Inside Doug Aitken’s Underwater Pavilions

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Catalina Island is just 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, but it feels much farther. As our boat pulls into the small harbor, past people fishing on the pier, nearly every first-time visitor proclaims that it looks like a Greek island, or the south of France.

But I’m not here for the quaint old fashioned harbor, I’m here for a futuristic art installation just off the coast, under the sea surface.

These waters are the site of a new installation by artist Doug Aitken. Called Underwater Pavilions, the piece comprises three massive, geodesic structures. At around 12 feet in diameter, each one is big enough to swim through, for divers and fish alike. Aitken sculpted the pavilions from mirrors and artificial rock, and collaborated with a range of specialists to submerge them in the local dive park and moor them to the ocean floor.

But building and installing these structures wasn’t easy. Aitken wants his exhibit to raise awareness about the declining health of the oceans. At the same time, the Pacific Ocean between the island and mainland is a federally protected essential fish habitat. This required Aitken and his team to carefully select the site of the installation and the materials of the sculptures themselves, to make sure they weren’t harming the cause they were highlighting.

“We pulled in our whole network of marine biologists, submarine engineers, boat makers—all kinds of highly specialized people,” says Cyrill Gutsch, founder of conservation group Parley For The Oceans, partner on the project. “The idea was to totally empower the artist, so he wouldn’t have to think about limitations of any kind.”

The only way to see the pavilions in person is to dive, so after a quick introductory course to scuba, I zip up my wetsuit, bracing for the cold of the Pacific in December.

As I descend through the slightly murky water, the first of the structures looms into view, reflecting back a vision of me, and the light above. The outside top surface is a mirror, which plays with my perception under water. As I drop lower, the world is turned upside down. It’s disorienting, but beautiful.

Another of the sculptures is mirrored on the inside, and divers’ exhaled bubbles collect at the top like mercury before escaping through a crack. The surfaces also reflect the fish, in particular the bright orange Garibaldi, so their images seem to bounce to infinity.

Before they were submerged, these artificial structures looked like they’d never fit into a natural environment. The geodesics are covered in sharp edges, metallic reflective surfaces, and white composite materials. There’s something unmistakably ‘70s-era scifi about them—an effect augmented by my sense of weightlessness below water, and the absence of noise—save for the sound of my own breathing. And yet, nature has already begun to claim the structures. They are covered in a fine layer of green algae, which helps them blend in.

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The algae suits them. Aitken designed these pavilions to be a gateway to the ocean. “When we think of Western art, we think of things that are fixed and finished when they leave the artist’s studio,” Aitken says, when I surface. “In a situation like this, it’s of great interest to me to see if we can can see new forms of art evolve. If an artwork can change as you the viewer change, there is a different form of dialogue.” The goal he says, is to entice people into relating to the ocean not as a two-dimensional surface they see from a beach, but a world with depth, worthy of exploring and protecting.

That message is already attracting positive attention. “I think the pavilions are wonderful,” says USC biologist David Ginsburg, who is unaffiliated with the project. He oversees a range of environmental studies courses on and around Catalina, and says that the dive park where the geodesics are located is a popular resource for underwater coursework, research, and experiential learning. Aitken’s sculptures, he says, are a welcome addition. “They’re a good way to get people outside, in the water, and thinking about conservation,” he says.

It helps that the installation, itself, was built with conservation in mind. Parley engaged renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle and her company, DOER Marine, to help with construction. Submarine builder and DOER president Liz Taylor brought practical diving experience to the team, and a familiarity with the local ecology that helped the project secure the necessary permits. Gutsch even recruited local diver and conservationist Bill Bushing—“a local,” says Ginsburg; “Bill’s lived on Catalina forever, and he’s a legend”—to conduct a survey of the dive park, to find an ideal spot for the pavilions.

The materials, too, were selected to have a low impact on the environment, while also being resilient and remaining true to Aitken’s artistic vision. (There’s no point having mirrors that quickly corrode and stop reflecting, for example.) “We conducted pressure testing of materials to get some true measure of anticipated performance and durability,” says Liz Earle of DOER Marine, and Sylvia’s daughter.

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Even the infrastructure is low impact. Putting a trio of sculptures this large above ground would have required cranes and strong supports. Underwater, where the salt water affords a degree of buoyancy, installing the piece was as simple as lowering the structures into the water and securing it to the sea floor. The moorings are designed to be reusable for other purposes in the dive park, when the pavilions is eventually relocated, but they can also be removed completely without damaging the sandy ocean floor.

Although the installation is about art, not science, Liz Earle believes oceanographers could learn from the project. The textured surfaces of the pavilions will be left for plants and animals to grown on, but the mirrored surfaces will be scrubbed occasionally. “Since we know exactly when the pavilions were installed, divers can provide feedback as to what kinds of plants and animals begin growing on them, and how quickly,” says Liz Earle. The mirrored surfaces will provide a control and comparison. In the future, Sylvia Earle would like to work with scientists to integrate various sensors into the structures, to allow them to serve as “micro ocean observatories.”

If you can’t visit the installation in person, or just don’t fancy the cold ocean, Aitken plans to broadcast a a live stream of the pavilions from underwater. He says that a friend of his was looking over his footage, collected over the two years of designing, testing, and installing the project. He remarked that it looked better than the fictional scenes that virtual reality designers are creating, so that is a likely next stage for the project—a virtual fly through.

Eventually the Underwater Pavilions will be moved—their presence at Catalina is only temporary. At that point biologists will try to re-home any of the flora and fauna that made them their home. The next stop will likely be somewhere more tropical, but that’s still TBD. Their mission will remain the same, to give divers a new perspective, and to help viewers reflect on the state of the oceans.

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