The exhibition in Tulum inviting viewers to see, smell, and fight the effects of pollution

Sargasso seaweed is choking Mexican ocean and beaches. Here are the artists and scientist striving for solutions.

Sargassum, a brown seaweed with bulbous bladders filled with oxygen, is growing in massive amounts in Tulum and other beach towns on the Mayan Riviera, threatening the wildlife that inhabits the Caribbean Sea and its shores. When Sargassum sinks into the ocean floor, some animals lose their ability to move and breathe as it suffocates the seagrass, coral, and other animals that live there. Sargassum turns the sea’s crystalline blue waters into a murky mess, and when it washes ashore, the seaweed creates an unsightly brown blanket over the sand that produces an unpleasant stench. Last summer, Mexican Secretary of the Navy announced that over 12,000 tons of Sargassum were cleaned from the coast of Quintana Roo, the state where Tulum is located. The cause for the influx of Sargassum is entirely anthropogenic—nutrients from human activity, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers that flow into bodies of water, feed the Sargassum, causing it to proliferate. 

Claudia Paetzold, the curator and artistic director of SFER IK Museion in Francisco Uh May and Tulum, and their founder, Eduardo “Roth” Neira, are fully aware of Sargassum’s threat on the area, so they conceived of Alliga—derived from the Latin term alligare, “an invitation to connect, engage and commit akin to a categorical imperative”—a symposium and exhibition meant to bring awareness to the Sargassum issue and to find a solution to the problem. “Alliga, in particular, came from this realization that this is not just another part of the world that we can just leave when the problem starts,” said Paetzold. “There’s dirt, you know, we’re running out of places to go to from those that we’ve polluted.” 

Participants of Alliga gathered early last month to listen to a host of speakers, who included Stephen Rodan of the Beyond Coral Foundation, Brigitta I. van Tussenbroek of the Institute of Ocean Sciences and Limnology, Julia Lohmann of the Department of Seaweed, and Mikolaj Sekutowicz of Therme Group. The three topics were: Embrace, Acknowledge, Transform: Seaweed as Original Life Form; Hermeneutics of Equilibriums: Seaweed and Deforestation, which explored the relationship between the seaweed proliferation and deforestation in the Amazon; and Towards a New Raw Material: Seaweed as Agent of Change, which sought out solutions from the panelists and audience. “To give a few examples, you can produce bottles for water out of seaweed, which then actually dissolve in the ocean, and that is beautiful because, with that, we don’t only address one problem, but actually two problems,” said Paetzold. “You can do paper, because [of] the cellulose structure, and you’re actually building an example of that in your hand.” The other solutions proposed were to harvest the Sargassum and sell it as fertilizer, food, or as an additive to beauty products. But, with the suggestions came the realization that there could be obstacles with government regulations and possible tariffs.

For the exhibition in SFER IK Museion Francisco Uh May’s otherworldly space in the jungle near Tulum, Paetzold gathered a group of three artists who each commented on the Sargassum issue through their work: Argentinian artist Cecilia Bengolea; Japanese artist Aki Inomata, and Norwegian artist Sissel Tolaas. Bengolea conceived of a performance by professional dancers and local children. “I wanted to materialize or crystallize some moments in the choreography in which the inspiration of the animal and the movement of the body—something that happens already in nature, and naturally hybrids appear and new species appear,” said Bengolea, who also created ceramic sculptures in SFER IK’s ceramic workshop that referenced various species of seaweed. Inomata contributed a video piece she showed at the Milan Triennale called Broken Nature that on the relationship between the manmade and the natural that features a small cephalopod living in a 3-D printed Ammonite shell. Tolaas isolated the scent that emanates from the Sargassum collected from the Mayan Riviera at different stages in its life, and then replicated the scent molecules, and putting them on forms and the wall for a site-specific installation that allows visitors to experience the Sargassum from when it’s fresh to its putrid final stages of life, allowing for a revelatory moment.”I’m trying to kind of trigger other senses and hopefully gain some kind of different understanding,” said Tolaas.  

“There’s no such place where you can just go and be like, in a in an amazingly inspiring place,” said Paetzold. “We want people to be intrigued, to ask questions.”