A disciple of America’s grand narrative of Land art, Los Angeles-based Doug Aitken has challenged the boundaries of the art experience for years, drawing viewers into his works through a visceral understanding of mankind’s interaction with planet Earth. From his “Sonic Pavilion,” a hole drilled 700 feet deep into the ground that projects the sounds of tectonic plates in Inhotim, Brazil, to “Migration,” a video that documents the intimate behavior of wild animals in the domesticated setting of a hotel room, Aitken’s oeuvre encompasses a worldview that is both polished and savage. Further evolving his multidisciplinary practice, the artist’s latest project is one of his most ambitious to date, removed as it is from the context of the gallery space (or even the context of dry land, for that matter), plunged underwater near Catalina Island off the coast of LA.

Entitled “Underwater Pavilions,” the project is a triangular collaboration between the artist, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the not-for-profit marine awareness organization Parley For The Oceans, and encompasses 4-meter-wide dodecahedron-shaped sculptures submerged in the Pacific Ocean that are anchored to the sea floor and buoyed on the surface to form a trio of hollow, mirrored shells. Fabricated from a white composite designed to accumulate algae and other sea life, the textured white surface of the sculptures creates a profound contrast when alternated with the slick, mirrored planes that reflect either inside or outside each work, creating a kaleidoscopic effect designed to attract snorkelers, scuba divers, and aquatic mammals alike. Open for public viewing from now until June of next year, the project provides ample opportunity (and warmer waters) for curious folk and fauna to discover the works in the flesh or via underwater webcams, which will soon transmit 24/7 from the submarine sculpture garden. One day before its opening, Document sat down with Aitken and Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch to discuss both the pragmatic and intangible realities of their joint venture, one with the potential to set a new precedent for rethinking the exhibition space in a marine environment.

Dan Thawley—How did you two meet?

Cyrill Gutsch—One year ago, we met here, at Doug’s studio. We discussed what each of us does and what we could do together. He came up with these great sketches. For Parley [For The Oceans], it was the beginning of a new chapter, as, before, we’ve strongly been involved in talks where we’ve invited inspiring people to focus on ocean plastic pollution. We’ve always felt that it was really important to bring these people into the same room, but at a certain point it became not satisfying enough, something was missing and we needed to act. So we took plastics out of the sea and turned them into product and developed strategies to begin to answer threats to the ocean. We felt that people just don’t really connect enough with the sea— it’s so far away, and, for a lot of people, something like a big blue carpet. They know it from their vacations on the beach, but it’s not like you really know what the oceans are by sitting by a pool or a resort or anywhere else. With projects like this, we want to change how people see the sea and how they decide to explore and invest in science.

Dan—Doug, how did you approach the idea of relating your artworks to an underwater environment?

Shawn Heinrichs x Doug Aitken, “Underwater Pavilions,” 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Image courtesy of the artist, Parley for the Oceans, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Doug Aitken—I make art in different mediums, and I found myself really restless with the idea of how art exists inside architecture, how it exists in the gallery environment or in the museum. We live in such an expansive universe right now, it’s moving so fast with so many options that the idea of constraint should be opened.  I was thinking about this when I was working on my MOCA exhibition. I thought, “Yes, we can make something with the museum that can be a project, but what if we roll it outside of the museum?” and I started thinking about the idea of landscape and there being a certain history of art existing outside of the museum. I thought of Land art, or Earth art, which was in the 60s and 70s (pieces that are often in deserts), and I saw that a completely different language [for] our generation is coming [out of] where we come from. I live here, on the West Coast, and I find myself constantly around the Pacific Ocean, looking out at it. There’s something about it, like a horizontal line, that just moves, and how minimal it is, and how little we see of it. We see nuances of color and monochrome but never with any definition. When you think about the fact that almost 70 percent of the earth is underwater, you realize that there is this inverted planet. Every mountain we have here is a mountain that is pushing down in some subterranean landscape. I really wanted to make something that makes the viewer step under the ocean and penetrate the surface and really create their own experience. I think that’s where our dialogue came from. I’m really interested in the idea that art can be living and continuously changing, and that anyone who experiences it will have a unique encounter that’s different from something that is fixed and frozen and immediate. As we see art as this increasingly capitalist system, where things are so commodified and they move so rapidly, that is it possible to have an alternative. I’m very grateful to collaborate with Parley on creating this. It’s amazing we can be sitting  here, in this gray, carpeted room, but that under the ocean 30 minutes off the coast there’s these pieces that are moving around.  I have no idea what’s happening now, and I love that.

Dan—It’s interesting that you mentioned the 70s, Doug, as these pieces remind me of a certain futuristic and utopian conceit from that era,  almost geodesic architecture. Like the pre-fab Finnish Futuro houses. How did you approach the aesthetic and pragmatic side of the design process?

Doug—That kind of crossroads and balancing act was kind of challenging and interesting for this project, because I was posed with a set of challenges that are so different from something on land. You don’t think twice about creating a sculptural form that could be exhibited in the art world context, but if you take that sculpture that is showing at the Met and you put it four feet under the ocean, suddenly it’s crushed. Things like that—the current, swell, and wind—all have to be part of it. It started to get really weird and interesting when I was at the studio and the doorbell would ring and it would be someone that makes deep ocean submarines and someone else who has a specimen of local sea life. This discourse became really interesting when they stepped into my world, looking into issues of perception and concept when, for them, it’s all about practicality. When we think “Where can culture go?” sections of culture become blurred, and this project, for me, has been a step into that territory of really questioning what art is. Also, for Cyrill, seeing where you can go with an environmental program that isn’t didactic.

Dan—To the experience itself: there is such a sense of tension because the double edged sword of this tranquility of being under the ocean and the immediacy (and almost slight sense of danger) is that you are scuba diving and you have a certain amount of time to be under the water…

Doug—And you’re moving back and forth between those different states of awareness. I’m not someone who’s been a diver for a long time.

Cyrill—You have to be in touch with yourself and be very aware that you are depending on air that you brought with you. This is not your element. You’re a guest, and you’re very fragile.

Dan—How did that dictate the positioning of the pieces in the ocean? Not only the choice of the island but also the facts there are different levels in the water?

Doug—I saw them as a constellation, and I was interested in this idea that you could have this area—they’re generally all in the same area—in which, you can see one and then another in the distance. They are all at different elevations, which gives very different experiences. The currents and tide and the schools of sea life; it’s a little bit like you’re moving through this vertical space to the surface to this deeper space, whereas on land you’re moving on a horizontal space. Everything from a museum to hiking in the mountains—the horizon is the key concept.

Cyrill—When you dive, there is no fixed point. When you’re flying through this blue whatever, suddenly there is this object that doesn’t belong there, and that really turns it into a spatial experience. It’s really strange and that’s what makes it really artificial in a way, but you, on the other hand, are still in touch with yourself, and in contact with it— it’s a very hands-on experience.

Doug Aitken, “Underwater Pavilions,” 2016, installation view, Avalon, California. Image courtesy of the artist, Parley for the Oceans, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

Doug—On land, they appear as formal sculptures. I remember walking up to them in the hot sun and the details that completely changed the second they went under the ocean. These things that you see as formal sculptures were informed by this huge collaboration between oceanographers and marine biologists that looked at the project and said, “Oh, this material cannot be crushed if we put it 30 feet under the ocean,” or, “It can float in a neutrally buoyant way.” This sounds almost too detailed talking like this, but it’s interesting because art, in a sense, doesn’t intend to have a function and to reverse that process with this—and all the collaboration that we worked with—readdresses that in a way.

Cyrill—The whole interaction between life underwater and life above the water is connected in a way. These pavilions are a space where mankind and nature meet. It’s also an invitation in both directions: of course, we don’t know what the animals do, but we saw a sea lion swimming past and checking itself out in the mirror. It is probably the first time a sea lion has ever looked into a mirror, and it was interested! This is the function the pavilions have: they are a beacon, they are a flag. But, on the other hand, they are a very practical connecting space where nature and mankind can meet.

Dan—Why use art to promote marine ecology?

Cyrill—You have to look at the role of the artist in the Parley community or structure. The artist has the leading role, he’s pretty much steering change for us, because the artist has the profession that is the most influential to all other creative disciplines. Everyone looks up to art or looks towards art as this maximum state of all freedom, and of true intention, and of opportunity to look for the subjects yourself. That is so strong, because the creative community as a whole is the only force in society that can make change happen really fast. We see it now, working with Doug on this and seeing how the discourses of our network with artists changes and opens people up.

Dan—Doug, this project holds a strong through line with your work in the past, that idea of human and animal interaction. Especially the live video feed, and the fact that we will be able to watch what’s going on with these different species interacting with it. Maybe 21 out of 24 hours a day, the only interaction these artworks will have will be with sea life. How do you feel about that?

Doug—To talk about this project in the context of my other artworks: the first piece I made that was a kind of a living artwork was the “Sonic Pavilion,” where we drilled into the earth so that inside the space you could hear the tectonic plates shifting and the planet’s rotation. I found that that really challenged my way of viewing the practice of art-making, and that idea that an art piece is in flux and that you go back to it and it’s different again. I found that really attractive. I think the language of aesthetics was played out in the 20th century, and, now, we’re going into a very different space. There’s almost a different concept of art: it can move at the speed of light or it can be intensely physical. In terms of “Underwater Pavilions,” I tried to merge both of those sensibilities to have something that is so physical and tactile, but at the same time it is moving in this dematerialized way. It kind of exists and it changes with or without you, but you can be there and participate.

Dan—So, it’s ocean art instead of Land art?

Cyrill—This project isn’t just about placing these “Underwater Pavilions” out there. We’re not collecting art, we’re building relationships and enhancing our network and learning and building and sharing. Therefore, these pavilions will go to the Maldives as the next stop, and there’s a lot to happen as we’ve only just started.

Doug—For me, it is a “return to the real” in a world where we have supplanted experience with synthetic experience, and so much of what we see is a rush towards some kind of fiction, some kind of authored show or virtual reality world. It was really shocking stepping into this cold water and feeling all these waves rushing up against my legs and pushing into this space and swimming through these enormous kelp forests and encountering something that was physical and tactile. It seems so hallucinatory, but it’s on Earth. It was that moment for me that really made it all come together as a complete awareness of the physical world.

“Underwater Pavilions” by Doug Aitken will be on view at Avalon Dive Park on Catalina Island from now until June 2017.

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