Jason deCaires Taylor On Underwater Sculpture, Scuba Diving & Saving the World's Coral: An interview
Do you want to save the oceans? Consider going on a scuba diving adventure. Jason deCaires Taylor, the British sculptor whose site-specific underwater installations evolve into artificial coral reefs, is the founder of both the world's first underwater sculpture park and underwater museum. The pioneering artist and certified scuba instructor is renowned for integrating fine art with the conservation of marine life, while creating novel, exciting, and ecologically beneficial attractions.
Taylor's works encourage coral as well as other marine organisms to occupy, grow in, and affect the surfaces of his creations. He is able to achieve this with the use of coral-supporting, pH-neutral cement and by propagating damaged coral fragments that he finds in the ocean. His sculptures are strategically placed in carefully vetted locations to avoid contact with strong currents and tidal patterns, and are installed during periods of the year that promote coral spawning.
Naturally, Taylor documents his process. “I had to make a lot of effort to document it as well as I could. There was a very steep learning curve with underwater photography and video,“ explains the artist. “I always think that if I had started ten years earlier, it would never have worked. I [began] at the same time that social and digital media were taking off and image search was becoming the norm. That really assisted me.”
Listed as one of National Geographic's 25 Wonders of the World, the Molinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park in Grenada is situated on a section of coastline that was badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Its 75 sculptures are installed at depths between five and eight meters, and have been visited by scuba divers, snorkelers, and glass bottom boats since 2006, when it first opened to the public. This was Taylor’s first major project of the kind.
Around the same time, biologist Jaime Manuel Gonzalez Cano — the Director of the National Park, Costa Occidental Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancún y Punta Nizuc — saw that the coral reefs, and the Manchones Reef in particular, were being damaged by divers and snorkelers. Pursuing research on artificial reefs, he came across Taylor and his work in Grenada. In 2008, they began planning an underwater museum that would change the way people impact and interact with local marine life.
Cancún’s Underwater Art Museum (Museo Subacuático de Arte, or M.U.S.A.) opened in 2010, and is now widely regarded as one of the largest and most ambitious underwater projects in the world. It is divided into two underwater galleries: the eight-meter deep Salon Machones that’s suitable for both divers and snorkelers, and the four-meter deep Salon Nizuc, which is strictly reserved for snorkeling. The artificial reef hosts more than 500 sculptures and over 2,000 corals.
Since then, Taylor has created a lot of work: From Ocean Atlas (2014) — the largest single underwater sculpture in the world, located in Nassau, Bahamas — to Museo Atlántico, the first underwater art museum in both Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, situated within Lanzarote’s UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve that opened in 2017; and more, with his latest being Australia’s Museum of Underwater Art (M.O.U.A.) in the Great Barrier Reef that opened in 2020.
ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking to Jason deCaires Taylor about his love of the ocean, the eventful journey to save it, and the power of positive activism.
Are you a single child? Where did you grow up?
I am not, I have a sister. My parents — my mother is Gianese and my father is English — used to be [international] English language teachers; so, as a family, we traveled to many different parts of the world. The nomadic lifestyle rubbed off on me, because I never tend to stay in the same place for too long; I always travel around and have lived on site for quite some time for many of my projects.
Did any particular place stand to you?
We got to go to Thailand in the 80s, which was kind of amazing. It was so, so pristine! We used to hire a boat from local fishermen and go exploring all of the different islands. I remember snorkeling the coral reefs when I was young, and they were just incredible!
Because you were traveling so much, how did you get an education?
Most of the traveling was done before my teens. So, I was pretty much educated in the UK (in Kent). Then, I went to the London Institute of Arts in 1998 [and graduated with a B.A. Honors in Sculpture.] I moved abroad again when I was in my 20s.
When did your conservationist side develop?
I’ve had a very eclectic career, but I didn’t have a master plan. At art college, we had interesting tutors, who were quite dynamic in the way they thought. I remember that we didn’t have a classroom, just a giant warehouse, and we were not allowed to use a desk. We looked at the space as a whole; we ended up making big installations and working outdoors a lot. So, most of my degree was focused on art and the environment.
After that, I went off and held down loads of different jobs. I did some paparazzi photography, which is quite interesting, and a lot of set design — that sort of thing. Meanwhile, I was also learning to be a certified diving instructor and ended up traveling around to different places, teaching scuba. It was a completely directionless time, and I find that quite fascinating, because all of those skills are now what I use on a daily basis. A big portion of my diving education was learning about marine biology and marine conservation as well as different kinds of species and environments.
That’s a pretty cool path to put yourself on.
I see quite a lot of young people now, who are struggling to figure out what they want to be when they grow up, or what they want their careers to be, and life just doesn’t work like that. I think you just have to put yourself out there and find your own path.
You became a certified scuba instructor around 2002, is that correct?
Around then. From 2002, I had a few years of traveling around and teaching scuba diving [in different locations.] I even planned to start my own diving company. But diving became work rather than pleasure. I stopped teaching because I stopped enjoying going underwater; I realized how unenthusiastic I was about dealing with the public on a daily basis. And I wanted to do something more beneficial. That’s when I started thinking: Are there any other ways of looking at the underwater world?
I’ve done a lot of dives in different places, so I’ve seen how different environments work, how different [organisms] colonize structures, and how currents and wave patterns affect things. As an artist, the ocean is just an incredible space. Two-thirds of the planet is covered in water. Under water, the light, colors, and viewing experience are different; you’re not walking around in a gallery and you’re not subject to gravity. This kind of space releases you from the standard way of engaging with art.
What happened next?
When I was living in the Caribbean, a hurricane had passed through in 2004 and completely decimated one of the coastlines. As a result, all of the tourists were going to the one or two pristine spots that were left, which was causing a really big impact. So, I started thinking about how I could use art to change the way people interact with the underwater world. I contacted a local diving company, got some money from selling my house in the UK, and decided I’d take a year of experimenting to have a go at this project. That was the beginning; I experimented for a couple of years and then people started to request projects.
When you say experimented, do you mean you tried different materials?
Yeah. I didn’t have the budgets that I have now, so I had to look at ways of doing things economically — learning about different types of materials and how they work, learning about different currents, checking out different sites and depths [to determine whether the sculptures should be at five or nine meters deep].
And you mentioned that you had input from local scientists, too.
As I developed things, I reached out to local marine biologists, who advised on different textures and shapes and formations. I also got in touch with a big artificial reef company, called Reef Ball. They had a lot of experience working on projects all over the world, so they knew a lot about finding materials that were local, accessible, and easy to get a hold of.
How long did it take you to come up with the right cement consistency?
Probably around six months. Mostly, it’s about the way you alter the mix of concrete, and how you reinforce that mix. You need something that can withstand tremendous forces from the sea, especially in tropical areas.
So, once you created the sculptures, how did you get people to see them?
That kind of happened naturally. I didn’t get too involved in the visitation of the work. There were lots of different scuba diving centers on the island.
How was your experience in Mexico different?
In Mexico, I was commissioned by the government; I was invited to go out there and work directly for a big marine park, which has its own quarters, staff, and fleet of vessels. So, it was a very different experience — much more ambitious. I made hundreds of sculptures for two different sites: a shallow water site and then a deep water site. And we did a big unveiling for the works at a press event/celebration at sea.
How did you produce that many sculptures? Are they based on real people?
I think 90% of them are based on real people. Most started off as a live casting or scanning. I also produced a lot of molds.
What’s interesting under water is that you can repeat the same design, but because it’s colonized differently, each piece is still unique — you can’t have an identical object — since literally within a few months the pieces already start to look completely different. Sometimes I plant the coral, so that I can dictate the growth, or I texture the materials and/or change their composition to affect how the coral grows. Also, I can install the sculptures at different times of the year to encourage coral spawning.
Do you have a spreadsheet where you keep track of this information?
I wish I was that scientific about it. It’s impossible for me to learn all of the characteristics of each location around the world, and so I almost don’t try, you know? Obviously, on each project there’s a team of marine biologists who are also involved. But, the first thing I try to do is get local advice, not only from local scientists, but also from local divers, fishermen, and residents. They all know the local weather conditions, which way the currents go, and they understand what all of the biggest risks are. And culturally, their relationship to sculpture can also be very different. It’s very important to be culturally sensitive when you’re working in different places, so I try not to come in too heavily with my own views or ideas.
How has your career evolved over time? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences?
(Laughs.) They are all extremely difficult. I wish I could say it gets easier as I get more experience, but it’s quite often the things that I don’t predict that come along to make it difficult. It really varies. Australia has been a fantastic place to work; it has some of the most incredible coral and wildlife. But, it took three years to get the permits. Plus, the reef is two or three hours from the coastline by boat, so that’s also quite difficult when it comes to installing the work. Weather is a massive factor in all of the locations; it plays such an important part. If there is any wind at all, it’s very, very difficult.
How many people do you need to help with a project like that?
Sometimes I have my staff do the installations. Depending on the size and the scale of the works, maybe I’ll use local contractors. They tend to be very good, because they understand the conditions and the environment, and they have the licenses, connections, and the insurances to do it in a safe way. But yeah, it really depends. Some places are super organized and have incredible infrastructure, machinery, and experience. Other places don’t have the same resources and rely on very different methods of doing things. I’m not disparaging, as long as we get to the same end result.
We did a project in the Maldives, in the northern part of the Indian Ocean, and it was extremely difficult to get a crane or basic materials. We had to adapt to how local people overcame their challenges and work around them. You can’t go in there with the same mentality as you use at home.
What kinds of problems do you have to solve to do what you do?
When I was in Mexico, I had some of the most fantastic spaces, and the people there were so supportive, encouraging, and really hard working. But it was extremely difficult to fundraise. It wasn’t a lack of appreciation for art, it was just harder to convince people of the value of art and its merits. That was a huge challenge. When I worked in Europe, it was politics. I didn’t realize that as soon as you work in a public space, you become a pawn in the game of politics. And that has been really, really difficult. That’s probably been the hardest thing — people using your work to promote their agenda.
Do you feel taken advantage of?
If you want any kind of social change, then you have to talk about difficult subjects. It’s very hard to do that, especially in today’s climate, without ending up with politics. One of the things about public art is that sometimes, when you try to appease other people, it becomes so watered down that it almost becomes completely meaningless and there’s really no reason to make it.
But your art is about saving wildlife. Isn't it true that your goal is not only to attract people to the sculptures, but also away from the natural reefs that are currently in trouble?
There are a few different environmental goals. The more my work evolves, the more I only want to focus on the environmental side of things. At the end of the day, the environment is the only thing that really, really matters.
The sculptures are made out of materials that encourage coral growth and provide habitat space for marine organisms. And yes, they are used to attract people away from natural areas. But, I am also finding that we are able to set up small economies in the surrounding areas; by having an entrance fee to the museums, we actually create jobs for rangers who patrol the areas. Most of the problems that happen on the coastlines happen because laws are not really enforced; people overfish or pollute because there isn’t a real penalty for it. So, by creating an income, we can hire rangers to go out on patrol, which has been very useful. And I think that that is a lot more beneficial than just building an artificial reef.
What’s the artistic inspiration behind the scenes you create?
Each place has its own story. People always ask me to sum up what my work means and I always think: Well, there are all these different works and each work means something completely different, so it’s quite hard to do. The project in Spain was about climate change and the dividing of the planet — how we draw these arbitrary borders. The main installation is called Crossing the Rubicon — crossing the point of no return.
The project in Australia is slightly different; it’s a more hopeful and architectural piece. Australia has so many reefs that are not being overburdened by tourism that the problem there is too many people thinking that the reefs are dying. So, the idea was to create an underwater greenhouse to show how Australia actually has these amazing spaces and healthy corals that are incredibly beautiful, and we really need to fight to protect them, because they are in great, great danger.
So, thinking that the situation is helpless, people have disengaged, thereby further endangering the reefs?
Yes. People have lost hope. I’ve made a lot of different works; some are critical and negative, others are positive and hopeful. I’ve really noticed on social media how as soon as you put a negative sentiment or statistic out there, people just don’t engage with it. So, when you say that 50% of the world’s coral will be dead in 10 years’ time or that we can have no coral reefs left by 2050, it seems to instill disillusionment — and we really, really need action.
It’s actually a lot more engaging for people, when you show them how to do good and have a positive impact. True, a lot of people are set in their ways and you are never going to change them, but the younger generation is really open, really engaged, and really want to learn. They want something hopeful to live for, and you can inspire them to do good things.
Is that something you try to do, or is it a positive byproduct of your work?
I think that there is something that underlies it all — just showing how these human figures actually support life and have a positive impact. We are all natural beings that belong to an ecosystem. I try to tell stories; some are warnings and others are hopeful interventions. The works are like Trojan horses — on the outside they seem to be a little bit sensationalist and catch people’s attention, but behind that there is a serious message and a warning about what’s happening.
Note* All images were provided by the artist and are the creative and intellectual property of Jason deCaires Taylor.