It seems unlikely that a 60-year-old ship of war would end up as the home of a surreal art gallery. Which is an example of exactly why Spot Cool Stuff so loves to travel:
The world is full of unlikely attractions in unlikely places. And some of those places aren’t even on land.
The exhibit is attached, literally, to the USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg. Though that’s not the ship’s original name.
The vessel began her life as the USS General Harry Taylor, a transport ship of the American Navy that ferried troops during Word War II between San Diego and various fronts in the South Pacific.
In 1961, the ship was was transferred to the control of the U.S. Air Force and was renamed after a former Air Force Chief of Staff. Three years later, the Vandenberg was transferred back to the Navy, which was apparently too busy using the ship to conduct atmospheric research and missile guidance tests to bother renaming it again.
The Vandenberg was eventually decommissioned in 1983. After that, the ship followed the path of so many American retirees — she moved to Florida. There, the Vandenberg spent time as a tourist attraction and even dabbled in some acting, playing the role of a Russian ship in the movie Virus†. Eventually, the Vandenberg was purposely sunk off the Florida Keys to create an artificial reef‡.
That’s where Austrian artist Andreas Franke enters our story. While on vacation in Florida, Franke did a dive down to the Vandenberg, taking many underwater photos of the wreck in the process.
After he returned home, Franke was struck by how devoid of life his photos looked, despite the teaming schools of fish around the sunken ship. That prompted him to superimpose onto his photos scenes of everyday life on land — scenes like waiting in line at the cinema, exercising at the gym and lounging on a couch watching TV. (See examples of Franke’s work on the right).
That done, Franke was inspired by another idea: Displaying his artwork underwater, on the ship itself!
He pitched the idea to officials in Key West, who responded enthusiastically but added a curious caveat: To ease the permitted process, nothing about the exhibit could be permanent. Franke obliged, concocting a way to attach his art to the ship’s hull via magnets. The photos themselves are encased in 3 millimeter plexiglass and mounted in stainless steel frames sealed with silicone. No other materials were used.
The final result is an exhibit that’s beautiful but haunting. Though the Vandenberg never saw combat, and no hands were lost when she sank, looking at Franke’s artwork underwater, through a scuba mask, feels like peering at the ghostly after-images of people who once lived aboard the ship. It’s all disarmingly surreal.
Most of the local Key West dive shops can arrange a trip to the Vandenberg. She’s under approximately 140 feet (43m) of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, about 6 miles (10 km) from Key West.
Franke is currently working on another similar exhibit off the coast of Barbados. But his are not the world’s only underwater artworks, as regulars of Spot Cool Stuff’s travel blog know — check out the underwater sculpture garden in Cancun, Mexico.
† For the movie, set designers painted Cyrillic letters on the side of the ship — letters that are still visible today.
‡ At 522 feet long, the Vandenberg is the world’s second largest artificial reef. The largest is also in Florida waters. It’s the 904 foot-long (276 m) USS Oriskany, which lays submerged in the Gulf of Mexico about 24 miles (39 km) south of Pensacola.
Planning your Key West trip
Getting there: Southwest Airlines is one of the best sources for Key West flights and vacation deals. Driving down on Route 1 from Miami looks tempting on a map but is a slow, often frustrating, drive in reality. We suggest flying at least one way.
If you go: There’s a huge amount to do around Key West — we’re especially fond of the snorkel and sunset sail. If you are plan on visiting a few of the more popular Key West attractions (Hemmingway’s home, the Shipwreck Historeum, etc), a fixed-price Island Passport will end up saving you both money and hassle.
Family friendly? Key West as a whole is mostly family friendly, though not nearly to the extent as is Orlando and other popular Florida travel destinations.
Where to stay: Key West has a multitude of small, wonderful hotels. Of them, none might be more wonderful than the Marquesa Hotel, a Spot Cool Stuff favorite.
For your bookshelf: Key West: Tequila, a Pinch of Salt and a Quirky Slice of America
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The Beaches Resort in the Turks & Caicos: The Largest Water Park in the Caribbean
WhichSandals Resorts in Jamaica is Best?
A Waterproof Camera Comparison
A Review of Discovery Cove: Orlando’s Un-Theme Park
Miami’s Best Hotel Swimming Pools
Elsewhere on the web: