This 17-metre luminous whale spotted in downtown Montreal invites spectators — to an extent

The artist behind the imposing marine installation, part of Luminothérapie at Quartier des Spectacles, hopes to make people reflect on how their actions impact nature.

Installation aims to emphasize harmful impacts of human invasion of nature

Echoes: A Voice From Uncharted Waters invites onlookers to get close — but not too close — to a giant, steel whale. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

Weighing in at a whopping 4.5 tonnes, a 17-metre steel whale began lighting up downtown Montreal this week as part the 12th edition of Luminothérapie, a luminous art walk in the Quartier des Spectacles.

Erected in the Place des Festivals as this year's major installation, Echoes: A Voice From Uncharted Waters is an interactive sound and light installation by multidisciplinary artist Mathias Gmachl that asks us to consider the impact of our everyday activities on nature and the environment.

During the evening, it emits a warm, welcoming glow and a calming underwater soundscape, made from real whale sounds and other ocean noises, the marine mammal invites people to look and listen closely — but not too close.

Multidisciplinary artist Mathias Gmachl stands before his creation at Place des Festivals: a five tonne, 55-foot-long illuminated steel whale that dims its lights and sound if spectators get too close. (Vivien Gaumand/Quartier des Spectacles)

If onlookers breach an invisible perimeter around the structure, the whale's lights dim and the soundtrack fades until a comfortable distance between whale and watcher is restored. This is meant to show what happens when human activities continue to take away space for other life on Earth to survive.

"I came up with the idea to bring endangered animals to the city and create a bit of a space for people to think about … how we want our future to look like," said Gmachl, who visited Montreal this week for the unveiling of his creation. 

"I think it's sort of a simple way to communicate to people what it actually means if things become extinct: they fall silent, they disappear."

The whale installation can be seen behind the illuminated see-saws at the Place des Festivals. (Dave St-Amant/CBC)

When Gmachl began working on the installation, which won its coveted spot during this year's  multidisciplinary public art competition held by the Quartier des Spectacles, he knew he wanted to model the structure after a one-year-old blue whale. 

"It's a critical time in a whale's life, it's when they separate from their mother … and start to venture out on their own." 

While the structure weighs five tons, that's only a fraction of the weight of a live whale this size. "It would weigh about three times as much," the artist said.

The structure is co-produced in collaboration with MuseumsQuartier in Vienna, Austria, and Lugano Arte e Cultura in Lugano, Switzerland, where the whale first made its debut. Here in Montreal, it's poised to stick around until Feb. 6. 

The structure is co-produced in collaboration with two cultural centres in Vienna, Austria and Lugano, Switzerland, where the whale first made its debut. (Foto Studio Pagi)

Gmachl hopes his installation sparks a meaningful conversation about the climate crisis.

"I thought a lot about the situation we are in with lots of animals, life disappearing from the planet, and I wanted to talk about this in a way that's inviting and engaging."

Four other colourful Luminothérapie installations are open from Dec. 2, 2021 to Feb. 27, 2022.

Visitors will be able to stroll between interactive and contemplative works, such as Impulse, made up of large, illuminated seesaws that glow and vary in tone and intensity as you move them; Entre les rangs, an installation made up of thousands of luminous, flexible stems designed to evoke fields of wheat swaying in the wind; Iceberg, a tunnel of illuminated metal arches that each make a particular sound to mimic water droplets as ice melts; and Nova, a video projection inspired by the motion of water that presents abstract images linked to Montreal's rivers. 

Lastly, with Cœur dansant, the Quartier des Spectacles becomes a dance floor for five minutes every evening at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The 12th edition of Luminothérapie at the Quartier des Spectacles opened Dec. 2, 2021 and ends Feb. 27, 2022. It runs from noon to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday and noon to 11 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Visiting the installations is free.


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