Junko Sugimoto crossed her arms across her chest, cocked her head to the right and glanced up, surveying the 300-year-old rafters above.
She chuckled, with a half-sigh.
“Yes, it is beautiful,” the Japanese-born artist said on Friday afternoon, standing inside one of the barns at Mulford Farm in East Hampton, after driving out from Brooklyn. “But it will be a challenge.”
This is the site of Ms. Sugimoto’s next installation project: a series of waves made entirely of back-lit, gradated paper tubes—1,500, to be exact—hung from the ceiling by a fishing wire grid.
No drills, no nails, no props. Just an artist’s vision, her patience and creativity, inspired by Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.”
Ms. Sugimoto is not alone. She is one of 25 contemporaries invited by East Hampton-based curator Janet Goleas to participate in “The Moby Project,” an inaugural exhibition opening this weekend that merges literature and art through drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations. The pieces will be divided between Neoteric Fine Art in Amagansett and Mulford Farm, where visitors will receive a map to guide them through the landscape.
“I love thematic shows, and I love when the art sneaks up on you,” Ms. Goleas explained on Thursday, September 19, during a telephone interview. “I didn’t want artists to bring something they had, that they thought, ‘Oh, this would fit in.’ I really wanted them to think outside the box. So, artists are tackling this huge—conceptually huge and physically huge—concept of the great white whale.”
Considered to be one of the Great American Novels, the circa-1851 work chronicles the adventures of wandering sailor Ishmael and his voyage aboard Captain Ahab’s whaleship, Pequod, to seek out Moby Dick—a ferocious, mysterious white sperm whale that previously destroyed Ahab’s boat and bit off his leg.
Instead of bringing him literary acclaim, Melville was not celebrated for his magnum opus, Ms. Goleas explained. The scathing reviews spiraled the author into literary obscurity until his death in 1891. Then, World War I shook up Western civilization, setting the stage for Melville’s legacy and its themes of social status, good versus evil, the existence of God, and the scope of the universe.
By the mid-20th century, a revival was born.
“The way the world is right now, with all this technology and moving so fast, it’s nice to slow down and think about this book and the way it was at this point in history,” Ms. Goleas said. “I’ve had so many great conversations with the artists about it. We’re all reading it again.”
When Springs-based artist Don Christensen first read “Moby-Dick,” he didn’t quite get it, he wrote on Monday in an email, but sensed it was “major.” He gave it a second chance a few years back and, after agreeing to create his first-ever sound installation for “The Moby Project,” he is reading the Melville classic once again.
“I wanted to use the atmosphere of a historic period building and its space, coupled with the incredible, dramatic, somewhat arcane voice of the novel,” Mr. Christensen said. “There is a recording of a partial reading of the novel in situ.”
The installation uses “Chapter 135: The Chase—Third Day,” the novel’s dramatic conclusion before the epilogue. And it is no surprise to Ms. Goleas that a number of the artists have also been inspired by the tragic denouement, including Ms. Sugimoto. She first heard the “Moby-Dick” story from her father, Yukio, when she was a young girl growing up in Japan. It is a tale she has never forgotten.
“He told me about it, how the captain saw the dark side of the people, the dark side of everyone,” she recalled. “How they succeeded to kill the whale but, at the same time, they got attacked. So, whale dead, and most of the people dead. Just one guy survived. It’s a very dramatic story. And this is the first time I try to make something dark out of art.”
It goes against her very nature, the bubbly artist said, not to mention the five previous incarnations of her tube installations. The idea was born four years ago in Switzerland along a nature trail, as she watched the golden sunlight trying to break through the lush tree canopy.
When she returned to her residency studio, she got to thinking.
“I wanted to make the leaves and, one day, I printed out these papers,” she said. “I don’t know why I made a tube. I put it on the table, five or six, and thought about it for a month, and then, suddenly, ‘How about I put them together with wire? And they make more and more?’”
The first installation was rich with yellows and greens. In East Hampton, Ms. Sugimoto is working primarily with blues and purples to create an aggressive, dark ocean—and her largest piece yet.
“I never show in such a public space,” she said. “Yeah, it’s big challenge: the dark side. I’ve never done it before. It’s not my comfortable zone.”
But by Sunday morning, Ms. Sugimoto was in her element, hopping between a ladder, scaffolding and the floor while working on the installation’s largest wave, crashing through midair from the rafters.
“I think I’ll finish by Wednesday, if not an accident happens,” she said. “The opening is the 27th. Six days.”
She smiled nervously, just as 13-year-old volunteer, George Hasemann, stopped by to lend a hand.
“Will you help me?” the artist asked her helper.
“Yeah,” he said, walking into the barn and curiously looking up at the work in progress.
“I’ll show you how to make them.”
She led him to a table and set him up with hundreds of paper sheets, each edged with double-sided tape. He quickly picked up the rolling technique and she left him to it.
“Yay! I have a helper!” she gushed, turning back to the wave. “It’s a process. Five hundred up—only 1,000 more to go.”
“The Moby Project,” featuring works by more than 25 artists inspired by Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale,” will be on view from Friday, September 27, through Sunday, October 6, at Mulford Farm in East Hampton and Neoteric Fine Art in Amagansett. Opening receptions will be held on Friday, September 27, from 7 to 10 p.m. at the art gallery, and Saturday, September 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the farm. For more information, visit themobyproject.com.
One fine body…