Out Of The Archives:
Conversation With Artist Jason deCaires Taylor

Hombre en Llamas (Man on Fire), Isla Mujeres

As we all originate from the sea I believe all humans have an intrinsic, built in desire and fascination to return. — Jason deCaires Taylor

Creator of the world’s first underwater sculpture park, Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA), Jason deCaires Taylor has gained international recognition for his unique work. The underwater museum is located in The National Marine Park of Cancun, Mexico and will consist of more than four hundred life-sized sculptures creating artificial reefs for marine life to colonize and inhabit.

Through these underwater sculptures, Taylor explores the interrelationships between modern art, man and the environment. His work promotes the potential for a sustainable future, portraying human intervention in nature as both affirmative and regenerating.

When I first heard of the Cancun and Isla Mujeres Underwater Art Museum Museo Subaquático de Arte I have to admit that I mentally brushed it off as just another gimmicky tourist attraction set in one of the most beautiful environments in the world. When I did finally get a moment to check out the videos of this environmental installation piece online I was stunned.

I sat with the online videos and images for awhile, absorbing them. Before writing about Jason deCaires Taylors project, I wanted to make sure that this was something I would keep with me for the long term, that it wasn’t just a project that was stunning in the moment, although, it is that. The sculptures in this environmental project are all underwater, and the water, as well as the marine life of the coastal reef that is living in it, is as much a part of the project as the sculptures themselves.

Jason deCaires Taylor grew up in Europe and Asia, the son of a an English father and a Guyanese mother. Much of his childhood was spent on the coral reefs of Malaysia where he developed a deep love of the sea and a fascination with the natural world. His bond with the sea has remained a constant throughout his life and while he spent several years working as a scuba diving instructor in various parts of the world, he developed a strong interest in conservation, underwater naturalism, and photography. He graduated in 1998 from the London Institute of Arts, with a B.A. Honours in Sculpture and Ceramics. Later, his experiences in Canterbury Cathedral taught him traditional stone carving techniques and five years of working in set design and concert installations exposed him to cranes, lifting, logistics and completing projects on a grand scale.

I recently had the opportunity to sit laptop to laptop with the very busy Jason deCaires Taylor who took some time out of his day for our readers.

Unstill Life, from a previous project in Granada

kimberly: One of the project’s goals is to deter people away from the reef, which is under constant threat of damage-by-tourist, that runs from Cancun down to Tulum. But another goal is to replenish the reef. How can these two goals exist simultaneously? Isn’t the growing coral within the sculpture and the surrounding area also sensitive to the humans that are visiting them and touching them?

Jason deCaires Taylor: The location of the sculptures in Cancun is strategic as the Cancun Marine Park is one of the most visited stretches of water in the world. It has over 750,000 visitors each year, placing immense pressure on its resources, so the aim is to divert visitors to this artificial reef, in order to give the existing reefs a chance to regenerate and develop. Creating artificial reefs to divert attention from existing reefs and to provide an appropriate surface upon which new life can grow is a recognised strategy in coral reef preservation and protection. Obviously the artificial reef itself becomes a fragile habitat for marine life so it will be important for guides within the national park to ensure visitors do not touch the sculptures and the corals growing on them. I hope that the sculptures will raise awareness about the delicate nature of coral reefs that visitors will carry with them to other reefs they might visit in the future.

kimberly: Much has been said in previous media interviews regarding the reef replenishment part of the project. There are other concepts that I’m just as curious about when I view the images of the work. My thoughts are that time and evolution play really important roles in your work.

Taylor: Indeed. By design, the sculptures will evolve and change over time and in this I relinquish control as an artist to nature. This is an exciting and important part of the work for me, that nature propels my art beyond the imagination of man, to create new life that is constantly evolving. The very real and pressing concern with the degeneration of the world’s reef systems is a principal motivation behind my work and, through the use of these submerged human figures, I aim to illustrate how we are all facing serious questions concerning our environment and our impact on the natural world. The effect of time and evolution on the work itself will be obvious to the viewer but the work is optimistic and forward looking, expressing hope that there will be unity in dealing with this problem.

kimberly: To the fish and coral, the water is their air, their atmosphere. When viewing sculpture on land we don’t often think of our air, or the element of air, as being an extension of the artwork we are looking at. But when your sculptures are submerged in water, the water becomes an integral part of the work. The work actually extends out to the point where it becomes visible to the viewer.

Taylor: The light changes constantly in water, objects are magnified, sound is displaced, our sense of gravity is altered. So yes, the sea around the sculptures is indeed an integral part of the work, supporting the growth of new life. The space around the sculptures extends as fish begin to territorialise the area, there is constant movement and life and the visitor to the sculptures becomes a part of that world during their exploration of the park.

kimberly: Will the work be documented through its aging process?

Taylor: Yes, I have a photographic and film archive of all the sculptures from when they are still in the bodega, before they are put into the water, to their initial installation and then at various stages as life starts to grow on them and fish and other acuatic animals begin to live in the habitat spaces the sculptures provide.

Technical information on materials used in the sculptures:

The sculptures are created with a pH-neutral concrete which is a mix of marine grade cement, sand and micro-silica, which is also reinforced with a special fiberglass rebar. Some of the sculptures have additional elements such as ceramic tiles, glass, and paper and 95% of the materials are inert. The research behind the sculptures has been done in collaboration with marine biologists from the national marine park in Mexico and also from Reefball, an artificial reef company based in the US. It is very important that the materials used in the sculptures have the exact ph-factor that will attract the corals, that the sculptures are deployed at the right time of year to coincide with coral spawning, and the exact placement is defined by the depth and location of the work as this can attract various types of species.

Taylor is currently working with a team of local artists in Mexico on the production of four hundred life-sized sculptures entitled Currents of Change. Two hundred figures are now complete and are being installed in July 2010, with the remainder scheduled for November 2010.

Locations of the three sculptures installed in the Cancun Marine Park in November 2009:

The Gardener of Hope portrays a young Mexican girl surrounded by plant pots propagated with live coral. Built into the base of the sculpture are specialized habitat spaces designed to attract various marine creatures such as moray eels, juvenile fish and lobsters. It was placed 4m deep at Punta Nisuc, near the coast of Cancun.

Man on Fire is cast from Joachim, a local Mexican fisherman, and was placed 8m deep at Manchones reef nearby to Isla Mujeres. The cement has been drilled with over 75 holes and planted with live cuttings of fire coral. The man is on fire yet unaware of his situation, highlighting our dependence on, and over-use of, our limited natural resources, such as fossil fuels.

The Archive of Lost Dreams depicts an underwater archive, maintained by a male registrar. A collection of hundreds of bottled messages are brought together by the natural forces of the ocean. Various communities were invited to provide the messages which document contemporary values and aspirations for future generations to discover. It was placed 8m deep at Manchones reef nearby to Isla Mujeres.

Currents of Change, the newest installation of 400 figures will also be placed 8m deep behind Manchones reef.

The sculptures are located on sandy areas of substrate that do not cause harm to the existing ecosystems. All sculptures are easily accessible by diving, snorkeling and viewing from glass-bottomed boats. Cancun and Isla Mujeres have a vast number of tour operators working within the marine park. All visits to the museum must be accompanied by a registered guide.

You can see more information on the sculpture project on Jason deCaires Taylor’s web site.

His sculptures highlight ecological processes whilst exploring the intricate relationships between modern art and the environment. By using sculptures to create artificial reefs, the artist’s interventions promote hope and recovery, and underline our need to understand and protect the natural world. from UnderWaterSculpture.com

The Official inauguration of MUSA will be in December 2010.

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