by Jonathan Griffin
Underwater Pavilions, Catalina
The waters around the pretty island of Catalina, 22 miles off the coast of Southern California, are colder in December than you might think. Two days after heaving on scuba gear and descending 15 feet to see Los Angeles artist Doug Aitken’s sub-aquatic sculptures, the tips of my fingers were still tingling and numb. What I saw down there, however, stayed with me long after normal feeling returned.
The Underwater Pavilions are the latest work from the polymath Aitken, who found fame in the late 1990s with multi-screen video installations that often describe alienating, post-industrial landscapes — both urban and remote — through which protagonists drift aimlessly, as if lost in hyperspace.
His ambitious output has ranged from video projections on the façades of buildings to permanent site-specific constructions, artist books, performances and events (he prefers the Fluxus term “happenings”). In 2011 he mounted a version of his video installation Black Mirror on a ship moored off the Greek island of Hydra; in 2013 he orchestrated a train tour from New York to San Francisco for musicians, artists and other performers titled Station to Station. Last year, for a “happening” in Monaco, percussionists accompanied a skywriting plane that drew a spiral eight miles wide in the sky overhead.
“I think that we are really coming into a new frontier of art-making,” Aitken tells me in the office of his studio complex in Venice Beach. “Ideas are restless, they’re like energy. Ideas will take whatever form they need to take to transmit, to communicate. The tools that we have in front of us are such a broad palette right now.”
Although clearly tired from juggling several different projects at once, many of which are at critical stages, the tanned Aitken seems relaxed in a grey denim shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. One project in development is Mirage, a house in the desert near Palm Springs with every surface, inside and out, covered in mirrors. The permanent installation will be unveiled in February, part of the forthcoming Desert X biennial.
When Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Philippe Vergne approached Aitken about a retrospective, the artist declined, saying that as a rule he didn’t show old work. But eventually Aitken agreed, on condition that the exhibition would itself become a kind of artwork.
The show, Electric Earth, has just closed after its four- month run in the museum’s vast Geffen Contemporary space. In the darkened building — a former police garage, renovated by Frank Gehry in the 1980s — the sound and light from one installation often bled into the next. The space, Aitken says, was like a “living film set” that the viewer moved through. “We talked about the idea that it was without time or place, that it was immersive in a way.”
Immersion was also on Aitken’s mind when he began conceiving of a counterpoint to the MOCA retrospective, a tandem piece contrasting with the works in the exhibition. He wanted it to be outside the museum, outside any building, and far outside the city.
Aitken, who is 48, was born and raised in Redondo Beach, a quiet surf town about 10 miles south of Venice, where he now lives. He has spent his life looking out at the ocean, “a space that I know almost nothing about”. He began to wonder if it was possible to make a sculpture that functioned “like a door underneath the surface of the ocean”.
As plans for these underwater sculptures began to evolve, Aitken realised he needed two things: specialist expertise, and funding. A mutual friend put him in touch with Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, a non-profit devoted to facilitating projects that raise awareness of the plight of the oceans. A week later, the New York-based Gutsch was sitting in Aitken’s studio.
Aitken told him about his ideas for art forms that are entropic, that can change and evolve, living with us “in a mirror image of our time code”. Although his stridently contemporary work seems to reflect our globalised, post-digital communication age, Aitken is
Ideas are restless, they’re like energy. Ideas will take whatever form they need to take to communicate also influenced by Land Art of the late 1960s and 1970s, whose “earthworks” were designed to degrade with the landscape, and by early non-linear, avant-garde film and video by artists such as Tony Conrad.
In 2009, Aitken created an important precursor to the Underwater Pavilions: in the Centro de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim, a vast sculpture park 90 minutes’ drive from Belo Horizonte in Brazil, Aitken built his Sonic Pavilion. The minimalist, circular building of glass and steel has, in the middle of its floor, a seemingly bottomless steel-rimmed hole. Two hundred metres down, microphones pick up the ambient noises of tectonic movement, relaying them in real time to the pavilion above.
Through Parley, Gutsch not only provided funding but also put Aitken in touch with the oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who introduced her daughter, Liz Taylor, president of Earle’s marine consulting company DOER. Westerly Marine, a custom boatbuilder, built the pavilions, while Taylor’s team oversaw their installation. Bill Bushing, a seasoned marine biologist who lives on Catalina, surveyed the Casino Point Dive Park by the quaint harbour town of Avalon in order to find a suitable location to moor the sculptures.
After months of delays due to weather and other logistical complications, the Underwater Pavilions officially opened to the public last month — they are freely accessible sculptures in a public dive park. I am no scuba expert, so a brief refresher course was provided on the harbour wall before I gingerly stepped down a stone staircase and launched myself into the water.
As soon as I put my mask under the surface of the ocean, all distractions were shocked away, first by the cold, and then an instant later by the beauty of the world that appeared before me. Foot-long orange fish (which I later learnt to be Garibaldi, California’s state fish) drifted past me, along with blue ones, yellow ones, striped ones, spotted ones and countless others. (Subsequent research indicates that these may have included zebra perch, rainbow surfperch, blacksmith, treefish and rock wrasse.)
The three pavilions, tethered just a short swim from the shore, are submerged dodecahedrons constructed from pentagonal panels, mirrored on one side. As I descended through the darkness towards the glowing emerald shape beneath me, slowly I came face to face with a black-suited, white-skinned creature behind a black plastic mask: myself. In the two other more deeply moored pavilions, the mirrors are located on the inside of the structures, so divers can swim through what appears as a giant kaleidoscope. A cameraman filming the pavilions for Aitken captured a sea lion, momentarily transfixed by its own reflection.
The self-consciousness brought on by these sculptures — in humans, at least — has a political as well as existential significance. Aitken’s Underwater Pavilions don’t allow us to lose ourselves in unspoilt nature, but rather to see ourselves within it as agents of change, for good or for ill. He does not claim to be an environmental activist; his main interest, he tells me, is “in the empowerment of the viewer”. That empowerment, however, is more than just an art-theoretical position. “To bring someone into the ocean itself, to open them up to this space and this series of encounters, for me that’s the activism.”
On the reverse of each mirrored panel, a composite surface approximates a cratered effect. By the time I dived down to see them, they were already covered in seagrass, wafting like hair. Today, Aitken tells me, they are thickly teeming with life. He proudly shows me a photograph taken by a marine biologist monitoring the effects of the pavilions: a species of nudibranch not seen in the area for decades.
Aitken is working to install webcams beside the pavilions, to offer “a living window” on to their changing conditions. The pavilions will probably remain in Catalina until the spring, after which Aitken hopes they will travel to another ocean, possibly the Maldives. He considers these works a prototype, and hopes that, one day, there may be many more of them around the world.
First published: Financial Times, January 20th 2017