Crew members watching the lowering of one of Doug Aitken’s “pavilions” into the Pacific for the artist’s underwater art installation. Credit Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times
OFF THE COAST OF CATALINA ISLAND — At first, the fish avoided the intruder. A couple of beefy sheepshead hid in the kelp near the shore. The electric orange Garibaldi swam in the other direction. A small school of blacksmith darted away.
After a year in development and a month of delays, the first of three swim-in, swim-out pavilions by the artist Doug Aitken had just been submerged in a dive park off Avalon, Calif., and moored to the ocean floor.
The 12-sided structure, lined with mirrors to capture the sunlight, glowed with an otherworldly beauty as we approached it at a depth of 15 feet. This is what it must feel like to be inside a kaleidoscope, I thought as I swam through one of its open sides.
I had joined Mr. Aitken on his first dive to his destination artwork on a sunny day this month, a scuba novice waddling in my fins down steps outside the grand Catalina Casino, straight into the Pacific Ocean. The project’s producer, Cyrill Gutsch, and two diving instructors tagged along.
Only the fish, potentially the most colorful participants, weren’t biting. “I think all the activity scared them away,” Mr. Aitken mused when he was back on land, sounding exhilarated anyway as he recalled the play of the reflections off the mirrors. “It was just hypnotic, with this pulsing light — I could see the ocean floor above me and the sun below me,” he said.
An internationally celebrated video artist, Mr. Aitken, 48, has long sought collaborations with other artists, musicians and actors to help bring his work to life. In 2013, he turned a cross-country train ride from Brooklyn to Oakland, Calif., with recording and art studios on board, into what he called “a nomadic happening,” inviting Patti Smith, James Turrell, Alice Waters, Olafur Eliasson and Urs Fischer to participate.
But making an artwork designed to be experienced at depths of 10 to 40 feet proved more challenging in some respects, with a new group of collaborators, an unpredictable setting and “more variables than anything I’ve done before,” Mr. Aitken said.
He depended heavily on Mr. Gutsch’s nonprofit environmental group, Parley for the Oceans, which is financing the project through private sources, and a team of outside marine experts for engineering. He also worked with local groups, the Avalon Harbor Patrol and mooring services to install the three pavilions, one after another, at different depths.
And now the structures are subject to the elements, dramatically changing appearance with the shifting tides, waning daylight, churning water and movement of divers, not to mention the instincts of fish — which were later spotted inside the pavilions, along with a sea lion mesmerized by his own reflection. (The installation officially opens to divers Dec. 4 and is expected to remain a few months.)
Interactivity is the goal, Mr. Aitken said shortly before our plunge. Dressed casually in a denim shirt and jeans, he spoke with the excitement of an entrepreneur in pitch mode, a role he often has to assume to secure financing for his projects.
“The moment the first pavilion entered the water, it stopped being a sculpture for me,” he said. “It became this living system — constantly in flux, constantly changing, whether that’s the sea life entering it, the kelp pushing at it or swimmers interacting with it.”
He described his work as a “lens” or “door” into the ocean terrain. And, as I learned, it’s a strange realm, where light travels slower, sound travels faster, and the feeling of floating underwater can flood you with sensations of deep peace and quiet.
The immersion into nature is a departure for Mr. Aitken, who is best known for video art that uses multiple, fragmented or alternative screens to capture today’s hyper-accelerated and technology-driven culture.
Mr. Aitken’s breakthrough work was his eight-projection “Electric Earth,” which won the International Prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999. He has also realized high-impact projects in more surprising settings, like his “Sleepwalkers” video, about the rhythms of city life, which took over the facade of the Museum of Modern Art in 2007, and his 2011 film, “Black Mirror,” starring Chloë Sevigny and commissioned by the collector Dakis Joannou, which debuted on a floating barge off the coast of Greece.
But his most ambitious works haven’t always lived up to expectations. His wild utopian train ride of an art experiment, called “Station to Station,” a success in some cities, nearly derailed in others when critics complained that it seemed like one big ad for Levi’s, its sponsor. And some video installations in his new survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art have been criticized as slick or overproduced, with Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times comparing his style to a Dolce & Gabbana perfume ad and dismissing his last decade of work as “distended spectacle.” The exhibition, he wrote, was too often “undone by a grating aura of chic ennui.”
Philippe Vergne, the museum’s director, who organized the show, noted that a certain amount of criticism comes with the ambitious nature of this artist’s work. “I think Doug is always asking himself: How far can I push? Sometimes you hit the wall. Sometimes you push through the wall.” About the review, he added: “I think it’s a misunderstanding of an artist who uses the language of mass communication as a strategy to ask us to think about different issues: What is a landscape? What is communication? It’s the opposite of selling perfume.”
It certainly seems as if Mr. Aitken is offering the Catalina project, developed to coincide with the survey, as a more meditative and less flashy experience, mirrors notwithstanding. No Hollywood names are involved and no collectors. The project began, he said, with a desire to “work with the ocean” and leave his own comfort zone.
A California native and longtime surfer, he has lived on the edge of Los Angeles in Venice for decades. But this time he wanted to leave the city behind. “I felt strongly about not staging the piece on the mainland,” he said, pointing to the urban sprawl in the distance, an hour’s ferry ride away. “I didn’t want something you could drive to, pull into a parking lot and see. I wanted a process to take you out of the everyday.” In short, he wants to dilate time.
In this way, the underwater project compares most closely to his contribution to the Instituto Inhotim sculpture park in Brazil, a site-specific work from 2009 that he called a “sonic pavilion.” There, in a 660-foot well, he planted a cluster of highly sensitive microphones, like those used to detect the breaking of glacial ice, to capture faint geologic rumblings. The sound of the Earth plays in real time inside a glass building on the surface — a portal to another landscape, if not quite another dimension.
The Catalina project proved more daunting logistically because of the ocean setting, and Mr. Aitken, no Jacques Cousteau, said he wasn’t sure where to begin. Enter Mr. Gutsch, who made the key introductions. He brought on the renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle as an early consultant, and a submarine builder, Liz Taylor, to oversee engineering. A local marine expert, Bill Bushing, conducted a video survey of the dive park to locate a site just outside the marine protected area. The high-end boat builder Westerly Marine handled most of the fabrication, with the artist’s studio assistants hand-carving the craggy pavilion surfaces that are not mirrored, made of a composite designed to foster marine growth. (Neither Mr. Gutsch nor the artist would disclose the project’s budget.)
Some initiatives by Parley for the Oceans target specific issues, like plastic pollution, as in a partnership with Adidas that put such waste to use in manufacturing shoes and soccer jerseys. This one, Mr. Gutsch said, was meant to be a broader bid for attention. “Conservation only works if you put beauty first,” he said. “Nobody wants horror stories about destruction done to the ocean; first you have to fall in love with it.”
The plan was to open in warmer weather, until the project hit some snags. One week in October, the engine on the mooring barge went out. Then a patch of rough weather kept everyone home. Using local workers also meant a different pace — “island time,” Mr. Aitken called it.
Throughout, Mr. Aitken had reservations about making a site-specific artwork in the spirit of Michael Heizer or Walter De Maria that could be experienced by only a select few. In this case, anyone wishing to enter the artwork should be a certified diver or take, as I did, a same-day course with an instructor who will accompany you underwater.
So how do you extend the reach of such a work? Mr. Aitken’s answer was cameras: He planted three close to the ocean floor and one in each of the pavilions. The Parley and Museum of Contemporary Art websites will carry video feeds starting Dec. 4. “I want to know that a student in Tokyo can open a tablet and see a feed from the pavilions live,” Mr. Aitken said.
He is also making a short film about the pavilions — atmospheric, “not narrative,” he said — that will be added to the museum’s survey next month. The Los Angeles show is traveling in 2017 to the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth. The pavilions’ trajectory is not yet firm.
“The pavilions will probably go to the Maldives,” Mr. Gutsch said, describing Parley’s history working there. Mr. Aitken said he’s curious to see how the installation might evolve in different locales and whether the now-pristine surfaces will slowly begin to host sea life, including barnacles, corals and algae.
“If it ever has a permanent home,” Mr. Aitken said, “I can imagine it eventually becoming an artificial reef, completely overgrown.”