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Inside the Portland International Airport's Jellyfish Playpen

Concourse E has been invaded by a rainbow-colored swarm of gently swaying jellies.

Soft of body, prone to aimless drifting and witness to all manner of shocking creatures, jellyfish and frequent fliers are more alike than they might realize. That's why it's fitting that in the Portland International Airport, a large space has been carved out to honor the arrival of a rainbow bloom of migrating sea jellies.

Air travelers cooling their heels during delays can come eyeball-to-manubrium with this foreign swarm, located behind glass in Concourse E. The underwater scene is the handiwork of Sayuri Sasaki Hemann, an ex-Portland resident now in Iowa City who's fascinated with natural phenomenon (she spends her days "visiting sheep farms" and "counting bunnies"). Hemann's been fashioning gelatinous zooplankton out of fabric netting since 2009, becoming so invested in her project that each "species" of jelly has developed its own peculiar personalityFlidais Desta is a colorless bottomfeeder that survives off Portland's steady drizzle, for instance, while Ukko Calandrae feed on "anxiety and worries, and produce happiness and smiles in return."

The creatures' hollow bells are light enough that they sway gently in the air currents, establishing a semblance of epipelagic life. Hemann finished the ocean floor with barnacles crafted from felt and a kelp grove she dyed herself. Explaining her tentacle titillation, she writes:

The installation, “URBAN AQUARIUM”, explores the concept of being “out of context” and “displaced” by recreating a jellyfish aquarium in places where you least expect. The jellyfish in the wild are displaced when put in an aquarium. Likewise, the jellyfish in the aquarium are displaced when put in front of public passersby. This project hopes to create dialog between viewers about context and displacement and about the unexpected. It is also an experiment to see how the jellyfish in the aquarium interact with outside world when placed in unexpected spaces.

If you can't make it to the swarm by the time they wash out to the art market, in January 2013, this video does it justice with fittingly dreamy music by Danny Elfman:


Top photo courtesy of Sayuri's World on Facebook.

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.