Over time, sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor’s sunken artworks turn into artificial reefs. He is currently creating an underwater sculpture park off the coast of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. We pay an in-depth visit
Jason deCaires Taylor breaks a few grains out of Silvana’s face and steps back to take a look at his neighbor. He took a plaster cast of her, then modeled it and sanded it down before making a concrete sculpture and letting it harden. Taylor plans to place it ten meters beneath the ocean off the coast of Lanzarote. Exhibiting his sculptures on the ocean bed is part of his artistic concept, and he has already installed entire sculpture parks beneath the waves off the Mexican coast and in the Caribbean.
Now he has come to Lanzarote, to Playa Blanca, to open the first underwater museum in the eastern Atlantic. At his studio in this tourist center at the southern tip of the island, hammer and saw hang on the wall, and everywhere there are cactuses cast in silicone and sacks of cement. Taylor, casual in shorts and flip-flops, a pair of reflective sunglasses on his head, wields a tiny chisel as he corrects the leg of a male sculpture he is going to mount on a concrete dinghy. “This is Abdal,” he says, “he came to the island in a boat like this one when he was eight years old.” Many of Taylor’s figures are modeled on actual inhabitants of the Canary Isles, but he also has a botanical garden and a colossal gateway complete with walls destined for installation on the ocean bed. Ten meters down, on an area 50 meters by 50 meters, visitors equipped with an oxygen tank or a snorkel will be able to view the sculptures. Alternatively, they can sail over them in a glass-bottom boat. Taylor’s studio is located in the marina, the steep rocky cost rising behind it and the wavesof the Atlantic audible all the way up to his terrace. Here on the beach, is where he has the finished sculptures, a group of roughly 40 people, frozen in mid-movement. Eyes closed, they stride out to sea. “It has a lot to do with the idea of our always longing to be somewhere else, of always being on the move,” explains Jessica Miles, Taylor’s assistant. But this group of wanderers is also an allusion to the refugee crisis in Europe.
Taylor often addresses social and political topics: In 2012, his comment on the financial crisis was to bury the heads of a group of bankers in the sandy ocean bed off Cancún, Mexico. In September 2015, he installed four Riders of the Apocalypse in the Thames, just a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament and the headquarters of the Shell Group in the UK. The horses’ heads resemble oil pumps, the riders are politicians whose eyes stare into the distance as though they hadn’t noticed that they were already up to their necks – literally.
Taylor finds his work fascinating. “Everything works differently underwater: gravity, light, colors. The ocean is like a second artist, who comes along and puts his own touches to the sculptures.” Most of that work is performed by the marine creatures who settle on the rock. Their excrescences spread over the bodies, covering them in colorful tapestries. Taylor visits his sculptures as often as he can and records the changes he observes. He points out a macro-photo on his office wall: “These sponges work like small hearts: They suck in water through an opening, filter out the nutrients and pump out the used water,” he explains. His works don’t just change their appearance underwater, they become living organisms. “You never know what to expect. Sometimes I dive down and the entire sculpture is just covered with black slime. The next time, I might be completely overwhelmed, when I look at the face of a sculpture and see a prawn living in its ear – that changes everything.”
More than anything, Taylor’s work is designed to highlight the dangers threatening the planet’s marine ecosystems. Coral reefs, like those of the Caribbean, provide a habitat for hundreds of thousands of species. However, industry, global warming and tourism are destroying large parts of those reefs. “Sadly, most tourists aren’t particularly good divers or swimmers,” says Taylor, “they bump into the coral and break pieces off.” Taylor makes his underwater sculptures in a bid to draw attention to the reefs and also to divert it away. As algae, sponges and coral settle on the pH-neutral concrete figures, they gradually transform them into artificial reefs. Taylor only places his artworks on sandy ocean beds, far from the popular tourism spots, to entice divers away from the fragile natural reefs.
There are no coral reefs off Lanzarote. Nevertheless, the Spanish government commissioned Taylor with the installation of the underwater museum and is footing the bill for the project, to the tune of one million euros. Each of the Canary Islands is eager to build itself an individual image to attract tourists. Unfortunately, many tourists associate Lanzarote with budget club vacations. That’s something the government aims to change and is promoting the volcanic island with its artistic tradition. Lanzarote’s artist and architect son César Manrique informed the face of the island in the 1970s and ’80s. Himself an environmental activist and sculptor, he blended his art into Lanzarote’s rugged volcanic landscape. “What I am now hoping to achieve is a counterpart to his work in the ocean,” says Taylor.
The ocean is like a second artist, who comes along and puts his own touches to the sculptures
For the next two years, Taylor, who hails from the UK, will be living on Lanzarote with his partner and their four-year-old daughter. His success as an artist also has its drawbacks, he has discovered: “I used to dive down to the sculptures almost every day,” he recalls, “but with so many pieces scattered all over the world, that is no longer possible. It feels like I can’t see my own children.” The Abdal figure is now ready to be mounted on an already fully occupied concrete boat. Armed with thick gloves and face masks to keep out the cement dust, Taylor and two employees heave the sculpture to the edge of the boat. The concrete version of Abdal weighs around 120 kilos. The sculptures that are still standing, naked and dry in Taylor’s studio, are soon to be transferred to their new surroundings and to the next “artists.” In the cold waters of the Atlantic, it will take a while, but before long, their skin will be covered with colorful sponges, and fish will live between their feet.
Emily Bartels was born in Hamburg in 1988. Trying new things is her main occupation: Star-studded cuisine and breaded insects, parachuting and Qigong. On the side, Emily is an editor at Lufthansa Magazin.