By Spencer Arnold
In March 2016, Koh Tao became the stage for a grand endeavor; the deployment of an artificial reef unlike any other. Thanks to Valerie Goutard’s vision, the island is now home to a stunning underwater art instillation that will also serve as an artificial reef. Val first began sculpting in 2001 and since then her work has swept across Asia and beyond, to an international audience where her art has been met with critical acclaim.
In the waters off of Tao Tong, 12 meters below the surface of the ocean, her work stands in its surreal, transient setting – an incredible endeavour that stands as a testament to her vision and tenacity.
Only a month away from the installations first year underwater, the space is slowly being taken over by the life that was planted on it. Found in the sands just off the reef, the area is becoming an oasis in the desert, as fish clamour to the structures in search of safety. The corals that we’ve transplanted onto their surfaces are slowly encrusting over her work, attracting all the different forms of life that depend on them for their survival. As the site continues to evolve and change with time, more and more of the forms of life that make the natural reefs of Koh Tao so beautiful will join Val’s sculptures, lending their colours to her work.
The ocean currents are constantly changing the environment in which the sculptures find themselves and the light that makes it to the sea floor casts dramatic shadows along the benthos. The bronze-casted sculptures that stand above the darkness evoke a sense of man’s fragility in a transient and infinite landscape. The slender figures of Val’s work mirror the ephemeral nature of our own lives and the coral reefs of our planet, but the enduring nature of the bronze materials she uses stands in stark contrast to this fluidity, suggestive of a more concrete future both for ourselves and for these threatened ecosystems.
The long limbs of her subjects extend outwards, as though they are grasping for meaning that will forever be beyond their grasp. In this way, the sculptures seem to speak to the fundamental truths of the human condition and do so in the sublime setting of the deep blue, cementing her legacy as one of the great artists of our time. As time passes Ocean Utopia will continue to evolve, transcending the artificial as it becomes a living space teeming with the life that will soon call it home. It will serve as a constant reminder of Val’s passion and our own personal struggles to find ourselves in a world that will never give us a definite answer.
Val has left the island of Koh Tao an incredible gift, one that we at the New Heaven Reef Conservation Program feel privileged to have been a part of. We look forward to sharing this landmark of Val’s life with those that come to the island for years to come and will continue to tend the coral garden that she’s given the opportunity to grow.