Thursday, April 4, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell; floor-to-ceiling tanks filled with well-lit jellies are still the main attraction in the Aquarium''s new exhibit.
If the new jellyfish exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium hasn''t yet been featured in High Times, the editors of that publication may want to investigate. Between the jellies themselves-brilliant ruffles drifting through jewel-toned tanks-and the artworks assembled by an exuberant design team, Jellies: Living Art provides a psychedelic experience on the order of the best laser light show the ''80s ever produced. If word gets out, stoners on pilgrimage will be flocking to it by summer''s end, and regular folk herding their kids through the exhibit will just have to go around them.
Of all the wonders the sea has wrought, jellies might be the most gorgeous and confounding. Alien-addicted 12-year-old boys could not have designed a more freakish creature, from a vertebrate-centric point of view. Jellies lack brains, hearts, eyes-even central nervous systems-making do with sinister-sounding apparatus like "light receptors" and "oral arms."
A jellyfish sting is a barbarous, if microscopic, affair; brush against a tentacle and collapsible nematocysts laden with toxins fire from the shaft like tiny poison harpoons. For this reason the French named them medusées, after the deadly Gorgon of Greek mythology whose hair was made of serpents.
But jellyfish are essentially beautiful, despite these objectionable characteristics. When pulsing to a languorous rhythm, all luminous and buoyant, they look like the end-products of a sublime evolution. The tide surges and they billow. Their tentacles flutter and tangle. It''s as if they had been released of all desire and extraneous body parts and suspended in a state of otherworldly grace.
The animals'' mesmerizing charms have not been lost on the Aquarium staff, who have made every effort to ensure that no one gets out of Jellies: Living Art in an ordinary frame of mind. At the entrance of this exhibit, the first in the Aquarium''s history to bring works of art into contact with undersea creatures, two cues tell visitors they are not about to have a typical weird-fish-in-a-tank experience. The first is a bright menagerie of Dale Chihuly''s oversized blown-glass sea creatures, commissioned specially for the exhibit. The second is a looping video playing on a screen next to a David Hockney painting. In this sequence, by the Aquarium''s in-house filmmaker, Chuck Saltzman, the God of Michelangelo''s "Creation of Adam" touches the new man''s outstretched finger. From this contact, sparks fly forth to lodge in the indigo of Van Gogh''s "Starry Night," there to morph into jellyfish and continue their travels through art history. With these two notes, the pitch of the exhibit is set: jellyfish are like art, only more fascinating.
Artistic director Jaci (pronounced "Jackie") Tomulonis says the "living art" concept came from a survey of 300 people as they left the Aquarium''s permanent jellyfish exhibit. "We asked what kind of content they would like to see in another jellyfish exhibit, and 30 percent said they didn''t want any content at all," she says. "People started saying things like, ''they''re rhythmic, graceful, they''re like living lava lamps.'' So we started to create a visual parallel: jellies are like living art."
The exhibit is divided into four subsections. The first, called Size & Shape, cleaves to a classical art theme, the better to set the viewer up for the whimsy to come. In the magnificent tank next to Saltzman''s film, delicate sea nettles wave against a glowing blue backdrop inside an ornate gilded frame. Here, Doug Mortan''s musical score is meant to have the orderly feel of a minuet. And evidently that''s about all the classicism exhibit designer Jeff Hoke could take.
"I could have stayed with the serious aspect of the art museum, but most artists hate that," Hoke says. "You go to openings and women wear tiaras. It''s there as an icon, but art should be fun and weird and should let you in to have your own interpretation of it."
Hence the populist Rhythm & Movement section, featuring a bank of lava lamps, video footage of whirling dervishes and a soundtrack (also by Mortan) that Hoke describes as Santana-cum-Steely Dan. On the walls next to the tiny box jellies and the bulbous blue jellies, verses by Jimi Hendrix and Pablo Neruda will probably be joined by a quote from the late Frank Zappa. "Mrs. Zappa was kinda slow in getting us rights," Hoke said on the day we talked, "but today she called and said, ''Frank''s lookin'' down from heaven, and it''s gotta go in!''"
It''s all fun, but it''s overkill; in this room the jellies take an unfortunate back seat to Sixties worship.
Absolution of this minor crime soon follows in a room full of moon jellies, where some 600 pulsating orbs glow in floor-to-ceiling tanks and light ripples on the floor like sunlight in shallows. The music is custom-made for tripping: Tuvan throat singing with Tibetan horns and shimmering chimes. Hoke admits that he would have liked to put a waterbed in this room, but it was impractical.
"I''m thinking of people lying in there on the floor when no one else is there," he says.
From this ambient experience, visitors enter a slightly mad-scientist zone. An educational station features Victorian-era telephone earpieces. Velvet curtains draw back for a great old-fashioned mechanical show depicting the sex lives of jellies (tune: the original "Sea of Love"). In turn-of-the-century scientist Ernst Haeckl''s neurotically detailed lithographs of jellies, and in the minutely detailed glass scientific models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, visitors see science as it was to the Victorians-a thing of intricate wonder, not yet fully divorced from art.
The next section, Color & Pattern, bounces back to the present with kaleidescopic patterns swirling on the video screen and a hip hop beat to Mortan''s score. In this section, prisms of light dance off the comb jellies, and the black sea nettles, possibly the most stunning entities in the exhibit, trail frilly skirts of orange, peach and mauve. This will undoubtedly be some people''s favorite section-it has the most contemporary feel and the best balance of art and jellyfish.
Finally, visitors arrive at the Art & Inspiration section. Here, Cork Marcheschi''s plasma-and-glass sculptures trap glowing inert gases (neon, xenon, krypton and argon) in bowls and vases. Touch them and colored lightning seems to leap up to your fingertips-mimicking the bioluminescence of the jellies.
And then it''s time to leave in a purple haze. In retrospect, the exhibit assails the senses, not altogether unpleasantly, with legions of stimuli dispatched in no particular order. If it seems hyperactive, the answer may lie in the fact that this is the Aquarium''s first-and hopefully not the last-exhibit to incorporate artistic innovation. Says Hoke, "We had support from the VPs to do something fun. We didn''t have to toe the line of, ''These are animals we are trying to save and support.'' It was, ''Just inspire people.''"