Unbelievable part 14: Coral

7 February 2020
In part 13 I wryly suggested that between the invocation of Ariel from The Tempest and the several severed heads of Medusa, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable was sorted for fictional coral. Damien Hirst is already well-known for turning parts or wholes of once living beings into sculptures, and with Treasures it seemed that West Indian Ocean coral was collateral damage in resurfacing artefacts it had supposedly made its home for around 2000 years. Knowing that the Amotan/Apistos story is a new rather than ancient myth, the possibility that the coral-encrusted works in the show had been made and submerged a while ago should be floated, yet also held up to scrutiny. Knowing little about the science of coral, my questions have included:
  • Does coral grow that fast?
  • Do so many different types of coral grow so close together?
  • How did the coral retain so many bright colours? Does it not bleach when surfaced?
  • Would so much (coloured) coral really grow at the depths the submerged works must have been at in the Indian Ocean to have not been found until recently and what is indicated by the Treasures film and documentation?
  • (An ironic one, but) What would the ethical implications be of raising so much coral when, even with the vaguest awareness, we know the ecological dangers of coral being dredged, bleached and other events contributing to its loss?
  • Are reefs not nearer to coasts?
  • Could coral really grow on the materials the sculptures are made from (mainly bronze)?
  • Could it be that the coral isn’t really coral, but part of the sculptures? Was there a ‘coral department’ at Science during the making of these works? And is that why I spotted what looks like a thumbprint in the coral on a bust I managed to get close to? Is Demon with Bowl (Exhibition Enlargement) an obvious indication that the coral shapes aren’t just added to sculptures after but are part of the base material?
  • Is the coral not only part of the set-dressing for the story and its spectacle, but a way of riling up activists, and perhaps even drawing attention to our interactions with Earth’s waters?
Detail from Hermaphrodite (Damien Hirst, black granite, Palazzo Grassi room 2) showing what looks like fingerprints in the 'coral'
To address some of these questions, I’ve been learning more about coral and the broad area of the Indian Ocean in which the finds were said to have taken place. I began with reading about research on the bleaching of Indian Ocean coral being conducted around the Chagos Archipelago in the British Indian Ocean Territory which is roughly 2000 nautical miles from Dar es Salaam on the coast of Tanzania.i Ronan Roche and John Turner shared their findings in an article for The Conversation published in March 2017, a month before the exhibition opened. They explain that:
‘“Bleaching” is when corals lose the highly productive algae (termed zooxanthellae) from their tissues due to stress from high sea temperatures and solar irradiation. The algae and coral have a symbiotic relationship: the algae remove the coral’s waste products while the coral gives the algae a safe environment to live in, and provides compounds for photosynthesis. Without the algae, the coral no longer has a sufficient source of food, meaning that it essentially starves to death.’
The article outlines the rapid increase, spread and frequency of global bleaching events, pointing out that although the Chagos reefs do not face the same pressures as others in more populated areas, they have suffered extensive losses which can only be due to increasing water temperatures related to global warming. It takes up to a decade for a reef to recover from a 90% loss, and the Chagos reefs have experienced annual bleaching events fairly consistently in recent years. While this example is a fair distance away from the exhibition’s vague allusions to an unspecified part of the ocean off the east coast of the substantial continent of Africa, given that the Chagos reefs are about the most unaffected by direct human actions and yet are just as affected by bleaching as other reefs begs the question: if the Treasures coral was real, how would it be so abundant under these circumstances?
Before we deride Hirst and his team, the timing and location might just work out as plausible. As the article states, there was a major bleaching event recorded in 1997–8 and the works were said to have been discovered and recovered from 2008 onwards. The next major bleaching in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere was recorded, according to Roche and Turner, in 2015, and the Chagos reefs at least seem to have until then recovered well from the previous 90% wipe-out. The western part of the ocean, though, experienced further localised warm-water events, which I’ll get to momentarily.
A peer-reviewed report published in 2012 that Roche and Turner draw from (and to which Turner contributed research) includes maps and data indicating where in the west and central Indian Ocean there are areas of substrate upon which they know coral grows, bearing in mind the studies have identified little of its extent. The image linked here shows such sublittoral substrate areas near the granatic Seychelles and Seychelles atolls which happen to be plausible locations for the Treasures finds. Recalling part 9 in which archaeological evidence indicated more than just a kernel of possibility (as distinct from truth) in the exhibition’s claims over the existence of the Apistos, more evidence is mounting up that rather than being an outlandish hoax, Treasures and its works were instead a perfectly plausible fiction; while the Apistos story didn’t happen, it could have.
Looking closer at the ocean near the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya as the most likely stretch of water for the Apistos to have met its fate, I found an earlier study published in 2007 by a team of scientists who gathered and interpreted data to determine the resilience and potential for extinction in coral communities across western areas of the ocean. The combined studies responded to severe bleaching caused by warm-water events in 1998, 2004 and 2005. This might indicate that by the time of the first archaeological expeditions in the Treasures story in around 2010, surely the coral would be unlikely to have returned as abundantly and with as much diversity as is seen on the supposedly recovered sculptures. McClanahan et al.’s report suggests that while this might be the case for some types of coral, others are more resilient. This requires further probing and a closer look at the taxa of coral represented on the sculptures.
On this point, every time I regard photos to compare the coral on the works with photos of specific taxa and genera of coral, I come across details in the works I hadn’t seen before that blow everything up and take me on another direction. For instance, I now know that the Medusa heads have nuanced differences and are not cast from the same mould; they are like the stills making up the moving image depicting the moment of her death, capturing the fear and pain as she is murdered. Importantly, the broken bronze ‘original’ has a coral growth that is distinctly tree-like. Even in death, Medusa’s transformative abilities bring life. This is just one example that needs closer examination.
Back to the coral issue, the story goes in the Treasures film that fishermen from an unspecified coastal village found the first artefact in 2008, and that a viral video of this was spotted by a doctoral researcher who instigated the formation of a team of marine archaeologists, who then, rather than apply for funding from a research body approached Damien Hirst, who coincidentally was looking for a new venture. More than any of the work under Hirst’s name before (if we indulge the story a little here), this presented an opportunity for him to collapse his collector/artist personas and activities into one. This happens in the previous work made from human skulls and animal carcasses, but this time it plays out on a much grander scale. And as with Hymn (1999–2005), the established trend of basing sculptures on extant objects was pushed further with repeated replicas of many of the works throughout (with more than a nod to Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’).
That a fishing village on the east coast of Africa was the locus of the contemporary part of the myth is significant. McClanahan et al.’s research was spread across eight clusters, the seventh and eighth of which were reefs off the coasts of Kenya and Tanzania (2007 p. 4):
Cluster 7 is composed of heavily fished reefs in southern Kenya that have high dominance of Porites, followed by massive Porites, Galaxea, Favia, Pavona, and Stylophora. Central and northern Tanzania and Kenya’s most southern reefs are in Cluster 8 and have a high abundance of the subdominants Synarea, Fungia, Galaxea, and massive Porites.’
As documented in their 2007 publication, they found that these clusters had the most diversity of the eight they sampled, which was surprising given the heavy fishing of the Kenyan reefs. Further study is needed to be sure, but the findings suggested that the dominant taxon of branching Porites was found in prior research to be sensitive to warm-water anomalies and to being eaten by fish and had not recovered well from the widespread bleaching in 1998. Nevertheless, it was dominant. McClanahan et al. posit that ‘[i]t is possible that it has greater acclimation of adaptation potential to warm water than recognized in the original site-specific study, and responds well to disturbances under different fishing or grazing conditions’, reiterating the unusual nature of this behaviour for this type of coral (2007 p. 10).
So to address my questions about different types of coral growing close together, growing in these locations and being so colourful, McClanahan et al. sum up that ‘southernmost Kenya and Tanzanian reefs stand out because of their high density and moderate bleaching effects, resulting in a community structure that still reflects the expected dominance of branching, solitary, and encrusting taxa’. They stress that these ‘sites that have escaped catastrophic damage are a high priority for increased management in order to reduce synergistic stresses to corals’ (2007 p. 11). So I wonder – in the case that they’d have a say, and, again, indulging the story – if they’d allow a bunch of marine archaeologists to raise artefacts encrusted with the very coral it was imperative to protect.
An important disjuncture to point out is that the research published in 2007 was conducted at less than 15m depth and the Treasures film shows a large research tanker in wide aerial shots looking like it’s floating on deep basin water far from any shores or islands. Due to the lighting in the film and photographs, many of the Treasures dives look like they are no more than 20m in depth. But that’s not to say there wouldn’t be any substrate for the coral to grow on in deeper areas. Let’s face it, my understanding of all this is basic at best, and the shots could be cutting out how close the ship might be to islands (or the boundaries round a special effects tank have been digitally painted out, as I suggested before). I think it’s also fair to point out that with the field work conducted by marine biologists and archaeologists in locations relevant to the exhibition’s claims that it’s a wonder the artefacts were never stumbled upon before. But it’s a vast ocean and these teams are small and concentrated to certain areas at any given time. The more logic and inquiry you apply, the more tangled up in possible truths the lies become.
Depth is accounted for more in McClanahan et al.’s later study published in 2014 when they sampled down to 30m. Beyond that, as is my understanding, it gets into black and colourless coral territory – the sort of murky depths Hydra and Kali is dramatically made out to be discovered at in the film’s end-of-second-act low-then-high point. At the test sites, they found greater richness, diversity and abundance in the coral at deeper levels than in shallower levels (2014 p. 5). The biologists also confirmed that the north-western sites have coral communities made up of ‘predominantly bleaching-tolerant fariids and poritiids that survived the 1998 bleaching event’ (2014 p. 5). Importantly, the Mozambique Channel has high coral richness possibly because it has ‘reefs that are less exposed to wave action and storms’ (2014 p. 7). It may be too far south for our interests, but things shifting on the ocean bed – even incredibly weighty art – is not beyond the realms of extreme possibility, and, hey, it’s a fiction.
To return to territory with which I am more familiar, I want to pinpoint Kenya as the most likely location for the Treasures discovery/recovery story, particularly in the film, given its booming service industries (mainly tourism) and, that as a member of the British Commonwealth, English is one of its main languages. It also has a more nuanced democratic political structure in contrast to neighbouring Tanzania, which has one dominant party in an only recently two-party state and a gamut of human rights violations. Kenya seems the mostly likely ‘host country’ for filming. Figuring out how to evidence this further is another element I need to work on. Given the complexity of the science and the wilderness of conjectural explanations, it is no wonder many folk prefer an ‘it was magic’ option for understanding how things are and come to be, but I persist in trying to get to the core of it.


McClanahan, T. R., Ateweberhan, M., Graham, N. A. J., Wilson, S. K., Ruiz Sebasti├ín, C., Guillaume, M. M. M., and Bruggemann, J. H., ‘Western Indian Ocean coral communities: bleaching responses and susceptibility to extinction’, Marine Ecology Progress Series 337 (2007), pp. 1–13

McClanahan, Tim R., Ateweberhan, Mebrahtu, Darling, Emily S., Graham, Nicholas A. J., and Muthiga, Nyawira, ‘Biogeography and change among regional coral communities across the Western Indian Ocean’, PLoS ONE 9.4 (2014), pp. 1–9.

Further reading

McClanahan, T.R., Ateweberhan, M. & Omukoto and J. Mar Biol,Long-term changes in coral colony size distributions on Kenyan reefs under different management regimes and across the 1998 bleaching event’, Marine Biology 153.5 (2008), pp. 755–768.

Gaia Vince, ‘Sunken steel cages could save coral reefs’, The Guardian, 16 August 2009.

i Bringing up the Chagos Islands and the British research there tangentially raises issues around occupation and colonialism, on which the latest I’ve read can be found here.


Popular posts from this blog

Make it New John: The American Dream in West Belfast

YSI/Corridor8 residency day 2: John Jamieson day trip to The Hepworth Wakefield

YSI/Corridor8 residency day 8: sculpture install at Abbey Grange Academy