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Confessions of an UW art critic; Report from 90ft down on the Vandenberg

(DiverWire) About a mile offshore from Key West, one of the world’s most unique art galleries has just opened. In 90ft of water sits a set of prints by Austrian artist Andreas Franke. His subject? The USS Vandenberg, as it now rests on the ocean floor. But the scenes of the ship’s walkways and galley’s are not as one might expect, the artist has populated them with visitors: 1950’s teens wait in line for movie tickets on the ship’s upper deck, a workman looks up from his pale lunch on a cross-beam, a young girl chases schools of minnows with a butterfly net. The photos are incredibly impressive in any context. Andreas Franke’s imagination for the scenes is wildly original and beautifully executed. But there, on the deck of the ship itself, they take on an ethereal aura.

Let me back up a moment, as soon as I heard the breaking story of “The Vandenberg, Life Below the Surface” exhibit opening, I couldn’t wait to dive it. Then as luck would have it, my son was in town and we decided to take a trip to Key West. When he asked me for a suggestion on what to dive, I knew exactly where we would be going.

We met up on Tuesday afternoon. Storms had been blowing in and out all weekend, and we were worried we’d be forced to forego our dive and do the typical Duval crawl to get in our “traditional keys experience.” But the skies opened for a few hours of relatively calm seas and we caught a ride out with the amazing crew over at Lost Reef Adventures. They are seasoned professionals all around, putting equally heavy emphasis on fun and safety (they even provided a submerged tank for our safety stop should someone be low on air).

As we pulled up to the buoy, Captain Adam noted that the current was going to be a bit strong as he laid out the dive plan. “You’re going to need to be aware on this decent,” he told us. Once in the water, his suspicion was confirmed. The drop down the line was intense, but this only served to add to the excitement. Moon Jellies moved past us at speeds less like their usual lazy drift, and more like a mild gallop. Once on-deck however, the entire scene changed. With the bulk of the ship acting as a barrier, the current stopped, and we glided onto the deck in a scene of quietus bliss. It was like the ship was readying herself for us. Relax, she told us, take in my beauty. And she is a thing to behold. Fish darted all around. Two cuda’s took up a zen-like residence in the expanse of water behind a satellite dish. The sprawling decks rolled far out beyond our range of vision. Once everyone was down and acclimated, we headed to the starboard side of the ship to view the gallery.

To view the gallery, one must move intricately along the ship’s railing, finding precise places to clutch to ensure minimal interaction with the life growing on the reef. You would never have to think about which tile to stand on when viewing a painting in a traditional gallery, but here, all aspects of the experience are active. Though less intense than on the descent, there is a considerable current along the side of the ship where the gallery is installed. Coordinating your movements, taking in glimpses of the photos between blasts of bubbles from your regulator (the moving current can occasionally cause your bubbles to wash in front of you instead of their typical upward trajectory). I have never been so excited while viewing art. The shift, from the normally passive viewer experience, to the active one on the dive is exhilarating. The same fish that fill the photos drift by for a visit. When you come across the photo of a ghostly patient in a wheel chair, you can dip your head below the viewing deck to the level below and see the exact corridor the photo was taken in. The eerie passenger is obviously absent, but the effect is incredible.

As we reached the end of the stretch of photos, it was time for us to head back the boat. We popped up over the top of the deck and swam to the line that ascended from the antenna base. As we made our slow ascent and safety stop, I had time to collect my thoughts on what I’d just seen, no what I’d just experienced.

You see, I’m no art critic. I could not explain what the Dada-its movement was, or why impressionism is so great. But I do know that good art, art that impacts us and changes us, has layers. It is much more than the objects placed in front of the viewer. We learn something about beauty, about life, about sorrow. We learn about humanity when art touches us. The Vandenberg is a beautiful ship. To dive it is to interact with that beauty. But the art exhibit extends that experience. The beauty of the ship is the inspiration, the venue, the prime subject of the photos. To see them there, amplifying their impact, shouting to the viewer, this is truly the way we were meant to be seen! It is like no other interaction with art I have ever experienced.

I heavily encourage you to take a trip down to see the exhibit while you can. From the moment we stepped on the boat with the Lost Reef Crew, there was an electric buzz in the air. They knew and respected this amazing spectacle, ushered us through the dive with that sentiment, and all in all, it was one of the best dives I’ve ever had. You can keep the Louver and the MET, I’ll take the Vandenberg.

 

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