It is an international happening -- an art show that will have you holding your breath -- but only for so long. People in-the-know who have a C-card and the willingness to swim with big fishes, have been making underwater pilgrimages this summer in the Florida Keys to see the hidden work of Austrian artist Andreas Franke.
Considered one of the 200 best photographers in the world, Franke has once again taken his art underwater in the new show: The Sinking World - The Vandenberg Project #2. This is the fourth time that he has put together a composite photography exhibition that can only be seen wreck diving!
The photographer's newest underwater art exhibition has been installed on the wreck of the 523-foot Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, lying in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary about 10kms south of Key West. The exhibition went up on the 1st of April and runs till the end of July 2016.
Volunteer divers install a Franke photograph. Picture courtesy of the artist
In early April, divers from the Artificial Reefs International Preservation Trust installed a dozen photo illustrations on the Vandenberg's weathered deck, more than 30m below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. The pictures will stay affixed to the coral covered Vandenberg until the end of July.
Andreas Franke's photographs are encased in plexiglass and mounted in stainless steel frames sealed with silicone. They are a continuation of the artist's "Sinking World" series, which he debuted on the Vandenberg in 2011 shortly after the world's second largest artificial reef was sunk. In 2013 a second exhibition was installed on the wreck of the Mohawk, an artificial reef off Fort Myers, Florida in the Lee County wreck preserve.
Franke art work that was displayed in 2013 on the wreck of the Mohawk. Photograph courtesy of the artist
In the 2016 exhibition Franke has manipulated photographs that depict a flamboyant era of European style and cultural history against the backdrop of a sunken coral encrusted warship. Among visuals are women gossiping over a picnic and other ladies engaged in a leisurely stroll twirling umbrellas across the deck of the sunken WW2 troop carrier (and later missile tracking ship) Vandenberg.
Key West diver takes in the Vandenberg exhibition - Picture courtesy of the artist
Franke toured and photographed the Vandenberg prior to the ship being sunk to create an artificial reef. He also has photographs of the Vandenberg after she went down.
Three divers tour the Vandenberg exhibition. Picture courtesy of the artist
Working with these images in his Vienna studio he subsequently photographed costumed models to photograph dream-like sequences, which were mashed with the original photographs of the ship. He has created ghostly apparitions and whimsical views of the sunken warship.
Off Key West the Vandenberg has become an underwater version of the Flying Dutchman -- a ship, a crew and somehow some pretty female passengers doomed to sail the seas underwater eternally.
"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."
After 3-months underwater on the wreck of the Mohawk, Franke's art is under attack by the ocean elements - photograph by Stephen Weir
At the end of this underwater exhibition, "The Sinking World" images will be brought to the surface for display for non-divers to see.
At the wreck site you need scuba gear to make it down to the deck of the ship to see the works. The ship sits at almost 50 metres however Franke's photographs are hung on the upper decks - 30 metres - well within sport diving limits. Given the time constraints involved in diving at this depth (about 25-minutes) and since the composite photographs are placed throughout the ship, there is quite a bit of swim time required to take in the whole show.
Seeing this exhibition is a much different experience than contemplating a masterpiece in an air filled museum. The works have only been up for a month but already sea creatures and plant life have attached themselves to the pictures - in time divers will have to sweep off the plant life to see the images.
"That divers clean the art work is not too bad at all," Franke told me during his show previous to the Vandenberg. "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."
"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."
Sidebar: There are at least a dozen dive boat operators who visa the wreck of the Vandenberg on a regular basis. Dive charter outfits