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Enjoy the Art Exhibit But Mind the Bull Shark

08/30/2013 04:06 EDT | Updated 10/30/2013 05:12 EDT

It is an international happening -- an art show that will have you holding your breath -- but only for so long. People in-the-know and who have access to dive equipment, a big boat and the willingness to swim with big fishes, have been making underwater pilgrimages all summer to see the hidden work of Austrian artist Andreas Franke.

Considered one of the 200 best photographers in the world, Franke has taken his art underwater in the new show: The Sinking World Of Andreas Franke -- Mohawk Project -- Life Above Refined Below . This is the third time that he has put together a composite photography exhibition that can only be seen underwater.

The present show (which closes Sept. 14) is on the remains of the Mighty Mo', the USS Mohawk (WW2 Coast Guard Cutter). She saw action in the North Atlantic throughout the War, and last year she was scuttled to create an artificial reef 28 miles east of Fort Myers and Sanibel Island, Florida, in the wide-open blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The wreck has quickly become a habitat for game fish and a popular dive destination for scuba divers. Franke toured and photographed the ship prior to her sinking and then once again when she was on the bottom.

Back in Vienna he imagined the life of sailors past, aboard the 78-year old Mohawk -- their daily lives and their dreams of home. He superimposed studio shot images he took of models in period clothing onto his original photography of the ship.

These mashed-up scenes are ghostly apparitions of Franke's whimsical view of the War. The Mohawk becomes an underwater version of the Flying Dutchman -- a ship, a crew and somehow some pretty female passengers doomed to sail the seas underwater for all time eternal. Not guts and glory, these are pictures of svelte sailors and sunbathing women lounging on a ship that isn't fighting the foamy rage of the North Seas, and hidden Nazi submarines. Their is a summer camp look to life aboard the sardine-close quarters of this a 165ft long five-deck floating tin can.

According to the artist, he is exploring themes of love, loss, and youth at a time when the whole world was at war. "I imagined these sailors waiting in the North Atlantic for a German sub to attack them, so in these images I tried to make their lives a little bit nicer with the girls on board. If I was there, what would I want? It's a dream, a fantasy land for sailors."

The dozen works of art now installed on the Mighty Mo depict the fighting men and women of the 40's as buff and barely dressed, on board a steel hulled vessel that is more party boat than warship. One sailor, wearing only rolled up white pants, comes onto a sunken deck with a 30 lb wrench casually carried on his shoulder, his well defined six pack barely showing the strain.

Another has a sailor and gal smooching on the stern while a school of fish swoop over the deck. Two men arm wrestle on deck, a captain grabs a smoke outside the wheelhouse, and everyone is oblivious to the fact that they are pictured underwater!

Women sunbathe and drink fancy drinks on the bow of the sunken ship. In another composite photograph, two sailors and their girl nap with the fishes on the bow. There are pictures of deck brawls, tattoo sessions and sailors courting the women in a style that is as lost in time as the ship they stand upon.

"In case of the Mohawk everything went very well from the beginning," said the artist. "I had the chance to see the ship before it was sunk. The first time I saw the ship I thought it was a great ship. We have a very close relationship with Joe Weatherby, www.reefmakers.com who was responsible for the sinking of the Mohawk. We were also very lucky that we got a lot of support from Lee County So we were able to get the permission to hang the art on this wreck very short-term."

Each image measures roughly 2.5 by 3.5 feet and is encased in steel-framed Plexiglas. Industrial grade magnets firmly affix the works to the hull. "During their time at sea, the photos will evolve with accumulation of marine life," explains the artist, "which will give them a seaworthy patina and life of their own and ennobles the art work to unique pieces."

At the end of this underwater exhibition, "The Sinking World" images will be brought to the surface for display at the Lee County Alliance for the Arts galleries in Fort Myers on Oct. 4, 2013. The mashed-up photographs will remain on display until Oct. 26, 2013.

At the wreck site you need scuba gear to make it down to the deck of the ship to see the works. When the exhibit was set up at the beginning of the summer there were 12 works of art hung on the iron walls of the ship - earlier this week I assisted in the removal of two of the pieces (because of magnet detached).... so now divers can only take in a 10-piece exhibit.

Given the time constraints involved in the science of diving, when breathing compressed air, the longest one can dally at 90 feet down, is about half an hour. And, since the composite photographs are scattered throughout the 5-decks of the ship, there is quite a bit of swim time required to take in the whole show.

Seeing this exhibition is much different than breathing fresh air and contemplating a masterpiece in a museum. The works have only been up for two months but already sea creatures and plant life have attached themselves to the pictures - I had to rub off a thick layer of growth to take the pictures posted on this page.

Having worked for years within an art gallery environment, I felt like I was damaging the work of art and offending the artist. Not so, according to Franke.

"That divers clean the art work is not too bad at all," he told me. "As long as they only clean the main part of the images it doesn't bother me a lot. On the contrary, it is finally a part of the whole concept. My work is done as soon as the artwork is fixed on the wreck. Then the ocean and the diver decide how the final image will turn out. "

"During the time under the surface, the salt water coats and redefines the images with a patina made of algae and microorganisms. This and the touch of the divers transform each work to an entirely inimitable and absolutely unique art work," he continued. When the pictures are brought to the surface "again, the art work will be dried and sealed professionally so that they can be shown in a gallery."

Being on scuba changes everything. One doesn't sit and contemplate the art; you have to use your flippers to maintain an upright position (there can be a current washing along the deck of the ship). Because colour disappears with depth the pictures look like they are shot in black and white.

More importantly you must be mindful of a family of massive jewfish who have taken up permanent residence on the ship. These 500 lb behemoths thinking nothing of getting between you and the art show.

The day before I visited the ship, divers reported seeing a 6ft long bull shark swimming slowly over the stern deck near one of the art pieces. No divers were lost, so obviously the shark was a kind critic!

"Hope (that all) the art critics will be as gracious with me!" said the artist. "Anyway, I am glad you weren't there the day before! "

SO WHAT IS NEXT

"I am completely fascinated by that mystical underwater world, the very peculiar emptiness and a tragic stillness but also by the shipwrecks. The depth has no big influence at all as long as divers can reach them."

Frankes has held three different underwater exhibitions. Prior to the Mohawk he has presented two different shows on the massive underwater wreck of the USS Hoyt Vandenberg (Florida Keys) and the SS Stavronikita (Barbados).Time consuming and costly to mount, Frankes looks forward to producing more underwater exhibitions.

"You are right assuming the projects are rather expensive," he told me. "I don't want to go into details but so much, all the money comes out of my pocket. There are no sponsors at all."

"So our goal is to find a sponsor for every upcoming exhibition. I am convinced this will be possible as especially the tourism and dive industry has a lot of advantages, not only due to the really amazing international media interest."

The artist won't say what he has planned but does admit that there are some new projects in the works "It is too early to talk about them. But you can stay tuned for more to come!"

HOW TO SEE THE SHOW

There are at least five dive boats visiting the wreck of the Mohawk on a regular basis. People wanting to see The Sinking World Of Andreas Franke -- Mohawk Project -- Life Above Refined Below, must be certified divers and prepared for a 4 hour round trip to the site

Because the wreck is almost 30 miles out to sea, the dive departures are weather dependent. When I dove on the Mohawk it was 86 degrees Fahrenheit on the deck of the ship. I dove with Hard Core Hook & Line Charter.

Photographs -- Lee County, Andreas Franke and Stephen Weir

The Sinking World Of Andreas Franke -- Mohawk Project -- Life Above Refined Below