This article by DJ Pangburn appeared in Good magazine.
Sculptor and installation artist Jason deCaires Taylor has attracted quite a lot of attention for his underwater sculpture gardens. Works like Reclamation, The Lost Correspondent, and Inertia are celebrated as much for their conceptual flair as for the surreal transformations they undergo once they are colonized by marine life.
Taylor’s work with underwater sculptures grew out of childhood days spent exploring the coral reefs of Malaysia (he was raised in Europe and Asia). Trained in sculpture, Taylor also became a fully qualified diving instructor and naturalist, as well as an award-winning underwater photographer. Back in 2006, Taylor fused all of these life experiences and skills together to create the world’s first underwater sculpture park, Vicissitudes, located off the coast of Grenada in the West Indies.
What Taylor started as an experiment has now grown into a full team of sculptors, whose list of underwater sculpture gardens grows every year. But Taylor’s latest,Musea Atlantica, which has been in the making for two years, might be his most ambitious project yet.
“I’m actually at quite a critical point right now where I’ve been working for two years in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and we’re making a large-scale museum in the Atlantic Ocean,” Taylor tells GOOD. “It’s comprised of over 300 sculptures of various shapes and sizes, and it’s going to be based around a sort of underwater botanical garden.”
“It’s a series of works that are hybrid pieces,” the artist adds. “Part human, part plant, tree, and organic structures. And they will be based around this layout of a botanical garden, and there will be this entrance, and each installation will play with this entrance. So it will sort of be a division between two worlds.”
Taylor plays with transformation in the Canary Islands installation; his underwater sculptures are known for undergoing constant metamorphosis as a result of natural phenomena like coral reef buildup. The best examples of these organic transformations occur in tropical environments, where Taylor says there is rapid growth of corals, which disfigures the forms in very little time.
“When you’re working in a colder water environment like the Atlantic Ocean the changes are much more subtle, so you don’t get the mass colonization you would get in a tropical area,” Taylor explains. “With that in mind, I’ve given Musea Atlantica a helping hand by transforming the sculptures into some of the organic forms you’d find on the islands … The Canary Islands are quite unique—they’re a UNESCO world biosphere because they have this unique geography and flora and fauna, so we’re replicating some of that in the works.”
With the project sponsored by the Spanish government, it’s taken a year and a half to get the proper permits as studies are performed to ensure that the sculptures won’t impact their surrounding marine environment. Taylor’s team only chooses sites he describes as “barren and desolate.”
“Sometimes we position [the sculpture sites] as a diversion from a natural area that might be very interesting and gets a lot of pressure from tourism,” Taylor says. “So we’ll locate the sculptures in the vicinity but as sort of a lure to take them away from that fragile area.”
As a diver, Taylor has always been aware of how things change underwater—how marine life tends to gravitate toward submerged objects. As he explained, shipwrecks are great places to go fishing because they foster the processes of marine life. Knowledge like this informs his work.
“A lot of marine [life] is seeking shelter from predators, so if you place any objects underwater they’re very quickly colonized,” Taylor says. “Obviously, there are loads of other factors involved like water quality, light, and positioning, so it doesn’t always work well. You can get large algal blooms and [then] nothing really takes to it, so we’re really pleased by some of the tropical works—how some of the more colorful parts of the marine ecosystem have actually attached to the work.”
The looks and textures that result from the colonization of the sculptures are surprising and incredibly diverse. “Imagine a snowfall of embryos and it touches a tree and starts growing,” Taylor offers. “So it’s luck at the end of the day as far as what species will colonize it.”
Each project is slightly different, so materials and processes vary. But, generally, most of the sculptures are made from a very inert type of marine cement. Taylor points out that he never uses any metals—as is common in many public sculptures—because they are corrosive and pollute the environment.
Asked if his underwater sculptures would eventually disintegrate, Taylor tells GOOD that the pieces are designed to last for hundreds of years. This, coupled with the hundreds of years it takes for coral to establish itself, means his sculpture gardens aren’t like to turn to sea debris anytime soon; unless, of course, huge storms, tectonic activity, and hurricanes have something to say about it.
“The longer they are underwater the more the layers of calcium deposit will start to form, so they’ll start to get more and more unrecognizable over time,” Taylor says. “That’s one of the reasons I start out with a simple image or quite often a human figure, because I know however much you disfigure the human body you can still recognize some part of it as some identifying feature you can relate to. Obviously, I start with something completely abstract. It’s completely amalgamated with the sea floor in a year’s time.”
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