The Art of Decomposition in “Cetacean” and “Rendered Obsolete”

A decaying whale corpse lays on a sunlit beach, its mid-body and tail visibly deteriorating.

It would be hard to overlook the whale corpse that blatantly lies on the gigantic screen in Stock Pavilion in the performance Cetacean, written by Deke Weaver and directed by Jennifer Allen as the sixth performance of their lifelong, interdisciplinary project—The Unreliable Bestiary. Cetacean tells the stories of and about marine mammals through mixed media of drama, choreography, opera, and monologue, referencing a broad range of stories from folklore, mythology, tall tales, and novels.

The pedagogy of sensuous experience offered by the proximity and remediation of the whale corpses in Cetacean expands people’s sense-scape to the unseen and unknown worlds of the other-than-human. The whales of Cetacean link with the legacy of the victims of American whaling culture—the “Prince of Whales” in particular, whose story Jamie Jones unearths and examines with a media-infrastructure approach in Rendered Obsolete.

In the nineteenth-century United States, swelling railroads enabled the traveling exhibition of the Prince’s corpse, yet his body remained impotent in the face of unstoppable decay. These whale bodies call for a rewriting of the histories that does justice to planetary victims subject to extractive capitalism—they embody both its dire consequences and a possible antidote. 

Whaley Experiences

Cetacean is essentially sensuous. The foggy stage strewn with wood pieces transports the audience to a rough and misty sea. The performance offers an elixir of holistic assemblages with whales, narwhals, and other marine mammals threading throughout. It features a storm-tossed kayak expedition undertaken by teenagers from an outdoor leadership school, an eccentric scientist who uses LSD to connect with whales’ brains, the witness accounts of “sea monsters” back in the nineteenth century, and a retelling of the bloody mythology of the Mother of the Sea, who dwells on the ocean floor after her fingers are cut off by her father and turn into the whales.

A large, dark room illuminated by one yellow light, with five men in sailor outfits in a circle and a person in a diver outfit to the left. Behind them, a large tarp with ocean water projected onto it.
The sensory experience of Cetacean, with lights, mist, and pieces of wood. Photo by Nathan Keay, 2023.

The performance’s interactive components stimulate the audience’s senses of sight, sound, and touch. In the heavy storm that derails the teenagers’ kayaking trip, the performers spontaneously draw sea monsters and nautical imagery on an easel accompanied by overwhelming sound effects and generously hand these minimalist artworks to the audience. During the intermission, two seals—played by human performers—naughtily occupy the middle seats of the two front rows, while a whole crowd of seals are shown on the screen, caressing, playing, and chatting with each other.

No other part of the performance is, however, as sensuously provoking as the display of the whale remnants. It is a not-so-pleasant coincidence that the Stock Pavilion was originally made for “judging and studying stock” and was even equipped with a slaughter room. The grotesqueness of violence seems to permeate through the performance. The venue is full of death, from the beached whale decaying on the screen, the whaley skeleton above the audience, to a big black plastic bag mimicking a dead whale dragged around the stage by a roaring tractor truck.

Two people lounge on blue-lit, bench-style theater seating, performing as seals. A stage is in the background.
Two seals steal seats during intermission, played by human performers. Photo by Nathan Keay, 2023.

Following the most possible flow of the audience’s attention, I will start with the haunting, putrefying beached whale that invades the audience’s immediate vicinity, and then move to the inflated black plastic bag and the overhead skeleton as the remediation of the whale’s body.

The beached whale corpse in Cetacean confounds people just as the Prince of Whales once did. The screen shows footage of people curiously visiting and taking photos with this whale’s body while the narrator, performed by Weaver, details its putrefaction. He describes how the size of the corpse seems to disappoint people—it should have been, they think, bigger and more impressive rather than this sad, poor thing, mediocre in size!

Olfactory Assaults

Then the corpse begins to decompose. Someone makes deep cuts through the body to prevent its explosion, which makes it even more pathetic. It loses one of its eyes, and eventually its shape collapses. Falling into decay, the whale is deprived of the aura of charismatic wildlife. The sadness in the narrator’s tone magically transfers to the audience—the corporeal proximity imposed on both parties establishes an interspecies connection built on physicality, immediacy, tangibility, and vulnerability. The whale changes from a mystic, unknowable sea monster—the Leviathan—to an organic being composed of flesh and bone. Their body, in other words, becomes literal and conspicuous.

Through the visual, olfactory, and material remediation of a whale’s corpse, it laments the dire impact of fossil modernity on marine life.

One of the main factors that facilitate such transformation and the sense of intimacy is the odor given off by the decaying corpses. Such an odor spans more than a century—people who are curious enough to go closer to the corpse presented in Cetacean, especially in the later stage of its decomposition, must have shared a similar experience of olfactory torture with the visitors to the Prince of Whales. Such encounters, as Jones argues, “incite[s] a sensory experience that made human and nonhuman bodies porous.” The dispersive power of the odor forcefully connects the two “in a field of swirling material agencies.”

We can indeed find many accounts of the bad, intrusive smell of the whale’s bodies. Jones quotes a railroad correspondent ranting on the Prince of Whales’ odor in an 1881 Kalamazoo Telegraph report: “Toledo! Whew! What a smell! Fishy smell! To the heavens it seems to swell.” Hilarious as it may be, it is undeniably disgusting to smell a putrefying corpse of a whale, and transporting huge carcasses weighing tons is not an easy job.

Similarly in 2004, a 60-ton sperm whale exploded in Taiwan on the way to a necropsy by researchers, which halted traffic for hours. A Taiwan resident complained to the reporter: “Fie! Nasty only! The whole street is covered by blood and organs. It stinks!” It seems that the whale’s corpses not only resist the objectification of the viewers and promoters, as the Prince of Whales once did, but also soundly refuse autopsy in labs.

A newspaper advertisement for an exhibition of the Prince of Whales's dead corpse. Headline reads: "All About the Monster Whale! Greatest Natural Curiosity Ever Exhibited in the World."
Ad for the Prince of Whales exhibition in Chicago. Whaler’s Log 1881, image digitized by Mystic Seaport Museum.

People had also been doing an astonishingly bad job at conducting onsite clean-ups of whale carcasses. In 1970, an eight-ton carcass of a sperm whale was washed on shore in Florence, Oregon. The Oregon Highway Division decided to blow it up with one-half ton of dynamite. Paul Linnman took the glorious challenge of reporting the explosion on the ground. He jokily stated that while people expected the dead whale “[would] almost be disintegrated by the blast and any small pieces still around after the explosion [would] be taken care of by seagulls and other scavengers,” the explosion made the biggest mess possible.

Small particles and blubbers of the dead whale showered everywhere but left leaving a huge chunk intact, which emanated a strong stink. Far worse, the overwhelmingly loud noise of the explosion and the lingering smell deterred seagulls, sand crabs, and the other scavengers who would possibly be interested in eating the remains of the carcass. In the end, the Highway crews had to go back to the scene and bury the remains with a tractor.

The tractor that resignedly finished the clean-up surely resonates with the one that breaks into the theatre (the Stock Pavilion) in the middle of the show. The dead whale image on the screen and the tractor dragging the “whale’s body” together accomplish a marvelous remediation through which the black plastic bag becomes the embodiment of the whale. David Bolter and Richard Grusin describe remediation as the integration of a media and its content into another media. In Cetacean, the actual whale’s body is remediated through the footage presented to the audience.

Such a visual representation is further remediated by the tractor and the huge black plastic bag. A constellation of whale narratives and images throughout the performance prompts the audience to bridge the connection between the plastic bag and the rotting corpse: similar in shape, color, and the motion of being towed by a tractor. It is an imperative link to make. If the whales mostly suffered from commercial hunting before the nineteenth century, now they are facing an even bigger threat caused by marine plastic pollution and climate change.

In a dimly lit, large room, two cars with headlights sit to the right and a tractor to the left, dragging a large black plastic bag between them. In the center, a person holds a megaphone to direct them.
A large plastic bag—here, a remediated whale corpse—dragged through Cetacean’s stock pavilion by a tractor. Photo by UI News Bureau / Fred Zwicky, 2024.

In other words, they are dying from the “slow violence” proposed by Rob Nixon: the ecological dilapidation that takes place gradually and often invisibly. Instead of the foul odor of putrefaction, the audience smells the diesel fuel burned by the tractor. Cetacean reminds us that the petroleum odor should not be less detestable—it is also a smell of death, after all.

Sensory Remediation

The tractor and the petroleum odor well exemplify the “fossil modernity” we are living in—an era in which, as Jones defines, “the ways of work, leisure, life, culture, and identity associated with massive fossil fuel consumption.” Cetacean lives in this reality. From the plastic toys and fishnets people find in the whale’s stomach, the plastic bottles on the “beach,” to the Mother of the Sea showing up at the end of the show exhausted by the weight of her overcoat with all sorts of man-made garbage hanging on it, Cetacean tells the tale of fossil modernity.

Fossil fuels, along with their by-products and the massive amount of greenhouse gases they release, litter the ocean floor and turn the ocean into boiling porridge. They drive people’s desire for constantly advancing technologies, some of which—such as anti-submarine sonar and seismic guns—generate marine noises loud enough to drive whales crazy, leading to their strandings. They breed a culture in which many people are obsessed with handling the effects of ecological crises while ignoring the root causes. An all-powerful tractor can remove a whale’s corpse out of people’s sight, but it cannot stop many more whales from beaching and dying in front of our eyes.

The venue is full of death, from the beached whale decaying on the screen, the whaley skeleton above the audience, to a big black plastic bag mimicking a dead whale.

Preoccupied by the nastiness of putrefaction, we seem to forget that the decomposition of flora and fauna is a crucial part of the nutrient cycle. The bodies are broken down and organs liquefied, so that the finite matter can flow to other living organisms in the biosphere. When a whale dies, its stately body falls to the bottom of the sea, where the resources are scarce, and nurtures the marine lives there.

Instead of a health hazard or explosive threat, a whale’s corpse becomes a blessing for tube worms, rattail fish, crabs, gastropod, and many other burrowing creatures. The grotesque and ludicrous is the sublime misplaced. Even in the Sulfophilic stage with only the skeleton remaining, the bones sustain a whole seafloor ecosystem. Thus, as Darren Orf writes, “In the depths of the ocean, as well as in every other ecosystem across the world, death is a beginning. After all, a circle has no end.”

A woman in a multi-layered, gauzy dress is lit by a spotlight as she walks off stage. The large room is lit with dim blue light.
The Mother of the Sea exiting the stage, draped in blue gauze. Photo by Nathan Keay, 2023.

The last stage of a whale fall leads us to the whaley “skeleton” above the audience throughout the performance, a gigantic structural frame made of strips and bottles—the most commonplace man-made garbage. Yet most people probably would not pay attention to it until the very end of the show. After the Mother of the Sea chants the melody of all beings… the sea, the tree, the wolf, the whale… the theatre door facing the audience opens. She walks out of the theatre, leaving a sea of blue gauze­—pulled by the performers—waving with the song “The Grey Funnel Line.”

The moving lights fall on the bottles that compose the skeleton, which makes it gleaming and surely conspicuous, as if it gained a second life. The waves surround the skeleton, like the water embracing every whale fall and transforming it into the bones, a magical transformation that can only happen deep in the sea. These very bones that used to support this gigantic creature are now giving energy back to the ocean.

Promising Transformations

The whale-fall skeleton is remediated by the whaley frame composed of man-made garbage in fossil modernity conditions. If we look closer into the bottles, Cetacean gives us a promising possibility of reflecting upon and maybe remaking fossil modernity, when the whale has to fall onto a seabed full of plastics.

A metal grid hangs from the ceiling, in the shape of a whale skeleton. Plastic bottles hang from some of the grid connections, brightly reflecting turquoise in an otherwise dim blue room.
Plastic bottles adorn the “whale skeleton” hanging above the audience. Photo by Nathan Keay, 2023.

If a whale fall, from flesh to bones, is a story of building hope upon ruins, the skeleton overhead entails a similar tale. The Cetacean crew collected these bottles from high schoolers in Illinois. In the Cetacean outreach project, these children, though living in a landlocked state, were able to transcribe their hope and fear of the ocean and put them into the bottles. The younger generation reflected on, verbalized, and communicated with each other about their perceptions of the sea. When they come to the performance, they know one of their bottles is hanging from the whaley skeleton. Cetacean, rather than an artwork far away from their life, connects their daily lives to the ocean. The hope and trust in education transformed garbage into a gorgeous stage set.  

Cetacean makes the ocean tangible. Through the visual, olfactory, and material remediation of a whale’s corpse, it laments the dire impact of fossil modernity on marine life. The whale skeleton above our head, like an elephant in the room, reminds us how slow violence can be invisible despite the imminent danger of ecological crises. It asks us to rethink our perceptions of and relations to more-than-human lives in all their forms. It writes decomposition into a poem that speaks to the life cycle in nature and a shared fate on planet earth, uttering not only an apology, but also a promise.

Featured Image: A decomposing whale corpse on a sunlit beach. Photo by Deke Weaver, 2023.

Ann Xiaoxu Pei is a PhD student in Comparative and World Literature program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She works at the intersection of environmental humanities and memory studies, and is also an avid researcher in oceanic studies and waste studies. She holds a Masters in English from Nanjing University and was a visiting graduate researcher at UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies from 2022-2023. Twitter. Contact.