"First, we need to deal with restoring the natural world and then we can go around restoring our own personal lives," says British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor. The 47-year-old UK-based artist certainly practices what he preaches: Taylor has spent the past 15 years ameliorating the world’s oceans by creating underwater exhibits filled with pieces that encourage marine life.
Starting with the Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park, which he installed five meters below the surface of the sea in Grenada back in 2006, to his Museo Atlántico (Spain, 2016) and the Underwater Museum of Cannes (2021), Taylor has installed 17 below-sea projects in total—and more are in developmental phases.
The projects are striking in nature, form, function and execution and they range from forests to tidal galleries, gardens and museums. The Coral Greenhouse, for example, which debuted by the John Brewer Reef in Australia's Pacific Ocean in 2019, is a 165-ton structure that, among other things, depicts a series of sculptures cast from school-aged children that are figuratively tending to a brighter future than the present they are living in.
The over 90 artworks that make up the underwater forest in Cyprus, on the other hand, "remind us of our need for the natural world as a place to explore, discover and fire out imaginations," reads the exhibit's official description, also drawing attention to the need to re-wild the world’s oceans.
Given the complexity of each exhibit and the scale of each series of works, it is no surprise that each project takes the artist between 3 and 5 years to complete. In terms of process, Taylor has worked on sculptures at his London studio before transporting them to a chosen site but he has also moved to a different city entirely for a few years to develop an exhibit.
Obtaining proper permits for each project has also proved to be a time-consuming effort.
In terms of finances, the majority of Taylor’s museums are funded by the local governments—a clear indication of each city’s desire to address worldwide ecological issues while, perhaps, also benefiting from the development of new and exciting tourism destinations.
Although mostly underwater, some of Taylor’s projects take up residence on the surface of an ocean. In Cannes, for example, the artworks are installed about a meter below the surface and 20 meters from the beach so they are easy to reach via boat or with snorkeling equipment. Other destinations require the use of scuba gear.
No matter where they are, all of the artist’s exhibits cater to the same goal: to draw attention to the natural world around us. "On a small scale, [my work] provides habitat areas. The works are designed to create artificial reefs, for marine life to actually grow on the surface," he says. "On a wider scale, they are good at managing tourism by taking people away from fragile areas and taking tourists to areas where they cause less of an impact on the surrounding environment."
Mostly, Taylor says, "the works are critiques or commentaries on environmental issues, on global warming, climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels. Each one tries to tell a different environmental story."
The irony involved in modifying a natural habitat—albeit with beautiful sculptures—to supposedly draw attention towards the destruction of said habitat isn’t lost on Taylor—which is why a major part of his process involves the sourcing of materials that can benefit the ocean and the animals that call it home.
"My [exhibits] encourage life," says the artist, explaining his use of PH neutral materials.
That being said, there are certainly detractors out there. “Art is very subjective and people have lots of different opinions about the work,” he says. “Some find it morbid and some scary—it’s a range of emotions.” Fans, however, find the art moving. “It’s sort of an archaeological experience more than a contemporary art one,” says Taylor.
Although all designed to last hundreds of years (instead of decomposing, the sculptures actually get larger over time), Taylor's exhibits belong to a present-day art world that has clearly been affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. "A lot of galleries have closed and a lot of funding has been withdrawn from projects and artists," says Taylor. "But I also think that COVID-19 has made people re-evaluate what is important in life and I think that can be a good thing overall."
For Taylor, a lot of that inner-assessment involves the outside world. "Our existence is currently threatened," he says. "We need to completely re-address our whole relationship to the natural world [and] start again. We can't prioritize economic growth or jobs or anything over the environment."
See more of the incredible works at Jason de Caire Taylor's website, or follow him on Instagram
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