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These Underwater Sculptures Are a Window into a New Frontier for Art

You literally need scuba gear to explore Doug Aitken's geometric artwork off the coast of California.
December 22, 2016, 3:20pm
Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Photo by Shawn Heinrichs. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and MOCA, Los Angeles

It’s rare to feel a sense of accomplishment upon leaving an art exhibition, but then again, most gallery shows are on dry land. Multidisciplinary artist Doug Aitken, in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and Parley for the Oceans, manages to make his latest installation a unique experience as well as a physical feat by mounting it in a place only accessible to snorkelers, scuba divers, and fish: underwater in the Pacific Ocean.

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Located near Catalina Island (about 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles), Aitken’s Underwater Pavilions project consists of three massive, submerged geometric structures made from artificial rock and mirrors, all anchored to the ocean floor at different depths. Visitors to the Pavilions can choose to snorkel and view the structures from the surface, but the experience is optimized for scuba divers to descend into each perspective-bending artwork, glimpsing their reflective surfaces as well as the bounty of marine life swimming around them.

Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Photo by Shawn Heinrichs. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and MOCA, Los Angeles

Aitken, who a year ago was in the midst of organizing his mid-career survey Electric Earth at MOCA, was in a quandary. Wondering how to push the boundaries and definition of his art for a new piece, he looked toward aspects of the 1970s Land Art Movement and artists like Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria for the qualities he next wanted to tackle.

“My ideas ran rampant, and eventually those ideas just moved off the earth and rolled into the ocean,” Aitken tells The Creators Project. “With the ocean you have this unlimited space, this horizon line of blue and grey, but you also have an inverted earth under the ocean’s surface. For every mountain on land here there's a mountain underwater, for every valley and river there are underwater corridors or sea caves. That really piqued my interest.”

Photo courtesy of the Artist. Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

To pull off the submerged structures he envisioned, Aitken received support from MOCA and specifically Parley, whose founder Cyrill Gutsch has mixed activism and art through collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Julian Schnabel, and Adidas. Embracing the chance to address climate change's effect on our oceans, Gutsch introduced Aitken to a number of necessary experts for the Pavilions: famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, submarine builder Liz Taylor, marine expert Bill Bushing—who surveyed the chosen Casino Point Dive Park on Catalina to determine the project's best placement—and boat construction company Westerly Marine to fabricate the structures with aid from Aitken’s workshop assistants.

Their collective efforts have resulted in a singular artistic experience, one that’s currently scheduled to remain open on Catalina for the next few months. After visiting Underwater Pavilions, The Creators Project sat down with Aitken in Los Angeles to discuss the influences and incredible effort behind the project:

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The Creators Project: Visiting the Underwater Pavilions wasn’t a passive experience; you have to be actively involved in every moment, because there could be trouble if you aren’t. How did you view engagement when it came to the Pavilions?

Doug Aitken: When I was working on the Pavilions, I increasingly thought about how artwork can be living and how it could be authored by the viewer. It goes back, philosophically, to the idea of saying, “If we're living and continue to live and change, then why is it that we see an artwork and the artwork is frozen and fixed?” You wonder if the artwork should be in dialogue with us, and even if we're not there, the artwork could continue to change. In some ways, the Sonic Pavilion in Brazil was the starting point for thinking about those ideas. Ten or so years later, it's still there in the rainforest, emitting audio from the earth's movement and rotation. I can step away from that artwork and it doesn't need me at all. I love that idea. It can start being completely autonomous and live its own life and have its dialogue with anyone.

Photo courtesy of the Artist. Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Did you have to make any concessions in bringing this project to life? Or in the tradition of Land Art, was the idea itself enough and the process all part of it?

The question with this project was always, “Here's this idea but how do we start? Who do you ask permission to use the ocean? Is there any kind of protocol?” Because with this project there wasn't any precedent, so it was really interesting and difficult trying to figure out what steps to take, how to make it, how to get the Pavilions there. That was where Parley became hugely important to collaborate with on this project. An idea is not enough, everyone has ideas. But sometimes you almost have to will something into existence. This past year our studio has been filled with oceanographers, marine biologists, people building research submarines here at the studio, and that's so far off the grid from aesthetic art-making, and the idea of making something designed to be viewed by someone in a room.

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If the Underwater Pavilions were built like artworks to be hung in a gallery, the Pavilions would be crushed by the pressure of the ocean. In culture, I think everything we create is surrounded by its own set of parameters, sometimes given and sometimes imposed. In this situation it was so simple: the parameters are the ocean. These Pavilions could collapse, or they could get ripped away in a current. They are not made to be passive. They are not meant to end up on one of the floors of the Whitney Museum to be viewed and not touched. They’re made for sea life to cling to, or move with the tides, or refract the sun as it's passing. You're thinking of those things, as opposed to thinking that when it leaves the studio it's finished […] when it leaves the earth and enters the ocean the artwork starts.

Underwater, it’s not just the Pavilions that you notice. You really become hyper-aware of your body, your breath, your orientation to the surface.

There's so many types of immersion, and it's strange because on one hand we think about immersion as being synthetic. Right now it’s VR or AR or some other kind of new technology that's been made for us to fall into. In a lot of ways with the Underwater Pavilions, you find yourself in such an alien condition. You're slapped by ocean waves, there's salt crusted on your eyebrow, you're touching rocks and scraping against barnacles, kelp is brushing against you. It's so tactile, it's so physical and otherworldly. As you find yourself walking down those concrete steps to go under the Pacific you're no longer a vertical human. You're a horizontal person, and moving horizontally in this kind of slow motion.

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That was one of the things that I never really thought of until the installation was finished and it existed under the ocean: the idea that when we see art and culture I'm on something firm, I'm standing. When you are under the ocean experiencing this artwork you are weightless and climbing through this abstract space. It’s so disorienting. That for me has been one of the fascinating things about this project. You're in this condition and then you're drawn into this field of reflectivity and different perspectives of reality stacking up on one another.

Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Photo by Shawn Heinrichs. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and MOCA, Los Angeles

Having lived near the ocean basically your entire life, how else did this project and collaborating with Parley, oceanographers, and dive teams expand your perception of it?

The ocean is something that I’ve felt very intimate with my entire life. A decade ago these friends of mine and I bought a used commercial sea urchin diving ship, and we would take these journeys out to remote uninhabited islands off the coast, It was always rough, we’d sleep on this boat or swim ashore and explore. That idea that you have this huge pulsing continent, this West Coast, where everything's pushing up against land’s edge—it’s like a geographic fence. We're so familiar with this condition, these parking lots and highways and where to get a coffee. It's so mundane, but from where we're sitting right now you can go half a mile and suddenly the continent ends—it just drops off. What's out there? It's kind of amazing that you have the ocean and its underwater landscape so unknown and desolate and living so close to civilization.

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That's what prompted me to want to use Catalina Island for the project. I felt the idea of having a process where you don't just drive up to somewhere and get out of your car, but you have to slow down and take stock of where you're at. You travel to this work by ferry and get out there and discover yourself on an island surrounded by water, in this strange small town where 4,000 people live year-round. And then across the channel you have Los Angeles, this pulsing metropolis, and I really like that tension for the project. That was always the idea of where to put it as a first location, there was no other option. It wasn't that we studied 50 places and chose this one. It was intuition and serendipity. It's a marine sanctuary, and fertile with sea life as well.

How did your artistic aims starting out combine with Parley’s conservation efforts when they came onboard?

For me, the project created a starting point. In a huge infinite ocean, where do you begin discussing it? I think due to the abstract enormity of how we see the sea, a project like this can be a simple door into something, by putting one's self into a situation of being aware of a space they didn't understand before. I dove down to see the Underwater Pavilions and came back two weeks later and there was sea grass starting to grow on the Pavilions. I would like to see these artworks living and teeming with life, absolutely overrun!

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That's the thing that I find so interesting. I can't create that in a synthetic world. I can't create a simulacrum of something living and I don’t want to. I want to be shocked and surprised by the randomness and strength of life, and that return to the real.  That has been so cool with this project, with the idea acting like a razor cutting through everything and making the decisions and choices. I think the Pavilions really exist as a balance of extremes.

Doug Aitken, Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Photo by Shawn Heinrichs. Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and MOCA, Los Angeles

For more information on the Underwater Pavilions, click here.

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