Toronto sculptor Harley Valentine has spent the past few months finding, and then casting, a seven-foot, 100-year-old narwhal tusk in bronze. The result is a sculpture he cheekily calls North Pole.
The tusk is actually a super-sensitive tooth—a “mammalian weather station,” says Valentine—that enables the narwhal, a medium-sized whale, to detect changes in temperature, air pressure, and water salinity, as well as to meet other narwhals by rubbing them together in a process called tusking.
Narwhals are found primarily in the Canadian Arctic, where they have been a staple of Inuit culture for thousands of years: the skin and extra-fatty blubber are an important source of nutrients, while sinews, bones, and tusks offer material for tools and art pieces. Commercially, those tusks also fetch hefty prices south of the Arctic.
Last week, the narwhal quota for Inuit communities that are allowed hunt them was increased by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board. This twenty-narwhal limit was imposed back in the 1970s, and was based on little-to-no reliable population estimates or scientific studies, maintains Jaypetee Akeeagok, chair of the Grise Fiord hunters’ organization. It has thus functioned, he says, as an arbitrary imposition on an ancient way of life.
Ken Lister, associate curator of world cultures at the Royal Ontario Museum, calls watching a pod of narwhal pass by while camped on an Arctic tundra beach, “an experience that plumbs the depth of our emotions.” Indeed, the narwhal has always fascinated us, elusive and magical, its tusk a symbol of wealth and power among European nobility from the medieval period to today. “For the Inuit though,” says Lister, “the experience also reflects deep cultural patterns related to practical needs, family and community sharing relationships, and a world of spiritual powers.”
Valentine is not an Inuit artist, and it takes a certain amount of guts for a qallunaaq to work with as poignant a symbol of the Arctic and Inuit culture as the narwhal’s ivory spire. But then, a species doesn’t belong to any one culture. The narwhal belongs only to itself, and its capacity to enchant—as its storied history reveals—is universal. “I wanted to emphasize that the tusk is a miracle of creation in its own right, not just the source of a luxurious material for doing other things,” Valentine says about his piece. And in this the sculptor definitely succeeds: to stand beside the tusk is about as moving an experience I’ve been given by contemporary art precisely because what you revel at is so far beyond any particular human theme. You’re simply overcome by the beauty, strength, and oddity of nature.
The tusk project is really an exclamation mark on the past 12 months for Valentine. This summer, his first major public art installation will be unveiled at the Claude Cormier-designed Sony Centre Plaza, in front of Daniel Liebeskind’s L-Tower development at the corner of Front and Yonge streets—nothing if not a career-defining project for an artist not yet out of his 20s. There will also be a permanent installation outside Humber College’s new Lakeshore Commons building, and a pop-up exhibition in April on the historic, if often overlooked, grounds of Campbell House at the Queen and University intersection.
North Pole will be on display at De Luca Fine Arts (217 Avenue Road) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday.