Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Swimming around the statues

Catherine Brahic, environment editor


Artist Jason deCaires Taylor makes artificial reefs from cement casts of real people

What are you trying to convey with your underwater statues?
My work highlights the critical time we're living in, where we can influence the direction of our environment. I use sculpture to portray humans living in symbiosis with nature; to show how there is a sustainable future. But I'm also trying to show the negative impact we have, so some pieces highlight apathy and failure to act, or even to realise how bad the situation is.

Has your outlook changed?
I began with a very optimistic message: I was building this vast community of people working with the environment. Now, I've moved to the darker side. I created a guy sitting on a sofa with a hamburger, watching television, oblivious to his surroundings. That is a futuristic outlook, where we have ignored all the warnings and are sitting underwater but still fixated on something else.

What inspired these sculptures?
I was living in Grenada, in the Caribbean, where coral reefs were suffering as a result of tourism, and I was thinking of making installations but was conscious that I was just creating more objects. Then I thought of making artificial reefs. There was just one bay for snorkelling in Grenada and the impact was significant: you could see corals being kicked and broken, and anchors going directly down on the reef. The idea was to create a new attraction to draw people away. A lot of conservation is about leaving things alone. That's one of the biggest aims of the sculptures.

Can you describe the experience of swimming around the statues?
You're much more drawn in to your environment when you're underwater. You're forced into that world: having to breathe using compressed air or through a snorkel gives you a stronger connection to where you are and what you're doing. I feel more at peace there. The sculptures have a stronger impact underwater. Things change so quickly, they look ancient after six months.

Is photography an important part of your work?
Yes, because nothing stays the same. If I don't capture it at the right stage, two weeks later it'll be completely different. We've seen dramatic changes - and not always good ones - on The Silent Evolution, a work with 400 figures off the coast of Mexico, near CancĂșn.
The area was a desolate sandy bed two years ago. I put the sculptures down in August 2010, and for six months it was incredible. Thousands of fish were migrating there, all sorts of crustaceans, hundreds of lobsters and lots of coralline algae were growing. And then, around March this year, the water temperature changed and algal blooms wiped out all that development. That has caused a lot of discussion among biologists over whether this is part of the process or a more serious underlying problem.

So, was it a natural event?
Opinions are divided. It's hard to get a definite answer out of scientists as to what may be causing it. We had had a particularly warm summer but I also think there are serious issues with water treatment facilities in CancĂșn.
There's a giant lagoon on the inside of the hotel zone. The water quality is some of worst in the world - in some areas it's basically human waste - and that ends up going out to the reef. To protect the sculptures and make it easier to visit them, we put them where there wasn't so much current or wave action. But the downside is that they don't get a clean flow of open water in front of them.

What are you hoping to do with these sculptures next?
We're doing a new piece with a US marine biologist. I made casts of the ears of each child in a school class and turned them into a sculpture called The Listener. A group of biologists will fit a hydrophone inside it to analyse reef sounds and explore how to monitor reefs using audio only.

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