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Sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor is not only his leaving a mark on the art world, but he is also creating a positive impact on the marine environments in which his sculptures are placed, as they become artificial reefs that continue to thrive and attract new life forms.

Words by Leticia Nguyen //  Photography by Jason DeCaires Taylor
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Some people dare to look beyond the realm of the familiar, observing the world around them and taking note of what has already been done and conjuring up endless possibilities of what could be done. Then there are people who take the ‘what ifs’ to the next level and bring these ideas to fruition. Internationally acclaimed sculptor, Jason deCaires Taylor is a prime example of such a person who thought big and got the job done. While there are other artists who make underwater art, Jason’s prolific body of work has quickly earned him recognition in the art scene and marine science world alike, through his unique underwater sculpture installations that have contributed to the rejuvenation of reefs in trauma. Although he is often cited as an eco-sculptor, conservationist, photographer, scuba diver and ecologist, he simply refers to himself as a sculptor. It’s easy to be enamoured and mesmerised by his sculptures, as they possess an otherworldly quality in their underwater settings, where they’re observed in a state of compete serenity. While some of his works convey strong environmental, political or social messages, others some simply encourage the observer to consider their interactions with nature. Either way, all have an effect that resonates with the onlooker long after they have laid their eyes on his sculptures. His work has been featured in numerous major publications, documentaries and TV shows around the globe, so I was feeling a little nervous when he happily obliged to catch up for an interview from his Cancun studio. But my nerves were quickly put aside when he answered in his casual and friendly English accent and began to chat informally about his work.

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As a son of an English father and Guyanese mother, Jason tells me a bit about his upbringing, which was spent between England and Asia. When he was 8 years old up until his mid-teens, he lived in Malaysia where his parents were working and it was during this time that he developed a fascination with the ocean and in particular, reefs. Jason recalls they would explore “amazing islands off the coast of Thailand and Malaysia that were completely uninhabited and really fantastic.”

“I think those were the sort of places that fired my imagination from a young age.” These early encounters stayed with him when he returned to England to complete high school, followed by university at the London Institute of Art, where he studied for 4 years. At this stage, he was already thinking about fusing his love of the sea with his art, but obviously being stuck in central London he was not positioned to bring the two together. “I was always interested in art and the environment and how the context of art changes as its environment changed around it, so I worked in a lot of landscape stuff, making pieces in the studio and then taking them out and putting them in different settings and urban environments, fields and forests and seeing how the relationship changed.” But the sea beckoned and he was craving to get back to the ocean where his aspirations could materialise. So he left England and relocated to the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, where he plunged into his mission to create underwater sculptures.

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”I THINK THEY THOUGHT I WAS JUST ANOTHER CRAZY EXPAT TO COME OUT WITH A BIG, GRAND IDEA AND GIVE UP AFTER 6 MONTHS.”

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Given that no other artist had ever embarked on underwater installations of the magnitude for which Jason is known, I ask him about some of the initial reactions to his plans. “I think I was quite lucky. I was living in Grenada, a small island in the Caribbean, which was quite a strange place to begin, but it had quite an open attitude and I think they thought I was just another crazy expat to come out with a big, grand idea and give up after 6 months, but I persisted through it and presented it to the government and the diving community.” Although some people were skeptical at first, Jason recalls, “As it started to gather momentum, people started to get more and more interested and it sort of blossomed since then, really.” Perhaps it was his extraordinary vision or his English charm that helped him to sway investors and the government, but Jason was able to start the world’s first underwater sculpture park in Moliniere bay in 2006 and since then, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The park is situated within a National Marine Park, attracting scuba divers and snorkelers from around the globe who come to dive below the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea. “It’s quite interesting, the project in Grenada we started in a bay, where maybe there were 5 dives there a year and now I think they’re up to about 20,000 visitors a year.”

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One of Jason’s main goals is to create these artificial reefs as a means to redirect traffic from the reefs struggling to survive. Since opening the park and MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) in Mexico, he has observed the impact that his sculptures have had on the local marine environments. Jason explains that of the series of bays Grenada has, only one bay had a good snorkeling environment where the reefs were healthy and shallow enough for people to see, which meant that this particular island received all of the traffic. “All the boats were there going there, the coral was getting broken—there was a huge amount of pressure, but now more than 50% of those people go to the sculptures.” While this is a positive outcome, Jason expresses his concern about the overall impact of the visitors going to the park, which may be a risk given the publicity the sculptures have created. “On one hand, it’s taken the people away, but at the same time, the sort of overall visitor level has increased. But, take Cancun for example—which has always had a lot of visitors—I think that annually it receives 750,000 people to the marine park, the second only to the Great Barrier Reef. Now we’ve seen about 200,000 people divert off to the sculptures (at MUSA), which is quite huge.”

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“THERE ARE INCREDIBLE THINGS TO BE SEEN…I DON’T THINK I COULD EVER BETTER THOSE THINGS, BUT ALL I CAN DO IS PROVIDE AN ALTERNATIVE.”

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At first glance, it’s easy to be taken aback by the sheer aesthetics of the pieces, as his realistic life forms take on a mystical presence when they are viewed underwater, but Jason’s work is far more complex than their visual representation. Given his desire to conserve and rejuvenate the reefs is a large motivation behind his work, Jason works closely with marine scientists and biologists, so he can get a better understanding of the delicate ecosystems in which he works. This close collaboration also enables him to get the permits and surveys together and he explains there are “loads of factors that you wouldn’t initially consider”, such as using the most environmentally sound materials as well as placing a sculpture. “You think it’s quite straightforward—place it on a sandy bed. But no, you really want to put it down scale of a down current of a natural region, so that when the corals spawn, all the coral eggs float through the water and attach to the sculptures.”

“There are all sorts of different types of substrate that have to anchor sculptures to the sea floor, so that if there’s a tropical storm or a hurricane, they don’t get moved. So I’m always looking at what type of substrate or sediment there is to fix a piece onto.” Jason is constantly thinking outside the square, which is evident in his piece, The Listener in which a hydrophone was placed to record activity around the sculpture. “We were hoping to see a link in activity—that the sculpture attracted more marine life, so you’d see an increase in any manner of sounds that were around it.

“There’s lots of new research regarding sound in the water that says that coral polyps actually are drawn to sound of the reefs. So when they’re floating in the vast ocean, some of them actually tune into the vibrations and sounds connected to the reefs and know there’s a solid substrate to cling onto.” In future, Jason plans to take this idea a few steps forward and continue to collect scientific data by including cameras and devices to measure temp, alkaline levels, the quality of the water and other indicators that tell you what’s going on with the reefs, hoping that will give him more insight into conservation and whether the sculptures are attracting more people.

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When Jason speaks about working with the ocean, you can tell he is genuinely humbled by the opportunity, as he believes it is “a huge privilege” and would never want to impact on anything that is already down there. “There are incredible things to be seen, so I don’t think I could ever better those things, but all I can do is provide an alternative. So I will look to put something that will have zero impact on the original reef.” In his aim to promote conservation of the marine environments around him, Jason not only adheres live transplanted coral to many of his pieces, but he uses sustainable materials such as pH neutral cement, as using metals is completely prohibited. He laughs when I ask him about the challenging aspects of what he does. “Ah, there’s millions.”

“Weather is probably one of the massive factors, as you can plan everything as perfect as possible, but everything is subject to the conditions on the day.” Jason has to make the sculptures as heavy as possible, as they lose a 1/3 of their weight once placed underwater. “But obviously, when you’re making things that are extremely heavy, the logistics on land are really difficult. You need super cranes to life things up, so yeah…things get very problematic.”

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Jason has quite an interesting work process that, depending on the concept, usually involves two stages. Firstly, he goes to the sea and observes how nature works, watching how coral colonises surfaces, where fish habitats will be and how fish move and where they go. Then he does the opposite and goes to the city to watch how humans live, where he observes “our sort of weird behaviours and what we kind of do” and then tries to think of a concept that combines those two elements. Most of Jason’s work is done from live casts, using locals from the area in which he’s working at the time. They’re brought into the studio and are cast using dental material, which is then made into a silicon mold before it is turned into its final cement piece. Given the large-scale nature of his installations, Jason usually has extra hands on board to help him during the sculpting phases. “There’s some guys that help me out with the cement pouring, mixing, you know, the real heavy work.” The many stages and processes involved in Jason’s work have given him a greater understanding and appreciation for landscape artists such as Richard Long, Klass Aldberg and Krysto, who have all influenced his work to some extent. “All these people, I enjoyed what they did in the beginning and now I actually see the processes that they’ve gone through to actually get the permits for their work, get the funding for it and I’m even more amazed by the skills they’ve had to achieve it.”

“I sometimes have trouble trying to convince people to fund my work. They know I’m creating an artificial reef and a tourist attraction and other beneficial things to society, whereas you see other artists like Krysto, who wraps items of fabric around buildings and islands and built a silk wall across the Sahara desert and they’re beautiful pieces, as stand-alone art, it’s amazing. But I just think it’s also incredible how he got the permits and went through the other side of it.”

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”SOMETIMES I’LL GO AND SEE A PIECE AFTER A YEAR AND IT WILL JUST COMPLETELY BE DIFFERENT…THAT’S DEFINITELY THE MOST ENJOYABLE THING.”

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Despite the complexities of Jason’s work, one would agree the rewards by far outweigh the challenges involved. Jason speaks with fervour about watching positive changes in the environment as a direct result of his sculptures. “Seeing the pieces colonise is very exciting, because although you sort of plan with an idea of what’s going to happen, it’s totally unexpected when you do go there.

“If I’m going regularly, then maybe not so much, but sometimes I’ll go and see a piece after a year and it will just completely be different. You know, have a giant pink sponge growing over its face, a wall of fire coral growing in one area and you just can’t rival the beauty of that…it’s really incredible. That’s definitely the most enjoyable thing.” He loves the diversity between seeing his works during the day compared to viewing them in the evening. “It actually changes really quickly…I can go to see them during the day and it’s one set of fish or one set of creatures, and then I can go 4 hours later at night and the whole thing is completely different. The colours are different, the organisms that have all come out to operate at night, they’re all different. So that’s definitely a rewarding part, too.”

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Among some of his long term plans, he tells me he is going to keep adding pieces to his monumental body of work, The Silent Evolution, which has already had another 50 pieces added. “The long term plan is to make it into 8000 pieces, so that there is more than the Chinese terracotta army. But I’m not sure if my spinal cord will hold out!” Jason has now returned to his studio in Europe where he is in the conceptual phases of a number of potential projects and waiting to see how they’ll come off. “I’m not 100% sure which way I’m going. I’m quite interested in working in Asia, you know, a different set of marine life…much more evolved, much more variety, so I’d quite like to do some work out there.”

“I’m just interested in different environments, different challenges and I’m very much motivated by the challenge of what I do…I tend to sort of scale things up. Some of the newer pieces I’m working on are much heavier, they’re kind of 80 tonnes, and go from the sea floor right up to the surface walls. There are all sorts of things happening.” In a world where we all too often focus on the negative impact that humans have on the environment, it’s refreshing to see Jason’s achievements convey an underlying message that we can in fact create positive outcomes through our interactions with the natural world.

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Be sure to head to Jason’s website to check out more of his extraordinary work.