed to protect children against nightmares—race out to pierce the myth. The projected images roil. Recordings of Olsen’s and his sister’s childhoods scream out.
Recall Melville’s own description: “He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”1 And what lies in his chest? The secret that Ahab keeps hidden in his heart is the whale itself, suspended. Ahab’s desire strikes out at its twin and we, trying to understand madness, childhood, and myth, enact a violence of our own.
1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick or, The Whale (New York: Penguin Classics, 2002), 200.