by Manu SharmaJan 19, 2021
As someone who spends every waking hour poring over art magazines, scrolling through artist portfolios and watching an endless list of artist interviews, it is a rare occasion for me to look twice at anything. The oeuvre of Jason deCaires Taylor did just that - snatched my attention and kept it there. An artist like no other, Taylor is perhaps the only one who can stake claim to the existence of multiple museums underwater. As someone who spent his youth in places like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, his childhood birthed a close relationship between him and the ocean. As he began to develop his practice as an artist, his interest took him to create work outdoors rather than within the confines of a white cube. Taylor spoke to us about his journey and his most recent project, The Coral Greenhouse, near the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Taylor shares, “I think it was around 2006 that I first started. I had previously been interested in making works for urban environments and outdoors in the woods and parts of the coastline but I had never set foot into the underwater world. Around 15 years ago I had the opportunity to, when I was living and working in Grenada in the Caribbean. It wasn’t just about the artwork as such but it also had a value as a form of consolation. By putting works underwater, they also became artificial reefs and habitats for marine life and they also helped manage tourists and draw them away from fragile areas. I made around 65 sculptures for that particular installation”.
The ocean is a wildly challenging location for any artist. Additionally, sculptures of scale present further obstacles. Taylor says, “It’s a very different environment with very different parameters. Normally, public sculptures have some form of metal in whether it’s an armature or foundry casting whereas underwater I can’t use metal because it doesn’t have a very long life span. I end up using other materials and I try to emulate natural rock formations and use different types of material like pH neutral cement, works that will last hundreds of years so that they actually help to encourage building coral reefs”.
Because of the nature of his work, Taylor works primarily with government organisations who commission him to create installations which drive tourists away from threatened areas while also creating a renewed appreciation for the ocean. He works with the state departments to gain permits and do the environmental impact studies necessary to install his works. His practice also compels him to work alongside marine construction companies and marine engineers who help with the design work.
“Currently our oceans and coral reefs are really threatened. Because a lot of people fear the ocean, it’s hard for them to sympathise with it and have any form of empathy towards it. Personally, I don’t make the artworks for divers, I try to make them for people who don’t go into the sea to try to encourage them to find out more. Many of the works are very accessible, in shallow areas with clear waters," mentions the artist. He continues, “Some of the places I work, many of the people don’t go into the sea. It’s just not part of their culture. It’s become an important aspect to encourage children to go in. I am actually doing some works right now which are tidal sculptures so you just have to walk along the coastline to see them”.
While Taylor’s tidal sculptures do increase accessibility to his work, for many people such as myself, with a toe-curling phobia of deep waters (and sharks - thank you Jaws!), his underwater installations seem rather out of reach. Apart from the abundant portfolio of videos online, his underwater sculptures are less approachable to those who cannot swim or have physical disabilities. Despite this notion, Taylor counters by saying that the shallow location of the artworks encourage non-swimmers and are even accessible to those specially-abled as gravity is a non-issue when underwater. If ever I choose to fight my fears and plunge into the ocean it will be for art, specifically Jason deCaires Taylor’s work.
About his recent underwater museum, The Coral Greenhouse, Taylor says, “I spent two or three years getting the permits and designing a structure that would be stable in that environment. I wanted a building that would change in response to its environment. The walls would be covered with marine life, and actually be built by underwater structures to create an ephemeral building, which was constantly evolving. Surrounding the greenhouse we have underwater pathways, trees and gardens. We also included an array of people gardening in the greenhouse… The indigenous community there from there were the models for the figures. We aimed to encourage more environmental awareness and stewardship of the reef”. Much of Taylor’s work incorporates the human figure. This brings familiarity into the unknown landscape of the deep as well as a rather haunting sense of the future we are heading towards.
When an artist completes a work, they surrender it to the world. In the case of Taylor, he surrenders it to the ocean, allowing it to take over his sculpture in a collaborative effort to reach the pinnacle of beauty in both visual and conceptual contexts. After installing his life-size sculptures, Taylor places coral on the sculpture itself, which eventually grows and attracts other marine life. This results in some of the most aesthetically stunning work by nature herself. In this partnership between artist and nature, nothing can be planned or predicted.
As much as Taylor is optimistic about human nature and our relationship to the environment, he admits, “Some days I wake up and I do think it’s totally pointless and other days I see glimmers of hope and how change can happen rapidly. Ultimately, power lies with the people. Even just watching the COVID crisis this year you realise that in a globalised society we can actually move very quickly and orchestrate huge things. I think there is capability of change but the power structures have to change first and those have to be reimagined. The way election cycles work just doesn’t work for the environment”. Taylor’s work is a reminder of the incredible beauty in our natural environment and our capacity for an intimate connection with it.