According to his website, James deCairns Taylor is the creator of the world’ s first underwater sculpture park off the Caribbean island of Grenada (Thanks to Meredith for pointing this one out). One site calls it a “new phase of art travel,” because art has now moved into a new spatial frontier: the ocean. Another blog, “Not Possible IRL (In Real Life),” devoted to virtual phenomena only possible in Second Life, reviews the sculptures because they are “pushing the limits of what “real life” can do.” These sculptures do form a sort of virtual world, only accessible through technologies of scuba systems, snorkels, and glass-bottomed boats. And it is technology that enables us, as humans to traverse into this new material environment, one which we cannot “naturally” inhabit. In this way, our relationship to cyberspace, as a virtual space, parallels our relationship to underwater spaces.
While these are marked as the first “sculptures” underwater, man-made objects have long served as sites for underwater tourism. Shipwrecks are one of the most prevalent. Take for example the wrecks of Truk Lagoon in Micronesia. A Japanese fleet lies on the bottom of the lagoon and serves today as an underwater monument and museum which attract tourists from around the world. It strikes me that one might need quite a sense of detachment from the initial event to dive in a mass grave site. And perhaps it is just this sort of detachment that being in “another world” can provide.
Some countries have organizations to preserve and regulate these sites. For example, the US Parks service has a Submerged Resources Center dedicating to preserving and spreading awareness about US underwater cultural heritage (for example, Pearl Harbor). Unlike the Chuukese, Americans do not permit diving at Pearl Harbor. Unless, of course, you are Michael Bay.
Another example of “out of water” processes, objects, and sites being placed underwater is the Neptune Memorial Reef in Florida. This underwater park is, like Taylor’s sculptures and the Truk Lagoon wrecks, an artificial reef that could potentially regenerate aquatic life. However, it is also a burial site, where people can pay to have their ashes placed. The memorial website describes it as both a training ground for marine biologists and a theme park for divers. One blog locates this reef as part of an “emerging trend of offbeat burials, sending people to new frontiers after they die, from outer space down to the ocean floor.”
Many out of water objects placed underwater – sculpture, monuments, memorials, burials – are framed using the language of ecological preservation. Taylor’s site positions his sculptures as “promot[ing] hope and recovery, and underlin[ing] our need to understand and protect the natural world.” The fact that these objects are underwater seems to help us reconsider them as habitats for fish, as part of “natural” ecological processes. The medium of water does alter our perspective – but is it really one that makes us want to preserve some other natural world? Or, perhaps, does it comfort us because we see human objects (our art, our weapons, our bodies) integrated into the natural environment and ourselves as preserved in this process?