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Sculpture elicits that sinking feeling

French artist Julien Berthier's 'ambiguous image' of a doomed sloop isn't really what it seems

It's a nautical work of art designed with a wry sense of humor. Yes, it looks like a stoic skipper going down with his ship, but neither the boat nor skipper is going to slip beneath the surface anytime soon.

Julien Berthier's 'Love love' - the artist is on board in this photo - induces gasps and an occasional mayday call.

The sculpture, known as "Love love," is the work of French "hyper-realist" artist Julien Berthier. "I wanted to create an ambiguous image where in the end the viewer doesn't really know what to think about what he sees," Berthier says. "I wanted to freeze the moment just a few seconds before the boat disappears, creating an endless vision of the dramatic moment."

He found the 22-foot aft-cockpit sloop in Normandy, France, in 2007, where it had sat for years and was set to be destroyed. Its owner gave it to Berthier after he explained his vision for the piece.

The model is a Jeanneau Love Love, a fiberglass day cruiser built in France between 1971 and '78. "I liked the idea of keeping the original name and also the emotional aspect it added to the piece," Berthier says.

"I worked on-site in a boatyard," he says. Over three weeks, Berthier cut the boat in two, sealed it with fiberglass, and modified and repositioned the keel. He also moved the transom seat to accommodate a skipper - sometimes a friend and sometimes Berthier - and installed two electric motors so the sculpture can be piloted short distances, its stern high at a 45-degree angle.

Berthier has shown "Love love" at boat shows in France, England and Germany. For the London International Boat Show, he anchored his sinking boat in the Thames River at Canary Wharf in front of the financial district. As fate would have it, he says, "Love love" was installed facing the Lehman Brothers Holdings building - just two days after the global financial services firm declared bankruptcy.

Berthier cut the Jeanneau in half and modified and repositioned its keel.

"The 'Love love,' therefore, became a symbolic image of the crisis for both the viewers and the press," says Berthier. "But once again, what really interested me was the fact that even in that context it stayed an ambiguous image. Of course, it is a wrecked ship, but at the same time it never sinks and is functioning in its dramatic position. So it wasn't just the image of a collapsing world; it was also the image of a world that still goes on regardless of its fall."

Despite the artistic vision and social commentary, Berthier's nautical nightmare still draws some unintended attention. "Last summer the piece was shown in Lindau, Germany, on Constance Lake," says Berthier. "The police, firemen and harbormasters were all aware that it was a piece of art, but despite this warning calls for help kept coming in until some unaware person finally picked up on the calls, sending out 20 people to rescue a never-sinking boat."

Berthier eventually sold "Love love" to a London banker for 50,000 pounds, or about $80,000. He says the banker maintains the boat and lends it to boat shows and other events.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.