Jason deCaires Taylor: Underwater Mu-sea-ums
Jason deCaires Taylor’s greatest assets are underwater. All of his sculptures are entrusted to the oceans.
Jason deCaires Taylor is a pioneering sculptor. He created the world’s first underwater sculpture park, a work listed as one of National Geographic’s twenty-five wonders of the world.
Born in 1974 to an English father and Guyanese mother, Taylor grew up in Malaysia and England, and studied sculpture at the London Institute of Arts. He was living in Grenada as a diving instructor when he started constructing the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, which opened to the public in 2006. This led to commissions for Cancún Underwater Museum (opened 2010) off the coast of Mexico, Museo Atlantico (2016) in Spain’s Canary Islands, and the Museum of Underwater Art (2019) in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Taylor’s works divert visitors from fragile natural reefs and provide artificial habitats to support underwater life. Usually depicting people engaged in everyday above-water activities, the sculptures change as they become a home to ocean life. In addition to his large-scale projects, his submerged statues can be seen in Greece, England, Bahamas, and Indonesia.
Though many of us are quick to forget it, we are entirely dependent on water. Or that half of our bodies are made of it and two-thirds of our planet is covered by it. Yet somehow it remains mysterious.
Jason deCaires Taylor: You know, I think we’re so connected to water and I think it’s intrinsic in us.
Jason deCaires Taylor is a pioneer of underwater sculpture parks. Elaborate destinations designed to support and nurture coral reefs, sometimes by luring tourists away from more vulnerable areas, always by inviting new life. This, deCaires Taylor says, is the kind of impact he first had in mind when he set out to become an artist so many years ago.
JDT: I studied public sculpture in London. I had quite a few exhibitions in public spaces and I kind of always left with a sense of sort of futility that you invested so much of your heart and soul into making these things and then at the end of it, we store them, pack them away and we’re just sort of creating more stuff for the planet. Subsequently, I became a diving instructor. I dived in different countries around the world. And then I sort of caught on this idea that, actually, if I made these permanent underwater works and cited them in the right type of environment, then actually that besides their artistic value, they would also become a habitat space, they would help sort of rejuvenate areas of underwater sea bed.
deCaires Taylor’s work has taken him from Oslo in Norway to Cancun Mexico to the Spanish governed Canary Islands. During his time there, he created a vast underwater installation called the Museo Atlántico. Among its 300 sculptures, the Raft of Lampedusa attracted much attention for its depiction of African refugees.
JDT: The Canary Islands had been a stepping stone into Europe for many, many years and they have a very long history of the migrant route. So, I wanted to recount some of the history of the island and a lot of the people that are actually in that installation were migrants who had come over to the Canary Islands who had started new lives and were very successful. But it also obviously coincided with the huge crisis that was unfolding in the Mediterranean at the same time.
Wherever Jason deCaires Taylor goes, nature is his humbling co-creator. But though hundreds of hours of craftsmanship will quickly be claimed and rewritten by the ocean, he has few qualms about surrendering his sculptures to the sea.
JDT: I do feel some attachment, but there’s also a really sort of liberating feeling that, it’s like having children where you, they’re free, you set them free. And for me, I love going back and watching how they’ve changed, how they’re evolving, you know that, for me, is much more interesting than the original work in itself.
AJC: You live in a world of unforeseen circumstances. Many positive, any negative? Have there been times where you’ve thought, oops, need to go back and fix that or we didn’t think we were gonna have a destructive effect or?
JDT: Definitely, I mean, they’re under water. It’s very, very hard to predict what’s gonna happen. Obviously, we endeavor, we do a lot of research and a lot of testing and consult many different local operatives, but it’s a very changeable space, a very dynamic space.
AJC: You once, was it in Cancun, where you created an area and lobsters showed up and the lobster fisherman showed up about 10 minutes later, did I read that somewhere?
JDT: Yes, so, I made some lobster habitats in Cancun and they’re amazing. We had a couple hundred lobsters and I was sort of cooing about it one day and the next day a fisherman went down at night and had the lot and they were on the Hilton buffet. Yeah, I mean also the changes, sometimes I go down and expect to see sort of vibrant corals and sponges and I go there and there will just be like a black sludge that’s adhered to it or I’ve been down another time where I made 200 sculptures and they were just slowly sort of changing and they had these sort of coralline algae forming which was a really good sign. And I was like excellent, they’re really working and then a week later I went and they were just completely inundated with this thicket of sargassum seaweed and they just look like a giant bush or a giant forest, I was really alarmed by that. That was the one time I was kind of quite disturbed.
AJC: Could you fix it, or did you want to?
JDT: Well it’s interesting. We did a test, so we actually cleaned off, the sargassum on around 20 of the sculptures and stripped them back to their natural state and then I went back like four months later and the ones that we cleaned were then covered again in the thick algae and the ones we’d left to their own devices, they were actually perfect. All the algae had been eaten by the fish, it had been kind of washed off by the tides and I think that was the main sort of point where I realized that just leave it alone, from that point of installing it, it’s just best to let everything take its course.
Though he knows it’s impossible to micromanage the ocean, deCaires Taylor and his team do put great thought into how they can positively influence outcomes. The sculpture parks are custom designed for each site and because coral can take hundreds of years to form, the sculptures are made of super durable concrete that actually hardens under water over time. The surface of every sculpture has a neutral pH to avoid contaminating existing life. But textures vary depending on what type of growth is being invited. And he’s getting pretty good at it. deCaires Taylor’s latest project brought him to a wonder of the natural world: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. In fall 2019, he installed a massive greenhouse designed to protect the reef from further damage from rising sea temperatures. Jason deCaires Taylor believes he has found his life’s purpose helping to rectify some of man’s damage to the underwater world.
JDT: I think art has a responsibility. I think our world is changing so rapidly. There’s so many burning issues. There’s so many fundamental things that are happening now that if I produced anything that didn’t talk about these things then I would feel it was very pointless.
Instead, deCaires Taylor casts his life’s work to the ocean floor hoping that what he leaves behind will improve life for all of us.