“Forests Underwater” by Takeshi Amano

“Forest Underwater” is an otherworldly exhibition combining ecology and visual art that has the power to transport its visitors to another world…

One of the most memorable places we visited in Lisbon was the Lisbon Oceanarium. When we visited, the Oceanarium had just reopened after a big redo. To celebrate its reopening, the Oceanarium commissioned a truly wonderful piece of work by Japanese aquarist, Takeshi Amano. This work is one of the best pieces of installation art I’ve experienced .

To draw you fully into his world, Takeshi Amano insists on a darkened foyer preceding a long dark tunnel lit only with soft blue screens, to guide you into his aquarium. The tunnel goes on for a little while, with a sprinkling of text here and there to provide some context to the project. Along the way, music by Portuguese composer, Rodrigo Leão plays, slowly immersing me into the environment of the world I was to enter.

Visitors viewing the Forest Underwater by Takeshi Amano exhibition at Lisbon Oceanarium
Three visitors, mesmerised by the living painting composed by Takeshi Amano, using a variety of aquatic plants

Then, I passed a treshold, and I was in the space itself. The sensation I felt in this place was sublime. The aquarium surrounded me in a U – right, front and left – like a window looking out into another world, a world that is a memory of the natural beauty that once existed on Earth.

The first thing I realised was how not like an aquarium the setup looked like. This was achieved with the skillful composition of various aquatic plants in layouts with a mix of symmetrical and asymetrical elements. To further the ethereal effect, mirrors line the ceiling of the large tank, giving the watery world a sky. The reflections were so perfect, sometimes it felt as if the reflections were not reflections but simply a material copy of the things they showed on their polished surfaces.

A close up of an aquatic scene in the Forest Underwater aquarium in the Lisbon Ocenarium
The aquatic plants chosen had silhouettes that resembled land plants. Put together, they create the illusion of trees, bushes and weeds

In the aquarium there are many small fish swimming in what must feel like a vast ocean to them. But they are not the attraction. Nothing takes center stage here except the entire artwork itself. The only way to appreciate it is to view it by walking slowly from one end to the other and back. Along the way, I noted how the artist played with symmetry and repeating elements – like a Bach fugue, beginning with a phrase that seemed to repeat itself even as it is taken up by other notes that slowly interweave and transform it.

Is “Forests Underwater” like a painting or like a film? Since it can only be viewed completely by walking from one end to the other, where each segment within your visual field is a frame (with moving elements itself!) I felt like it was a film within a film.

Grass growing underwater and in the sky in Forest Underwater, an exhibition at the Lisbon Oceanarium by Takeshi Amano
This aquatic plant was sculpted into sinuous curves resembling the silhouette of a spaceship. It made me think of an alien world where grass grows both below and above and fish swim in water and sky

When we visited, the Oceanarium was not very crowded, and I was able to find a moment in this aquaforest all to myself. I stayed in this world, alone and undisturbed for a quarter of an hour before the next visitor arrived.

Here are all the photographs from the Lisbon Oceanarium: