A captivating luminous whale looms over Place des Festivals

December 9, 2021

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Have you seen it? Place des Festivals is home to a massive luminous whale that weighs five tonnes for the 12th edition of Luminothérapie – approach it cautiously! This is the Montreal debut of Echoes – a voice from uncharted waters, by Austrian artist Mathias Gmachl. The multifaceted installation – sculptural, luminous, acoustic – is aimed, among other things, at raising awareness of the extinction threat facing marine mammals, the artist says.

With its sweeping curves and glowing aura, it exerts an irresistible pull. The mysterious sounds emanating from it are a captivating soundtrack made from underwater recordings. But be careful! The majestic 17-metre whale, modelled on a one-year-old blue whale, prefers to be observed from a distance. If you get too close, the lights go out and the enigmatic sounds stop. It’s a powerful symbol of how human activity threatens the planet’s flora and fauna.

“We’ve drawn a sort of imaginary circle around the whale,” Gmachl explains. “The line is a limit, a distance that we need to keep in order to avoid intruding on the whale’s space. This invites us to take action to reduce the impact of our everyday activities on nature and the environment, by making us aware of their fragility. Interaction with the marine mammal’s vital space has to be respectful.”

A unique artist

Since 2003, Gmachl has been creating works at the intersection of visual art, digital art, audio art, architecture and ecology. He makes visually striking interactive experiences that ask us to reflect on our collective responsibility for ecological disaster, and to think differently about the future. His preferred approach is to explore the role of art and design in public space, usually by working outdoors and in unconventional spaces rather than galleries, museums and studios.

With the farmersmanual group, he is also interested in reinventing the concert, transforming it into an interdisciplinary and highly interactive aesthetic experience. “I’m as much as designer as I am a researcher or a musician,” he says.

A work grounded in the urgent need for action

“We only have ten years to realign our global political and economic systems from a model based on abuse and negligence to one based on respect and regeneration,” the artist says. “With Echoes – a voice from uncharted waters, I’m trying to make a small contribution to that process by making people more aware and creating a space for reframing the narrative.”

First and foremost a symbol of marine species threatened with extinction, the Echoes whale has a wider reach, representing the entire “oceanic ecology” under pressure, offering a representation of “all the living environments on which humans act, often very harmfully.” “This work is a meditation on our disrespectful treatment of all life on Earth. Whales are often used as symbols of the essential ecological transition we are pursuing. The recordings of their songs attract us into their mysterious world, and were used in the earliest environmental campaigns,” Gmachl notes.

Sounds and lights

The first thing that will draw your attention to the whale in Place des Festivals will probably be its sounds. The artist tells us that “the work presents several hours of enigmatic oceanic soundscapes recorded by Jana Winderen, a first-rate artist and sound explorer. The recordings were made using hydrophones (underwater microphones) in remote, undisturbed locations. They reveal the strange acoustic beauty of the ocean.”

Not only do these underwater songs have great aesthetic value, they make us aware of the dangers of oceanic noise pollution created by human activity, interfering with communication among whales. “Because sound travels much farther than light under water, it plays an important role in the survival of marine life. Marine mammals can only see a few dozen metres, at most, but they can hear across entire oceans. That makes marine noise pollution a serious threat to the survival of ocean dwellers and the entire oceanic ecosystem. And, unlike many other human activities, noise pollution could be stopped in an instant, without persistent long-term effects. It’s urgent to take action.”

Echoes – a voice from uncharted waters is also built on a palette of red and gold lights, representing an ocean sunset. “This natural show inspires us to stop and appreciate the beauty of our environment,” Gmachl says. “Red is the colour of seduction and invitation, but also the colour of warning and danger.”

Making the piece at the height of the pandemic came with significant inconveniences, but it’s also a perfect piece for the new world reshaped by the virus. “The pandemic made communication, collaboration and the production of the work harder,” the artist explains. “But, on the other hand, the experience of the pandemic also made the work’s subject matter more urgent and relevant.”


Presented as part of Luminothérapie, 12th edition
From December 2, 2021 to February 6, 2022
Monday to Thursday: 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday to Sunday: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

For more information: Facebook event


Design and production: Mathias Gmachl
Acknowledgements: Jana Winderen, Roosa Tulvio, James Fox, Jon Wozencroft and James Solly
A co-production of Partenariat du Quartier des Spectacles, MuseumsQuartier Wien (Vienna, Austria) and LAC Lugano Arte e Cultura (Lugano, Switzerland)