UnderwaterWonderland: The Deep Sea Art of Jason de Caires Taylor
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Off the western coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, a little girl clutching a small purse stands on the ocean floor, her upturned face smiling against the water’s current. Coral protrudes from the ears of an old man next to her,while a school of angelfish darts between the legs of their 398 silent companions. This is the surreal, haunting world that artist and conservationist Jason de Caires Taylor has created on the bottom of the ocean floor, an installation project uniting art and the preservation of marine life.
“Our planet is predominately water, and we don’t have a vast understanding of what’s actually surrounding us,” said the artist in a recent interview with Mutualart.com. “It’s a huge expanse, and a very small percentage of it... has solid structure that allows reefs to grow.”
Taylor is referring to the motivation behind his massive project situated in Cancun’s National Marine Park, where 400 cement “people” were planted on the ocean floor, in depths ranging from nine to twenty feet. Aptly titled La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution), the installation offers up a contemporary cultural perspective on how the Mayan people have evolved throughout history. As the artist explains, the cement crowd is more than just a sea of fascinating faces. “I started off because originally I wanted to make an artificial reef, but on a very grand scale.” His goal, he says, was to provide an interesting alternative home for marine life, with the aim of increasing the reef’s biodiversity. In addition to his ecological concerns, the project itself evolved with his artistic desire to incorporate the local community. The “reef people” featured in the installation are cement casts of citizens from the surrounding area. Taylor and his team made ten casts per week for a year; the last ten were installed only recently.
This series of sculptures comprise the world’s first ‘Underwater Museum,’ and have certainly made a splash: since the first pieces were installed nearly six weeks ago, scuba divers, snorkelers, and tour groups in glass-bottom boats have been riveted by De Caires Taylor’s reefs. Even more importantly, the fish seem to like them, too.
According to Taylor, the National Marine Park in Cancun welcomes approximately 750,000 people a year, which in turn puts a lot of stress on the natural reefs. By creating an artificial reef, the artist sought to draw people to a more barren area in order to protect the natural corals. “For me the environmental goal is the number one aim,” the artist maintains. “We’re losing vast areas of our natural reefs in a short space of time. Unless we all take drastic actions in another 50 years time we could be left with very little.”
In order to create his latest marine wonderland, the artist spent two years researching and planning the installation, and construction began around 14 months ago.He had special casting materials imported to Mexico, and collaborated with both an artificial reef company and a marine engineering firm in order to realize the reef.
Yet even for Taylor, a former scuba instructor who grew up in and around the ocean, his latest creation proved to be a challenge. “I specialize in working underwater, but this particular project has obviously been my most ambitious to date,” he says with a laugh. “Logistically it has been very challenging. The whole installation weighs over 140 tons. We had to mix hundreds of cubic tons of cement...about 420 sq. meters on the ocean bed.” The cement medium was a special “inert” material suitable for use underwater.
There were other hurdles in the process - namely, that the art has to be able to withstand the ever-changing seas. “You’re sort of working against everything because you have to make the filters as heavy as possible to withstand the currents, and possible hurricanes,” Taylor says. “So that’s quite a challenge.” “Plus,” he adds,“[the sculptures] have to be heavy enough so they stay fixed to the bottom but not so heavy that you can’t lift them.” But the final result is certainly stunning, rewarding to both the human spectator and the marine life which now reside there. Doubling as an artificial reef, it’s an installation that -- like the evolution of a culture -- will continually transform over time.
Of the aquatic environment he strives to preserve, he says, “It is sort of the equivalent to a tropical rain-forest, but people don’t always treat it that way. I hope to use my work to highlight that, and I do a lot of figurative sculptures because I’m trying to portray a symbiotic relationship or a balance between [humans] and nature where we can both live as equals instead of us being this dominant species.”
Some of Taylor’s other underwater wonders include the evocative “Vicissitudes” situated off the coast of Grenada, featuring 26 life-sized figures of children standing in a circle holding hands; and Cancun’s “Garden of Hope,” which portrays a young girl cultivating an aquatic garden propagated with live rescued corals. As the title of the piece indicates, Taylor’s underlying artistic vision is one of necessary optimism, that humans can live harmoniously within the natural world.
Taylor is a fan of other artists who are making purposeful, environmentally conscious art, such as the innovative “temporary land artist” Jim Denevan (Read our interview with the artist here). “I love the idea that its art for a temporary moment...you’re not cluttering up the planet, and that’s more related to our own lives-- we’re only here for a short period of time, and we’re all part of that process.” The artist will continue to make waves in the marine world with future projects, including plans for an installation piece in an underwater cave, and a series of soluble sculptures, which will illustrate ocean acidification.
To his credit, Taylor pays tribute to his marine-life muses, whom he says assist him in all his aquatic endeavors."I have a whole team of underwater helpers that come along and do all the finishing for me," he said in an interview with USA Today last month. "The coral applies the paint. The fish supply the atmosphere. The water provides the mood. People ask me when it's going to be finished. This is just the beginning."
Written by MutualArt.com writer Lauren Meir
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