The Awe-Inspiring Underwater World Off the Coast of LA

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Underwater Pavilions, 2016, installation view, Avalon, CaliforniaPhotography by Shawn Heinrichs/Patrick Fallon, Courtesy of the Artist, Parley for the Oceans and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Doug Aitken and Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch explain the breathtaking structures they've created near California's Catalina Island

You’ll need a wetsuit and flippers to experience Doug Aitken’s beguiling new artwork first-hand. Installed beneath the ocean 30 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, near Catalina Island, the Californian artist’s new constellation of glowing underwater pavilions are a secret doorway into the mysterious watery world offshore. Hidden among tall, blue-green forests of kelp, his mirrored sculptures were engineered with the help of submarine experts and deep-sea explorers. Their silvery surfaces reflect sun, sea, sky and a teeming kaleidoscope of sealife that blur and multiply into infinity. Swimming through them we glimpsed electric blue rockfish, neon-bright Garibaldis and ponderous-looking Yellowtail – even the odd sea lion has been caught fascinated by its reflection in the pavilions’ shiny surfaces.

To create his underwater gallery Aitken found a passionate accomplice in Parley for the Oceans, the pioneering initiative founded by campaigner Cyrill Gutsch to raise awareness of the multiple threats to our oceans and the extraordinary, alien creatures that live there. Floating weightless through the pavilions – on which algae and barnacles are already beginning to take up residence – is an electrifying, immersive experience that harnesses the natural wonder of the ocean; a livefeed beamed 24 hours a day allows land-lubbers from Berlin to Tokyo to tap into Aitken’s fluid spectacle too.

AnOther travelled to Catalina – a rocky island with roaming buffalo and an art deco casino frequented by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in Hollywood’s golden age – to speak with Aitken and Gutsch about this living, liquid artwork beneath the waves.

On the blue universe beyond the beach...
Doug Aitken: “Los Angeles is the precipice, it’s where the continent ends. I live here and you find yourself looking out at the ocean, and I was thinking how it’s just this horizontal line – how minimal that is and how little we see underneath it. It’s amazing to me that 30 minutes off the coast, there’s something intensely physical and beautiful and violent, all these pieces moving around and I have no idea what’s happening in there. When you think 70 percent of the earth is water, you realise there’s this inverted planet – for every mountain we have on land, there’s a mountain pushing down beneath the ocean. So I wanted to make something that allows the viewer to step under the Pacific ocean, to penetrate the surface.”

On the Jaws effect...
Cyril Gutsch: “Everybody knows the ocean from sitting on the beach, but most of us just see the packaging, the waves crashing against the rocks. Or, we know it from movies like Jaws or The Shallows. A lot of people we invite to dive, feel, 'this is so scary, so deep and dark'. But once they go down there it’s the opposite. It’s full of light, full of beauty, full of colours you’re never seen. It’s a magical blue universe. Once you see it, you’ll never forget. You’ll have salt water in your blood. Everybody comes home feeling different and they want to change things. The underwater pavilions achieve that without preaching or big speeches. It’s an invitation, a bait in a way, to dive in, get wet and flip the world upside down.”

On diving into the now...
Doug Aitken: “We have supplanted experience with synthetic experience. So much of what we see is this rush towards invented, authored fiction, the virtual reality world. It was really shocking stepping into this cold water in a wet suit, into waves brushing up against my legs and you’re hovering and floating and flying in slow motion through these enormous kelp forests and encountering something that is actually physical and tactile. And yet it seems so hallucinatory. I found myself thrust into the absolute present. You’re suddenly surrounded by schools of fish, and all these things are in flux, changing with the tide and the swell. You’re both at the centre of everything and you’re also a voyeur. It really made me feel the significance of being alive and the smallness of us, compared to this vast landscape we occupy.”

On life at the edge of the abyss...
Cyrill Gutsch: “Every second breath you’re taking right now is generated by the oceans, by all the creatures that live in there. Without them, you wouldn’t exist, the chemistry wouldn’t allow it. Species are dying at lightpseed and we’re destroying the creatures that allow us to be here. Our fascination with outer space is weird. Astronauts go up there to look for life, to look for water. And they’re sitting up there looking back at the world saying, why would we want to live on Mars? The blue marvel, the most beautiful place is right down there. Let’s go back and protect it. The beautiful situation we are in is that everything is possible right now. We can destroy this planet or we can save it. We’re sitting right there on the abyss and we just have to decide, will we take another step and fall over it, or will we jump up?”

Doug Aitken's Underwater Pavilions are open to the public now at Catalina Islands. With thanks to Parley for the Oceans, Underwater Pavilions, Doug Aitken Workshop, and MoCA.