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deCaires Taylor: Regenerating Coral Reefs

British artist Jason deCaires Taylor, sculptor, diver, photographer and marine conservationist, has single-handedly dragged the Land Art movement onto the ocean floor.

In a 'biophilic' compact with Nature, artist deCaires Taylor consigns his monumental forms made of marine grade stainless steel, pH neutral cement and aggregates into the sea for transformation through a rich organic process. Over time the influx of biological marine life, the ebb and flow of tides, sunlight and erosion convert the concrete and steel forms into spectacular gardens.

On a scale that resonates with the grandeur of Imperial Chinese tombs, his ‘underwater museums’ consist of assembled groups of sculptured forms affixed to the seabed at various depths. They not only attract divers and snorkellers, but they also form the infrastructure for the regeneration of coral reefs and marine life habitats. The life size human forms, cast from the local inhabitants, acquire a haunting and heroic quality, 'beacons of hope' in a sea of trouble.

There is a complex set of dynamics at play in the art of deCaires-Taylor. His works have a life beyond the steel and concrete installations that are designed and fabricated on land. When he consigns his concrete and steel forms to the ocean-floor he allows the marine environment to complete the creative process. Forms come to life through a distinct interactivity between living organisms and his sculptures. Marine life attaches and thrives. In this biological process of transmutation, the concrete and steel acquire rich color, movement, textures and patterns. The constantly changing and filtered light that shines down through the water creates a patterned circlet on the ocean floor. These changing colors and tones and the gentle play of light give his works a quality of calm and mystery.

deCaires-Taylor’s spectacular opus of sculptural narratives, referred to as underwater museums, span the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, The Bahamas, the Indian Ocean, the Indonesian Archipelago and now, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. He has created a spectacular underwater global art trail.

His underwater museums are the ultimate ‘Art Meets Nature’ experience; multi-sensory, regenerative, respectful of traditional culture and country and nourishing to both mind and body.

At times he brings a sardonic humor together with a creative virtuosity and a deep sense of humanity to these underwater scenarios, not least when his sculptural narratives reveal the darkest of realities depicting the ocean floor as the graveyard of humanity in crisis. There is a quiet dignity in deCaires-Taylor’s forms that lie on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean off the shores at Lanzarote, monuments to the dispossessed refugees drowned at sea as Europe closes its borders.

The ‘Raft of the Lampedusa,’ off the cast of Spain, is a mock take on French artist Gericault’s 19th century masterpiece, The Raft of the Medusa. A sensational painting of its time, it unmasked the truth behind the horrific ordeal of survivors from the French navy frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816 and it embarrassed the post-Napoleonic French government who failed to act.

His droll depiction of ‘The Bankers’ at the Museum of Sub-aquatic Art (MUSA) Cancun, Mexico, with their heads in the sand (four meters underwater) surrounded by a scattered array of brief cases and calculators, symbolize the resistance to acknowledging our looming environmental crisis and the short-sighted actions and poor accountability of banking and government institutions. The design also supports an internal living space between the legs of bankers for crustaceans and juvenile fish to breed and inhabit!

His art is a voice for the exquisite and silent expanses of marine life in our oceans. The remoteness and other worldliness of his underwater museums seems to add power to his messages and deepen the resonance of his art.

His Coralarium, commissioned in 2018 by luxury resort company Fairmont Hotels Sirru Fen Fushi, is located on an exquisite turquoise lagoon in The Maldives. A perforated steel cube six meters tall and weighing over 180 tonnes, it sits offshore semi-submerged as a tidal gallery. Works are exposed on the skyline, on the inter-tidal waterline and fully submerged in the seabed.

“It’s like an inverse zoo. In cities, we go into a space and look at caged animals. Whereas this is almost like we’re the tourists, but we’re in the cage and the marine life can come and go and look at us. It’s a reversal of how we interact with wildlife.” deCaires- Taylor

The lead-up to these projects can take up to two years or three years. Prior to installation of works into the seabed, there are applications for permits, environmental impact studies, underwater mapping, community consultations, economic projections, the engineering and the science and finally the modelling and fabrication on land that engages local artisans. Then comes the challenging installation process.

Ultimately, when the dust settles, and the metamorphoses begins, it is the art that emerges as the heart of these projects.

‘Nest' is such a work. A circle of 48 life-size figures off the coast of Gili Meno, a small island between Bali and Lombok famed for its turtle population, it was commissioned in 2017 by BASK, an island resort. ‘Nest’ reminds visitors of the many fragile treasures beneath the sea and creates a platform for marine life to colonize and inhabit. The man-made reef, now gifted to the local community, is situated in shallow water in swimming distance off a beach that is open to the island’s permanent population of 500 people.

Australia’s ‘Museum of Underwater Art’ (MOUA) is spread across five sites including Palm Island, John Brewer Reef, Townsville’s seafront promenade, The Strand, and Magnetic Island. It features ‘Coral Greenhouse’ a cathedral-like structure installed in the Great Barrier Reef in 2020. It is designed to project the region as a hub for marine science and conservation. It is anticipated that it will radically boost tourism numbers and generate $42m in regional economic activity, create jobs and enhance the global reputation of the region as ‘a science and research hub to promote reef conservation, restoration and education’. Hopefully, it will give rise to new corals and marine life and provide unique pleasure to tourists and snorkelers who will experience up-close the regenerative powers of Nature.

deCaires-Taylor repeatedly demonstrates his innate respect for culture and country casting his sculptures from the indigenous people of the region. It is recognition of their stewardship of the surrounding land and sea. Ocean Siren is the first of the installations on the Great Barrier Reef. Modelled on a young indigenous girl from the Wulgurukaba tribe of Palm Island, descendants of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, she illuminates and changes colour in reaction to reef temperatures.

Her predecessor is Ocean Atlas, modelled on a young indigenous Bahamian girl, stage one of a coral reef sculpture garden commissioned by the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation in 2014. The artist scaled up this girl for monumental impact. She measures five meters from the sea floor to the surface and weighs over sixty tonnes.

According to deCaires-Taylor these works are intended to “empower the youth so they can help rectify the endless mistakes we have made.”

With the aid of platforms like TED and social media, this artist has used photographs of his underwater museums to bring world attention to the critical loss of coral reefs. It makes him a powerful advocate in the marine conservation world and an artist addressing the primary environmental, economic and cultural issues of the 21st century.

Words: JOMO (Jo Moulton) @ Nov 2019

Photos: By courtesy of the artist: Jason deCaires Taylor


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