If you head south onto Viale Stefano Franscini in Lugano, Switzerland at rush hour, you might expect traffic to pile up. But not whales.
Without a seashore in sight, the lakeside city now boasts the newest mural from the dynamic Ticino street art duo Nevercrew, commissioned by Arte Urbana Lugano. Finished in August 2020 and covering the cream-colour canvas of a five story building, the arresting Close Up features a stack of eight amazingly realistic sperm and humpback whales of varying sizes, all piled one atop another. The painting leaps three dimensionally off the side of the building, and the largest of three whales protrude from an aquarium-like block of turquoise water. They look magnificent, but the effect of whales balanced one atop another, some seemingly stuck in a geometric container too small for their size, makes them look most of all uncomfortable – and in danger of collapse.
It’s the uncomfortable and impinging constraints that human activity forces on the natural world that Nevercrew artists Pablo Togni and Christian Rebecchi have evoked in their open-air artworks created around the world. On the banks of the Ganges, in Varanasi, India Deflated depicts a blue shell of a fish, looking almost like a crushed plastic bottle that’s been tossed aside, with another fish trapped inside. Tide, in Bayonne, France shows another uncomfortable stack of slightly bubblier looking whales, and even without the geometric visual clues it’s clear they’re being dropped into a space – say, a tin of sardines – much too small for them. And in the disturbing Celsius, an amazing thermochromic mural in Spazio Morel, Lugano that reacts to temperature change, a black humpback whale becomes cadaverous, its skeleton poking through, when the ambient heat rises to 31°.
Though bears are another frequently depicted animal in works like Black Machine, for artists evoking the balance – or imbalance – between the human and animal worlds, it’s no surprise that whales for them are a sort of totemic animal. Whales play a crucial role in the global climate that scientists have only begun to uncover in the last decade. By fertilizing the oceans’ photic zone near the surface with minerals from below and their own faecal plumes – aka whale poo – whales stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, whose photosynthetic powers are massively important to making life inhabitable on earth. And their significance dwarfs even that of the largest forests. According to the IMF, phytoplankton contributes at least 50% of the oxygen to our atmosphere, and captures 40% of the CO2, the equivalent of 1.7 trillion trees, or four Amazon rainforests.
With whales as essential gardeners for worldwide phytoplankton, the health of the whale population, as Nevercrew suggests in their description of another whale-inspired work, Disposing Machine n°2 (New Zealand), can serve as a sort of litmus test not only for the health of the seas, but our entire global ecosystem.
And, of course, the biggest threat to the whale population is humans. The era of big whaling identified with Moby Dick is mostly behind us, but those centuries of commercial hunting, plus ship strikes, noise pollution, non-degradable synthetic fishing nets and waterborne plastic waste means their numbers still hover around one quarter of what they once were, and drastically less for certain species. Human activity, as Nevercrew shows, compresses and constraints these mighty animals, to the detriment of us all.
But looked at another way, Nevercrew’s work may depict a message of hope – or at least the possibility of reversing our negative impact. Cool down Celsius, and the full-fleshed whale reappears; inflate Deflated, and the fish has room to move; look up, and the whales in Tide seem to be rising, reclaiming air and space. By choosing to restrain our dangerous human activities like hunting and polluting the seas with plastic, can we succeed in giving back to whales – and thus ourselves – room to move and breathe?
See Close Up, in Lugano, Switzerland, on Viale Stefano Franscini (geo coordinates 46°00’40.3″N 8°57’16.4″E). And then decide.