Portraits of Decay and Recovery

Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater installations are a reminder of life’s fragility — and endurance.

Twenty feet below the surface of a small bay on the west coast of Grenada stands an array of human figures; they hold hands, their backs to one another, looking out into the endless blue. Nearby a lone man sits at a desk, hands suspended over a typewriter. The figures, 75 in all, appear trapped in time, like the victims of Pompeii mummified in their final moments. In some ways, the Molinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park, the world’s first underwater installation, feels like a glimpse into an apocalyptic future. But in other ways, it offers a story of recovery.

Award-winning sculptor, environmentalist, and underwater photographer Jason DeCaires Taylor created the installation after a hurricane destroyed much of the reef network surrounding Grenada in 2004. The few undamaged reefs that remained were overrun with tourists. Taylor, who was living in Granada at the time, created this park to provide an alternate attraction to draw tourists away from the fragile reefs while providing another reef-like ecosystem for marine life.

“At the time I was making art for its own sake,” he told the Journal. “A big turning point for me was the conservation element.” Taylor made the sculptures with a special type of pH-neutral cement that doesn’t pollute the water and whose rough texture encourages coral larvae to attach to it. He created nooks throughout for fish and crustaceans. Over the years, marine life has colonized the installation, creating an artificial reef. Many of the statues are covered with sponges, algae, and corals, a reminder that, given the opportunity, nature rebounds.

Taylor has created similar installations in the waters of Maldives, France, Mexico, Indonesia, Norway, and Australia over the past 16 years, totaling some 1,100 “living artworks.” His sculptures are often modeled on people living nearby, but the subject matter is vast and varied: a raft crammed with climate refugees, a businessman weighing down an inequitable teeter-totter, a group of figures, representing humanity, marching towards an ominous gate.

More Online: Learn more about Taylor’s work at underwatersculpture.com

Taylor spends years working on each installation and then places them in the ocean, an act of letting go. But working with water is also incredibly liberating, he says. Though he describes his work as one of decay and metamorphosis, his art also feels like the highest level of collaboration, a recognition that the natural world is a creative force. On a recent diving trip to his installation, Museo Subacuático de Arte, in Mexico, which was finished in 2012, Taylor realized he was paying far more attention to the mosaic of life gliding around him than his own artwork. “It reminded me that ultimately nothing can compete with the natural beauty of species,” he says. “That vibrancy was the real art, and I was just the canvas.”

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