Second Kiss

Second Kiss is a piece that was partially a reaction to some of the feedback I received for First Kiss.

Its also your typical love story: boy meets shark….

When I completed First Kiss, I ran into a certain amount of criticism, because there exists a whole side-industry within the art world that is centered around marine life, and especially humpback whales as subject matter. The primary culprits behind this trend are this fella and this guy. Whatever your opinion of Wyland and Nelson, you have to admire their dedication, business sense, and prolific portfolios. However, if you get caught doing a representational sculpture of a humpback whale while still in art school, be prepared for the long knives. Many of my fellow art students saw First Kiss as an attempt to capitalize on an existing trend, and found it conspicuously absent a prerequisite political, cynical or abstract message. (or lack of message) First Kiss was, for me, the end result of quite a few years of study, and carried with it a deeper meaning that went far beyond economic opportunism, but in art school, sincere (and somewhat naive) narrative work is often frowned upon. After some pretty nasty critiques, I decided to tackle some similar content, but use a little bit more edge and nastiness, partially in an effort to convince my critics that I was in fact very sincere about this body of work.

Second Kiss was a very similar piece to First Kiss, with a similar narrative, but came on the heels of a trip I took to South Africa, during which I got to hop in a cage, and go swimming with a few great white Sharks in Mossel Bai. I’m sure it’s fairly apparent that I have a great deal of interest in marine life, and almost all boys like sharks, but great whites are doubtlessly the ultimate apex predator. If I can say I’ve ever had anything like a religious experience in my life, that was it. Being in the water with a giant, powerful predator that is superior to you in every significant context except an SAT score is truly humbling. No animal on earth can trigger the same visceral, raw fear that a great white can. For me, the awe of seeing a massive humpback whale gliding along in its own element is only matched (and surpassed) by witnessing the sheer power and purpose of a great white in the open water.

A great deal of my work is also about fear, and facing our fears. Second Kiss is definitely a part of this meme. Sharks have existed, unchanged, for millions of years, and with good reason: they are perfectly built for what they do. Great whites are built for killing. The thought of being struck by an attacking great white is one of my darkest fantasies. I used to have recurring nightmares of being attacked by a massive great white, and I always woke up immediately after feeling my body ripped and torn apart, with my heart slamming adrenaline through my body, relishing the thrill that came with realizing I was still alive. The piece juxtaposes a human boy at his most vulnerable, naked and alone, touching the nose of a young great white. There is more going on in the piece than is immediately apparent, however. When I was in South Africa, I learned some things that they don’t teach you on the Discovery Channel. (First of all, the white sharks behave somewhat differently in Mossel Bai, and nobody knows for sure if the differences are environmental or behavioral, so the following observations may not hold true for all great whites. -fair warning if you find yourself in this situation.) 

Young great whites are incredibly skittish, compared with the bigger adults. They move faster, jerkier, and can be downright shy. In south Africa, they call the young great whites “brownies”, because their coloring has not developed completely. Instead of a dark gray, they have brownish mottling on their backs. If you observe the way they swim, you can start to interpret their body language. The shark in the sculpture has it’s back arched upward, and it’s pectoral fins out flat, which is a very submissive posture. If a shark is preparing to attack, It will arch it’s back downward, and swing it’s pectorals down to an almost vertical position. (That’s how you end up seeing a single fin cutting the surface of the water, and not two, as the caudal fin is as tall as the dorsal fin.) Sharks are curious creatures, however, and an animal with no hands has only one way to investigate the many different objects it may encounter. If a shark is confronted with an unknown object, and cannot determine if it is prey, it will give it a “gentle” bite, as a method of investigation. Many experts believe that when a human survives a shark attack, it is because the shark was not attacking at all, but investigating a strange new presence in it’s environment, only to discover that the awkward fish was stringy, wiry, and had far to little fat content to qualify as food. Our young Brownie is in an extremely docile, almost submissive posture, and shows no signs of attacking the baby. It is in an investigative mood, and is simply trying to determine who this little invader might be.

One other little trick I tossed in involves the shark’s nervous system. Almost all sharks have special jelly-filled nerve cells on their bodies called the Ampullae of Lorenzini. These are used to sense electrical impulses through the water, and are heavily concentrated at the tip of the nose. With these extremely sensitive receptors, sharks can actually feel your heartbeat long before they are within visible range. They are also a weak point in a shark’s nervous system. If a shark is approaching you, to investigate who or what you are, and you firmly place your hand on the tip of it’s nose, It sometimes has the effect of “shorting out” these electrical receptors, and can stun the shark into an immobile, almost trancelike state. A young man that worked on the boat I was on in South Africa told me that he had personally tested this little trick on massive great whites, and had stopped them in their tracks. The sharks would simply go limp, sink back into the water, float aimlessly for a while, and finally regain their composure and swim away languidly. Our little infant in Second Kiss is performing this maneuver admirably, controlling the instincts of the shark, and fearlessly participating in an impossible little moment of mutual curiosity.  

 

 

Second Kiss is not a piece about sharks eating babies. It is a metaphorical encounter between two youngsters, who happen to be of different species, meeting each other in an improbable scenario that requires us to confront our suppositions and fears. It is a portrayal of an absurd moment that (hopefully) demonstrates the idea that some of our worst fears are often simple misunderstandings, and that sometimes the best way to confront an unknown perceived threat is to throw out our assumptions, and approach with the amazing fearlessness of a child.

 

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