Underwater Mystery Mingles with Human History in Sinking World Art

Diver views art on side of shipwreck. A diver viewing art from The Sinking World collection while it was on display on the Vandenberg in 2011.

Who among us doesn’t feel a sense of romantic allure in shipwrecks? After all, these sunken, silent testaments to life interrupted offer a thrill to divers when they teem once more with new life, thanks to the inexorable ecology of marine creatures.

This winter at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, visitors will be treated to a top-side viewing of this spectacle occurring at two of Florida’s shipwrecks. Covered in a patina formed by living sea creatures, photographs from the Mohawk and Vandenberg projects are collages comprised of people enacting moments from bygone eras against background images of these ships. The result is a set of stunningly real images that seem to bring the past to life.

This is the first time that the Mohawk project, illustrating scenes from the ship USS Mohawk off Sanibel Island, Florida, will be shown in the Florida Keys. The exhibition will also include artwork from the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a shipwreck located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The projects are part of Viennese artist Andreas Franke’s collection The Sinking World. His art transforms images of the two ‘creaky steel monsters’ – World War II ships intentionally sunk to create artificial habitat – into enchanting scenes. Franke has a talent for pushing the boundaries of photographic visualization, having made a name for himself by creating realistic looking photographic collages that depict fantastical subjects for commercial brands. But diving is his passion and in The Sinking World, talent and passion merge with ecology to illustrate hidden treasures found in the depths of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The ‘signature of the ocean,’ as Franke calls the patina formed from marine life, was created when the framed photographs were attached to the sides of the very ships which they depict to provide an exhibition for divers hundreds of feet below the sea surface.

The projects touch on two themes that are also central to Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary: natural resources and maritime heritage. For example, the Mohawk project focuses on World War II era maritime history, showing scenes of sailors tussling, locked in an arm wrestling match, getting tattooed, and dancing with a dame. The Vandenberg works have the unique distinction of being covered with algae, barnacles, and other marine life that originated in the sanctuary.

Man smokes pipe on shipwreck surrounded by fish. Ordinary moments, such as a ship captain smoking a pipe, become extraordinary reminders of the past when superimposed on underwater photographs of the shipwrecks, as shown in this piece from Franke's Mohawk project.

For resource managers, the science of artificial reefs is as important as their artistic appeal. Many reef-building invertebrates (think corals, sea anemones, and some types of sponges) must attach to a hard surface to grow. For some creatures, these steel vessels offer a surface that allows them to settle and thrive. But the science of artificial habitats is far from settled, and ecologists are still exploring several unknowns, one of which is whether artificial habitats produce greater numbers of fish or merely attract them from elsewhere. The key to resolving these scientific questions lies in monitoring data from artificial habitats.

Sanctuary policy is to consider permitting proposals for artificial habitats on a case-by-case basis, which allows managers to weigh potential pros and cons of each project to the natural and cultural resources of the marine environment. In February, the Sanctuary Advisory Council will bring together a panel to discuss the permitting and regulatory process for artificial habitats in sanctuary waters.

Meanwhile, The Sinking World exhibition, sponsored by Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, provides visitors to the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center a chance to ponder both the art and science of artificial reefs.