We are continuing our series of posts that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Trust. Learn more about the Trust volume here. Click this link to order Trust and previous volumes.
by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Cover artist for our Trust volume, Jason deCaires Taylor, opened a new underwater museum in the Canary Islands in January, 2017. He recently released a video highlighting this new exhibition, the Museo Atlántico, which he calls an underwater botanic garden. DeCaires Taylor’s underwater museums can be found off the coasts of Cancun, Mexico, Nassau, Bahamas, and Moilinere Bay, Grenada. He also has installations in London and Canterbury, England.
For our Trust volume, deCaires Taylor shared photographs of his underwater sculptures at night, five years after their installation off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. (The above video also features quite a bit of nighttime photography, though at a different location, the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of west Africa.) His artwork is a co-creation across time with the natural world, while it simultaneously provides habitat for reef-dwelling creatures. These artistic, artificial reefs also draw tourists away from fragile coral reefs while still offering a stunning underwater experience. We asked deCaires Taylor to share about how and why he began creating underwater art installations, and what it is like to trust the process of this form of art.
Whole Terrain: How did you come up with the idea of creating underwater art museums?
Jason deCaires Taylor: I’ve always worked with installation art as an artist, and I was also interested in environmental art. Working as a diving instructor, I was familiar with the sea, and had contacts and opportunities in that area. But it’s been a growing process. Over the course of a decade, I started off small, making models, and each year I would push myself a bit further. In the beginning, it was a leap of faith, that people would want to visit these sculptures, and that they could provide habitat for reef creatures. Fortunately, I started in a place that was laid back, in the Caribbean. I just explained my project and got permission.
WT: Where did you get your models for the sculptures from Museo Subacuático de Arte that you submitted for our Trust volume?
JDT: Some of them are people I met through mutual contacts, and many I found in public places or on the street in Mexico City. I was basically cold calling anybody I saw walking along the street. They thought I was trying to sell them something. I was asking them if they would be willing to come to my studio, get undressed, get covered in Vaseline, and then I’d encase them in a mold. One of the models told me they were really skeptical when I approached them in the street, but after they came and did it, they said it was one of the best experiences they had in their lives.
WT: What is it like being underwater and visiting your sculptures at night?
JDT: Great! It’s really peaceful. It’s like being in your mother’s womb again, in darkness, suspended and floating. When there’s a lot of natural moonlight you can clearly see the outline of the reef. It’s like walking through a forest at night. I actually prefer night dives because most marine creatures come out at night—they can collect food without being preyed upon—so lots of things are feeding and crawling around at night. The amount of marine life is profound. Also, torch light brings out the true colors of the organisms. In the day you’re in sunlight, and water filters out most of the colors. When you use a torch, you see the incredible reds and oranges of the sponges and corals.
WT: You submitted these photos after a request for art on the theme of “trust.” What about these photos, the sculptures, or the experience of taking the photos inspired you to submit these particular works of art for our theme of trust?
JDT: I make these sculpture that require a huge effort for the construction, as well as the political side of things: getting permission to place the art. I do fundraising, campaigning, permitting, and planning. I put in a huge investment of time in casting the people, making the sculptures very detailed, and then I hand them over to another set of guardians: I entrust them to their new marine environment and hope that they’ll be built upon.
There’s something so personal about going back to visit the art after it’s been there for a while. Sometimes it comes out well and they have amazing species growing on them and it’s fantastic, and sometimes it doesn’t work. Algal plagues sometimes deface everything in a green slime. But other times, I can go there and there’s an amazing fire coral with all these tubes and capillaries, and it’s beautiful. I invested a part of myself in it and I’m immensely excited to see how it will have changed.
WT: In what ways do you hope your art benefits the environment?
JDT: The marine world is a hidden world, out of everyone’s vision on a daily basis, and yet it’s one of the most critically endangered places. It’s on attack from everything: global warming is affecting the temperatures, causing mass coral bleaching events; carbon dioxide absorption is compromising marine life; areas of habitat are lost due to development, pollution run-off, or changing sea chemistry, which inhibits a lot of species; and overfishing. I hope my work draws people’s attention to this space and encourages them to care for it more.
That said, each location has different needs and concerns. In Mexico, it’s about managing people: 750,000 people visit the reefs near Cancun each year, so my art takes those people away from the natural reefs and puts them in an area where they will cause less impact. This allows the reefs to recover. The art is also practical: it’s designed to house marine life, increasing the overall biomass of the underwater substrate.
It’s been shown to work! In the national marine park in Cancun, corals in the area rose by 18% between 2009-2014, fish species rose by 62%, crustaceans are up by 48%, mollusks by 68% (determined by a study by the national marine park). But this is a fragile recovery that can easily experience setbacks. One year all the fishermen discovered this was a good place to catch lobster, and the numbers changed dramatically in two nights, because people went at night and fished them all out.
Bio: Jason deCaires Taylor grew up in Europe and Asia, where he spent much of his early childhood exploring the coral reefs of Malaysia. DeCaires Taylor graduated from the London Institute of Arts in 1998 with a BA in Sculpture and went on to become a fully qualified diving instructor and underwater naturalist. With over 20 years diving experience under his belt, deCaires Taylor is also an award winning underwater photographer. Over the last dozen years, deCaires Taylor has placed underwater sculptures in Grenada, West Indies, Cancún, Mexico, the Bahamas, London and Kent, England, and the Canary Islands. These ambitious, permanent public works have a practical, functional aspect, facilitating positive interactions between people and fragile underwater habitats, while at the same time relieving pressure on natural resources. His first underwater museum, near Grenada, was recognized as one of the 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic. Learn more about deCaires Taylor and his art in his TED Talk.