Underwater art installation opens near Catalina coast

Artist Doug Aitken’s latest installation involves diving gear and a trip to Catalina.

The artist Doug Aitken has a history of taking his audiences out of the traditional museum or gallery spaces. His latest installation, a companion piece to his retrospective exhibition Electric Earth at MOCA, is a series of sculptures in the ocean called Underwater Pavilions. Viewing them involves a ferry ride to the island of Catalina, followed by a deep sea dive.

Eric Drachman investigates, with support of KCRW’s Independent Producer Project, and found there’s more below the surface of this art project.

To see “Underwater Pavilions,” you have to drive to the port, pay for parking, buy a ticket for the ferry and wait in line to board.
Off the boat, it’s a quick stroll into the charming tourist town of Avalon.

The installation is on the other side of town in the Casino Point Dive Park in front of the Catalina Casino, with its famed art deco ballroom.

The artwork is only a hundred yards or so from shore. The turquoise glow around them stands out from the dark blue sea.

“As you swim closer, you find yourself I think really in the present. You find yourself kind of caught in that moment with nothing else in your mind,” Aitken said. “You find yourself swimming through a sea of monochrome, kind of blue gray and in front of you in the distance you start making out shapes – these strange geometric shapes – hexagonal shapes.”

The three sculptures all float at different depths. One has mirrors on the outside, and the other two have mirrors on the inside.

Those are the ones Joel Wilson – a local dive instructor – really likes “because it’s kind of like a scuba diving changing room – you go inside and you can kind of see yourself from all angles and you really kind of get a sense of, oh, what I look like when I’m scuba diving.”

They all have a textured surface designed for sea life to cling to, and live on. They’re big, 12 feet or so, enough to swim inside, look in the mirrors, turn around and swim out through one of the hexagonal openings.

Swimming through these sculptures was a cool experience. But getting to them was challenging. Aitken says it’s not just an inconvenience.

“I think there’s something about taking this boat over there that kind of allows you to slow down and decelerate in a way,” Aitken said, “that disorienting sense of suddenly stepping into a completely different field of experience.”

Aitken has a history of taking his audiences out of the traditional museum or gallery spaces. He’s staged performances on a train travelling across America, and has had large-scale video installations in an airplane hangar-like space in Arles, France, and on a barge floating off the coast of Athens.

But is the Catalina project more than just a fanciful art installation in a remote location?

Cyrill Gutsch, founder of the environmental organization Parley for the Oceans says there’s more below the surface. His group has partnered with Doug Aitken’s studio and MOCA on this project.

“The oceans are under such a massive threat and still nobody really knows or cares, because the sea feels like so far away from everyday life, and nobody really understands why it is necessary actually to protect the sea,” Gutsch said.

Parley doesn’t focus on protests, but rather, employs art to raise consciousness about the plight of the oceans.

“Jacques Cousteau said in a very nice way, ‘People only protect what they love.’ And art is the perfect way to create that love – to kind of close the gap that is between us, mankind, and that life that feels so distant, so far away, and still we are so depending on it,” he said.

For most of us, Aitken says, the Pacific Ocean is so vast, “we don’t really know where to go or what to see or how to approach it, so it becomes intimidating. It becomes this kind of dark mysterious mass. The idea of the Underwater Pavilions is to create something which is almost like an aperture – it’s almost like a door into the ocean.”

And for Parley, Doug Aitken’s art can make that connection.

“It’s like a bait in a way, to lure people down to discover – to explore,” Gutsch said.

For the town of Avalon, this is bait to further attract tourists to the island. And according to Richard Huband at the local scuba shop, there’s already plenty of interest from the mainland, too.

“We’ve had people calling just to come and see the sculptures before they are even installed. So yeah, we’ll get more divers because they want to come and see them,” Huband said.

In fact, divers travel to see great wrecks around the world, so this will be a draw for divers. But will it be a draw for art lovers in general?

The sculptures are expected to stay where they are for at least the next three months. You just need to drive, park, take a ferry to Catalina, rent your gear if you need it, and dive. The trip could cost $200, and that’s if you don’t stay overnight.

If you’d rather experience “Underwater Pavilions” from dry land, for free, they’re in the process of installing a live video and audio feed of the sculptures.