OFF THE COAST OF CATALINA ISLAND
At first, the fish avoided the intruder. A couple of beefy sheepshead hid in the kelp near the shore. The electric orange Garibaldi swam in the other direction. A small school of blacksmith darted away.
After a year in development and a month of delays, the first of three swim-in, swim-out pavilions by artist Doug Aitken had just been submerged in a dive park off Avalon, Calif., and moored to the ocean floor.
The 12-sided structure, lined with mirrors to capture the sunlight, glowed with an otherworldly beauty as we approached it at a depth of 15 feet. This is what it must feel like to be inside a kaleidoscope, I thought as I swam through one of its open sides.
I had joined Aitken on his first dive to his destination artwork on a sunny day this month, a scuba novice waddling in my fins down steps outside the grand Catalina Casino, straight into the Pacific Ocean. The project's producer, Cyrill Gutsch, and two diving instructors tagged along.
Only the fish, potentially the most colorful participants, weren't biting. "I think all the activity scared them away," Aitken mused when he was back on land, sounding exhilarated anyway as he recalled the play of the reflections off the mirrors. "It was just hypnotic, with this pulsing light — I could see the ocean floor above me and the sun below me," he said.
An internationally celebrated video artist, Aitken, 48, has long sought collaborations with other artists, musicians and actors to help bring his work to life. In 2013, he turned a cross-country train ride from Brooklyn to Oakland, Calif., with recording and art studios on board, into what he called "a nomadic happening," inviting Patti Smith, James Turrell, Alice Waters, Olafur Eliasson and Urs Fischer to participate.
But making an artwork designed to be experienced at depths of 10 to 40 feet proved more challenging in some respects, with a new group of collaborators, an unpredictable setting and "more variables than anything I've done before," Aitken said.
He depended heavily on Gutsch's nonprofit environmental group, Parley for the Oceans, which is financing the project through private sources, and a team of outside marine experts for engineering. He also worked with local groups, the Avalon Harbor Patrol and mooring services to install the three pavilions, one after another, at different depths.
And now the structures are subject to the elements, dramatically changing appearance with the shifting tides, waning daylight, churning water and movement of divers, not to mention the instincts of fish, which were spotted inside the pavilions, along with a sea lion mesmerized by its own reflection. (The installation officially opens to divers Dec. 4 and is expected to remain a few months.)
Interactivity is the goal, Aitken said before our plunge. He spoke with the excitement of an entrepreneur in pitch mode, a role he often has to assume to secure financing for his projects.
"The moment the first pavilion entered the water, it stopped being a sculpture for me," he said. "It became this living system — constantly in flux, constantly changing, whether that's the sea life entering it, the kelp pushing at it or swimmers interacting with it."
He described his work as a "lens" or "door" into the ocean terrain. It's a strange realm, where light travels more slowly, sound travels faster and the feeling of floating underwater can flood you with sensations of deep peace and quiet.
The immersion into nature is a departure for Aitken, who is best known for video art that uses multiple, fragmented or alternative screens to capture today's hyperaccelerated culture.
Aitken's breakthrough work was his eight-projection Electric Earth, which won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999. He has also realized high-impact projects in more surprising settings, like his Sleepwalkers video, about the rhythms of city life, which took over the facade of the Museum of Modern Art in 2007, and his 2011 film, Black Mirror, which debuted on a floating barge off the coast of Greece.
A California native and longtime surfer, Aitken has lived on the edge of Los Angeles in Venice for decades. But this time he wanted to leave the city behind. "I felt strongly about not staging the piece on the mainland," he said, pointing to the urban sprawl in the distance, an hour's ferry ride away. "I didn't want something you could drive to, pull into a parking lot and see. I wanted a process to take you out of the everyday." In short, he wants to dilate time.
Some initiatives by Parley for the Oceans target specific issues, like plastic pollution, as in a partnership with Adidas that put such waste to use in manufacturing shoes and soccer jerseys. This one, Gutsch said, was meant to be a broader bid for attention. "Conservation only works if you put beauty first," he said. "Nobody wants horror stories about destruction done to the ocean; first you have to fall in love with it."
How do you extend the reach of such a work? Aitken's answer was cameras: He planted three close to the ocean floor and one in each of the pavilions. The Parley and Museum of Contemporary Art websites will carry video feeds starting Dec. 4. "I want to know that a student in Tokyo can open a tablet and see a feed from the pavilions live," Aitken said.
"The pavilions will probably go to the Maldives" eventually, Gutsch said. Aitken said he's curious to see how the installation might evolve in different locales and whether the now-pristine surfaces will slowly begin to host sea life, including barnacles, corals and algae.
"If it ever has a permanent home," Aitken said, "I can imagine it eventually becoming an artificial reef, completely overgrown."