Vandenberg project celebrates 10-year anniversary with weekend of events

By Erin Stover Sickmen

On May 27, 2009 the USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg was intentionally sunk to create an artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, six miles off the coast of Key West. In just one minute and 44 seconds, the 522-foot-long Vandenberg settled on the ocean floor, preparing to transition into the second largest artificial reef in the world. Marine life began moving in immediately and the Vandenberg, or “Vandy,” as it’s lovingly referred to by some divers, is now home to pelagic and reef fish, aquatic plants and animals.

The Vandenberg has also, on occasion, served as an art gallery. In 2010, internationally renowned visual artist Andreas Franke dove 140 feet below the surface to photograph the sunken behemoth. After processing the photographs, he added nostalgic scenes of daily life to the hauntingly empty ship surfaces. He then returned to the sea floor and secured the finished pieces to the ship with specially designed magnets. The photos remained on the ship for four months, during which time divers could visit one of the most unusual exhibition spaces in the world. When the photos resurfaced, they were transformed, carrying barnacles, colorful distortions and other evidence of time under the sea. The effects of the ocean became a major element of the work, a slow procedure that, at the point of installation, took control from the artist and handed it over to the ocean. Franke waited patiently, finishing the last step in creating 12 inimitable works of art.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Vandenberg sinking, Franke is reprising his project with a few new twists. The newest collection of photographs doubles the size of his last installation—from 12 to 24 works. At the time of writing, the 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of artwork were somewhere over the Atlantic, en route from Austria to Key West.

More than scale, though, the new project shows a shift in tone and conversation. The new series, “Plastic Ocean,” sends a message of the necessity of removing plastic from the ocean and preventing more from entering the waters.

One set of photographs features classical female faces staring at the viewer through layers of floating detritus, collected by Franke on the Italian coast. Another set shows children looking through the same watery backlog. For Franke, the women represent the beauty of all we have to appreciate in the oceans. The children symbolize the future, innocently staring out, seeking assistance and reassurance.

He speaks of the works as part art installation, part awareness campaign.

“I feel I had to do something like this,” Franke said. “As a photographer, I can help more by making photos than donating money. In the beginning, it was a project, but now it’s more than a project.” It’s true that the reach from this venture is invaluable. “In Key West, where you have the ocean, you know the ocean, but we need to tell this to everyone,” said Franke, who splits time between Key West and Austria. He hopes that by pushing the project far and wide, the message will resonate with a larger audience, many of whom may never have visited an ocean.

The anniversary celebration brings together two distinct communities in Key West. Artists may find themselves strapping a tank on their back to see the unique gallery space, while the dive community will be submerged in the art world for a few months.

Project Lead Joe Weatherby straddles both worlds, having worked with Franke on the first iteration of the project, “The Sinking World.” He’s excited for the opportunity to take the project to a new level. “We’re bringing the circus back to town”, he laughed about the upcoming schedule of events. There is something for everyone: aquatic types have plenty of chances to dip below the surface and witness installations. Top-siders can enjoy the events on dry land, seeing the photos on display at the Ingham Maritime Museum prior to their submersion, and then celebrating the installation with a social hour and slide show after Franke and the divers return to shore.

The Vandenberg is certainly worthy of such fanfare. Weatherby said the reef that resulted from the sinking “exceeded expectations, environmentally and economically.” He recalls being on the water the day of the sinking, watching everything play out exactly as he had planned. “I wish everyone could have just one day in their life to feel like I felt that day.”

Above-water events

Thursday, May 23
Public preview of Andreas Franke’s “Plastic Ocean”
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum at Key West’s Truman Waterfront
6 to 9 p.m.
FREE; donations to Ingham Maritime Museum appreciated
Visit uscgcingham.org or plasticocean.gallery.

Friday, May 24
“Plastic Ocean” social mixer and slide presentation
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum at Key West’s Truman Waterfront
6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
FREE; donations to Ingham Maritime Museum appreciated

Saturday, May 25
10-year anniversary happy hour
Turtle Kralls
231 Margaret St.
7 to 10 p.m.

Saturday, May 25 – Sunday, August 25
“Sinking World” and “Plastic Ocean” exhibition
7 Artists and Friends Gallery
213 Simonton St.

Dive opportunities*

Friday, May 24
“Plastic Ocean” underwater installation on Vandenberg
8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Saturday, May 25
Placement of POW/MIA table setting on Vandenberg
8:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Monday, May 27
Memorial Day dives
Unfurling of U.S. flag and Conch Republic flag on Vandenberg
8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Saturday, May 25 – Sunday, August 25
“Plastic Ocean” exhibit on display on Vandenberg

*Booking availability through various local dive operators

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