A gallery submerged

The ocean’s depths have fascinated humans for centuries. Recently, singers and artists have harnessed this fascination to create art that both aids and overcomes the power of the ocean.

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

Illustration by Kayla Oliver

You kick your way down towards the sea bed. Before you, a sprawling mass of coral and algae, bleached white upon the ocean floor. You’ve visited this stunning reef once before, many years ago, but the current reality is disappointing. Have the many passing years coloured your memories of this place? They must have, for there seems to be no colour here at all. This reef was once a magnificent garden, filled with life and beauty, but what stands in its place now more closely resembles a graveyard. The algae has died, the once-vibrant rainbow of coral has been sucked dry, and only a few small fish poke their way uncertainly about the wastelands that remain. In your distraction, your flipper collides with a branch of coral. A chunk breaks free, you watch it tumble slowly downwards to the ocean floor, and you think to yourself: “Oh well, what difference will one little branch  make?” The problem is, many thousands before you have thought the same.

Just off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, a circle of cement figures stand in eternal watch. Jason deCaires Taylor is the co-founder of this underwater sculpture park known as the MUSA (del Museo Subacuático de Arte), which so strikingly captures the destruction of our natural reefs. While at first glance the statues appear cold and lifeless, closer inspection reveals that the ocean has reclaimed them, and new life has emerged from these static forms. All manner of sea life now clings to the sculptures. Green algae has all but consumed the faces of some sculptures, while coral clings like bangles to the arms of others. Little fish dart in and out of specially designed holes in a television, and secret doorways allow lobsters to seek refuge within a concrete car.

 
Jason deCaires Taylor’s circle of underwater guardians is providing much-needed relief for the reef in which it stands. © Jason deCaires Taylor (used with artist’s permission)

Jason deCaires Taylor’s circle of underwater guardians is providing much-needed relief for the reef in which it stands. © Jason deCaires Taylor (used with artist’s permission)

 

This marvellous underwater museum harnesses the magic of the ocean, adding a new dimension to the experience of sculptural art. Made from materials upon which coral can thrive, this museum acts as an artificial reef, returning life to the ocean and providing much-needed shelter for all the organisms displaced by the destruction of their once vibrant habitats. This is not the first underwater sculpture park deCaires Taylor has established. It is the largest, however, with a collection of over five hundred sculptures submerged beneath the sea. This museum of cement guardians eases the strain upon the struggling natural reef nearby, allowing it to recover from the damage that years of overfishing, pollution, tourism and severe weather conditions have had upon its delicate habitat.

Jason deCaires Taylor created his museum to lure destructive tourists away from the fragile, natural reef, to a place where they can do no harm. Each year, an estimated 750,000 people visit this sculpture park, providing some much needed relief to the decaying ecosystem. Slowly, colour has begun to seep back into the bleached reef, and the first fish have begun to return to their natural home. 

In 2001, assessments showed that 27% of the world’s reefs had been lost, and while much of that loss can be attributed to natural disasters, the impacts of tourism and pollution cannot be denied. Tourists walking directly on the coral reef and tour boats dropping anchors amongst the coral has caused irreparable damage. Global warming has caused a dramatic rise in events of coral bleaching. Reports have shown that in the years between 1876 and 1979, only three bleaching events were recorded; in 2002, there were 400. Coral reefs are home to some 25% of the ocean’s wildlife, containing an estimated 2 millions species, and threats to the reefs are also a threat to that biodiversity. While Taylor’s sculptural museum can’t reverse the effects of global warming, it does provide a safe place for reef-reliant wildlife to find shelter, as many of his sculptures are built hollow with small entrances that only select species of fish and crustaceans can pass through, providing the ocean’s wildlife with plenty of places to hide, mate and spawn.

 

Coral bleaching episodes have been on an exponential rise since the late 1800s, and are of significant danger to the vitality of reef ecosystems.

 

BJ Price, an avid diver and ocean explorer, is another artist seeking to give voice to the plight of the reefs, specifically, the Great Barrier Reef, which Price has described as his muse. An abstract expressionist, Price’s work borrows heavily from nature to mimic the shapes and colours of the reef. Not happy to simply emulate its wonders, Price displays his work within the very reef that so inspires him. Amongst the natural wonders of the Great Barrier Reef, Price’s aluminium prints can be found secured to specially-weighted easels. Price uses oil paint, a waterproof medium, to create his masterpieces.

In the future, Price’s artwork may be all we have to remember this once magnificent natural wonder, for the Great Barrier Reef is an icon under pressure. A 2012 report estimated that the Great Barrier Reef has lost as much as half of its coral coverage in the past 27 years. Coral reefs are delicate habitats, and their existence relies heavily upon a careful balance of factors. Climate change has caused sea temperatures to rise, ocean acidification, and frequent severe storms - a deadly combination for reef ecosystems. Pollution and tourism are also significant contributing factors to the growing destruction of our coral reefs.

 
The world’s largest reef system, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is under severe danger from anthropogenic pollution and climate change, two of the major causes of coral bleaching. Steinchen/Pixabay (CC0)

The world’s largest reef system, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, is under severe danger from anthropogenic pollution and climate change, two of the major causes of coral bleaching. Steinchen/Pixabay (CC0)

 

The ocean has always been mysterious and deadly, unpredictable and wild. Every year, the ocean unveils more of its secrets: from ancient submerged architecture, to its miraculous, often frightening underwater inhabitants. The human race has a passion for discovery, and yet, for all our ambition, it is estimated that the we have explored less than 5% of the ocean. The work of artists such as Jason deCaires Taylor and BJ Price, attempt to harness the power of the ocean within their art, while also fighting to defend the ocean from the many dangers that currently threaten it. 

Faced with the many great mysteries of the ocean, it is no wonder that humans have long attempted to control it. It is also no great surprise that, in our attempts to harness the might of the ocean, all we have managed to do is put it in grave danger. Mankind has never been particularly good at accepting that which it cannot control, after all, Perhaps that is why water holds such fascination for the human race. Perhaps water simply serves as a reminder that we aren’t quite as powerful as we would like to think.

Danish singer Laila Skovmand has taken her fascination with water to a whole new realm, choosing to work within the unique restrictions placed upon her by water to produce a new kind of sound. Laila is the talented mind behind Aquasonic, performed completely within five tanks of water, each containing a member of the band Between Music, and a variety of very specially crafted instruments.

 
Laila Skovmand, singer and mastermind behind AquaSonic, has mastered the technique of singing underwater using the small air supply created by the controlled use of bubbles. Photography by Per Victor for Between Music's AquaSonic (used with artist’s permission)

Laila Skovmand, singer and mastermind behind AquaSonic, has mastered the technique of singing underwater using the small air supply created by the controlled use of bubbles. Photography by Per Victor for Between Music's AquaSonic (used with artist’s permission)

 

Skovmand developed her technique of singing underwater by holding an air bubble in her mouth through which she could sing whilst submerged. This technique creates a limited air supply within the bubble, meaning short, higher tones are the easiest to produce. Sound travels in waves, causing surrounding particles to vibrate and bump into one another. Air, in which the particles are much further apart, produces little resistance to this force, which is why it is easier to produce sound. Water, however, is much denser, meaning that it takes a lot more energy to transmit these vibration. However, while sound may be harder to produce, once enough vibration energy has been produced in water, sound waves travel four times faster and significantly further than they would in the air. This is because in air, the more loosely packed particles need to travel further in order to bump into one another and transmit sound, but within the more tightly packed water, particles barely need to move in order to bump into their closest neighbour. All this means that Skovmand has to sing with significantly more force underwater, creating enough vibrations to combat the sound-muffling nature of such a dense medium.

Singing underwater is not the only obstacle Skovmand had to overcome. The difficulty lies again in water’s density. Standard instruments rapidly degrade after prolonged submersion - they also do not resonate with enough force to produce sound-carrying vibrations. Any instrument that relies upon friction to produce sound, such as a bow upon the strings of a violin, is much less capable of producing sound when friction is greatly reduced underwater. But creating an instrument that is both strong and forceful, but not impossibly large, proved to be a challenge.

As a result, Between Music had to get, well, science-y. A host of new, water-ready instruments were created by Andy Cavatorta to combat the numerous challenges presented to the band, and included a range of string, air, and percussion. String instruments, like the rotacorda, utilised a crank to strike the strings with a mechanical hammer. A crystallophone was made up of a series of bowls, a hydraulophone was built as an underwater organ, and a drum kit constructed out of specially modified gongs and cymbals. 

Between Music perform AquaSonic with custom instruments, entirely underwater. Photography by Jens Peter Engedal for Between Music's AquaSonic (used with artist's permission)

Between Music perform AquaSonic with custom instruments, entirely underwater. Photography by Jens Peter Engedal for Between Music's AquaSonic (used with artist's permission)

Perhaps the largest challenge in creating underwater instruments, however, is sourcing materials. Many materials degrade in water, such as wood and ferrous metals. Degrading materials can contain all kinds of toxic substances that can produce harmful waste, with certain combinations being more harmful than others. Underwater, however, this degradation has a much more interesting side effect. The galvanic series describes the nobility of metals. This ‘nobility’ represents a metal’s susceptibility to corrosion in a moist environment. More noble metals such as silver, gold and brass, are very corrosion-resistant. Less noble metals degrade or oxidise much quicker.. The real danger lies in the combination of two metals on opposite ends of the galvanic series in water - they create an electric cell which could potentially electrocute the performer. Thus, such dangerous metal combinations (for example, brass and zinc) were carefully avoided.

Unique in every way, Cavatorta’s instruments are not only comprised of water-resistant materials. Underwater, a plucked string must vibrate the entire mass of water in order to produce a note. To do this, the string must have enough weight to carry the necessary force, resulting in an incredibly heavy instrument. These specially designed instruments are significantly heavier than standard instruments, and wholly capable of producing the required force to vibrate.

 

Between Music’s AquaSonic performance is based entirely underwater, with specially created instruments, speakers and singing techniques to produce sound in such challenging conditions.

 

So Skovmand and Cavatorta had solved the problem of producing sound underwater, but how was this sound going to reach through the glass aquariums to the audience in the open air? The problem was to be solved with underwater microphones, known as hydrophones. Hydrophones are usually made of piezoelectric materials which, when subjected to pressure changes in the surrounding environment, produce electrical voltage. Due to the sensitive nature of hydrophones, however, even the smallest sound, such as the click of an elbow could be distractingly loud. The solution to this problem wasn’t so much science-based as the rest of it - socks and knee pads are sufficient in dampening such disruptive sounds.  

The final result is a unique and haunting performance. Skovmand’s singing voice is not unlike the song of a siren, strange and alien, yet recognisably human. The incredibly technical performance is not just a treat for the ears, but for the eyes as well. Skovmand’s dress splays out behind her like great red fins, hair swaying gently back and forth, and the band’s movements are slow as they strain to combat the grasping nature of water. What the band provides is a beautiful, mysterious and inspiring performance.

While water provides many challenges, it is precisely these challenges that give Aquasonic its unique and otherworldly quality, and what continues to give deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculptures a timeless beauty.

Edited by Sara Nyhuis and Jessica Herrington

International Producer and Representation for Between Music's AquaSonic: FuturePerfect Productions - futureperfectproductions.org

For information regarding AquaSonic tours contact: wayne@futureperfectproductions.org