Out of Water, Underwater: Sculpture and other Undersea Monuments

December 24, 2008

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.

Underwater Sculpture - James de Cairns Taylor

Underwater Sculpture - James de Cairns Taylor

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.

Truk Lagoon

Truk Lagoon

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.”

Neptune Memorial Reef

Neptune Memorial Reef

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?


Dolphin Mania (Ingleton, 2001)

June 27, 2008

Dolphin Mania is a film about dolphin swim tours in a small community outside Melbourne, Australia. This is one of the few places that these tours are allowed. The filmmakers interrogate the effects of the tours for both the people  and the dolphins who swim with them. The film brings up questions such as: is this really eco-friendly tourism? How can these operators balance people’s desire to make contact with marine animals (and worlds) without “turning it into a theme park?” What will the model for nature tourism be in the future?

One of the most useful things about the film is, perhaps, the accompanying study guide. Co-written by director Sally Ingelton and Christina Jarvis, author of “If Descartes Swam With Dolphins : The Framing And Consumption Of Marine Animals In Contemporary Australian Tourism (2000)“, the guide lays out the issues and poses questions for use in classrooms. The film itself is less easy to get a hold of.

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience

June 9, 2008

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, a book by Susan G. Davis, looks at the social construction of nature in Sea World of San Diego. She examines how ocean life in the park has been shaped by its corporate sponsors, its local context in San Diego, its ties to environmental education, and though not directly, media forms such as television and film. She writes:

“Television was central to the construction of the attraction and the city. For Sea World, it directly helped create exoticism and visibility. The park’s developers learned well from watching Disneyland: they connected the park to the dominant national medium by making its landscape resemble that of popular network programs like Adventures in Paradise. And from the beginning, they filmed TV shows in the park.”

Sea World is not only constructed in a way that draws from (and engages with) popular television (a spectacular but family friendly show, centered on ocean celebrities), but also serves as a set for future television and film. This was integral to getting the national audience necessary to keep Sea World afloat.

Even today, new media technologies, such as immersive worlds and large screen video, have continued to influence and become integrated with the park, assisting in the creation of ocean space as another (exotic) world.