In his book "Art, Space, Ecology", John K. Grande examines the endless relationship between art, nature and science in a conversation with twenty important contemporary artists. An interview with the underwater artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
Art engages life! Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures migrate to the underwater, a region we consider out of bounds, far from the human sphere. Through their manufacture, their selection as subjects, and eventual entropic change, they offer a new definition for sculpture as a way of facilitating and underwriting the inevitability of change. Adjacent to the Houses of Parliament in London and sited in the Thames River, Rising Waters sculptures with children and businessmen on London “Shire horses” with heads that look like “nodding donkeys” — the nickname for oil pumps — highlighted the effects on global warming caused by the oil industry. The latest project called Nexus, is at Sjoholmen, Norway. It has human figures connected as if by an umbilical cord to the bottom of the sea and sends a message while encouraging undersea growth and life.
JKG: It has been great getting to know of and to experience your work firsthand, Jason. Can you tell me how you began to work underwater as a sculptor?
JdCT: I first started working underwater in 2006, having previously studied environmental art at the London Institute of Arts; after many years I found myself living on the island of Grenada in the West Indies teaching scuba diving. As I became more familiar with the place, I started to understand some of the environmental challenges it was facing. One of these was that the fringing corals reefs had been decimated by hurricane Ivan, leaving only one area fully intact and pristine which was subsequently visited and damaged by ever-increasing numbers of tourists. I realized that by creating an artificial reef from sculptures it would not only create a new habitat for marine life but also draw visitors away from the other natural sites.
JKG: Museo Atlantico, off the coast at Lanzarote is an ambitious project, the first underwater sculpture park of its kind close to Europe. Can you tell me more about how it came into being?
JdCT: Lanzarote is famed for its environmental art interventions. The government wanted to expand its existing cultural portfolio to include marine environments. Museo Atlantico is centred around a underwater botanical garden and consists of over ten large scale installations (around 300 individual pieces). It is divided into two sections by a 30-metre long wall and gateway. Each of the individual installations uses this central line as a point of reference or a point of no return. Many of the works are human/plant hybrid sculptures.
JKG: And as with the Museo Subacuático de Arte en Mexico (MUSA), do the sculptures fulfill an environmental bio-function supporting coral and new growth?
JdCT: I try to achieve the following: tourist impact reducer, new substrate for corals, sponges and hydroids, habitat provider and specifically designed areas for individual creatures like crustaceans, schooling fish and so on. There are areas for species to escape predation as well and finally I also use the narrative of the works as a kind of art activism to draw attention to the abuse of our planet and in particular the marine environment. Using a figurative element to connect to a wider audience is crucial for addressing climate change.
JKG: The Thames River project The Rising Tide was quite controversial, facing the Houses of Parliament in London, and the piece included allusions to the oil-based carbon culture. What was the public and media response?
JdCT: Yes it was picked up quite quickly that the horsemen were addressing the industrial apocalypse. It had a phenomenal public response, almost to its own detriment, as overcrowding on the river bank started to give authorities safety concerns from the rising tide and eventually the permit was not renewed. The London Shire horses with heads like “nodding donkeys”, a common nickname for oil pumps, may not be such a familiar part of the landscape in Europe, but are more recognizable to American audiences. Situated in front of the Houses of Parliament and the oil giant Shell headquarters, it aimed to create a stark message about climate change in front of the people who have the power to change things.
JKG: ... and now the Maldives project you are slated to work on... It is so topical in light of the disappearance of shoreline on the Maldives. What is in the works?
JdCT: The project will consist of a partly submerged gallery space or “Oceanarium” as I have called it. This will be the first time that I have attempted to make a full architectural work in a tidal zone and will comprise a cube-like coral structure housing a series of works on plinths. The plinths displaying figurative works are at differing elevations and aim to highlight the rising sea levels and the threats to coastal communities.
JKG: And just created in Sjoholmen, on the Oslo fjord, your new Nexus project. Can you tell me about that?
JdCT: Ten submerged sculptures float one metre below the surface tethered to the sea floor via stainless steel “umbilical cords”. A floating surface pontoon houses two bronze figurative works that highlight the underwater presence of the other installation elements. The underwater works look quite cold and bleak from the surface of the water, however when you dive beneath, the sun and sediment from autumn leaves cause it to become a totally different experience. It has been quite interesting as the water in the fjord is layered — fresh water, followed by salt water with a greenish tinge from algae, followed by a layer of white sulphur. So when you look up at the works while underwater, a series of aquatic light filters change the interpretation dramatically. It is also about to ice over, which will change how you access the works and effectively contain the works in an entirely different world.
JKG: Again the Nexus piece involves an interface between what you have created as art, and living organisms. In fact the art goes beyond mere object. It is also a living forum for undersea growth and life.
JdCT: The marine life is very interesting in the area, which is predominately a city environment, and it is hoped that the new structures will attract filter feeding organisms which in turn could help improve water quality. We installed a series of crustacean dwellings also at the base of the umbilical cords, which have been quickly inhabited. Children from the art centre are going to add to these structures over time and monitor the development. You can see some of the marine life is already establishing itself. Clear tubular sea squirts and mussels attach themselves to vertical columns and filter the water, so it is hoped water quality will improve over time. I hope that the metaphor of people connected or tethered to the oceanic world and marine environment will highlight our intrinsic link and ultimate dependence on it health.
Vicissitudes, 2006, Moilinere Bay, Grenada
JKG: Where did you make your first underwater sculpture?
JdCT: My first underwater sculpture was The Lost Correspondent in Grenada. After I first sited it, it quickly transformed and became inundated with marine life. I had previously always felt that my works needed more of a practical reason to exist other than their sole value as an artwork. They needed to be multi-purpose and somehow give something back. This first work has now spiraled into over 1000 public sculptures sited across the world’s oceans and seas. Each of the works uses a long lasting pH neutral cement textured for corals and marine life to inhabit. After spawning, the works provide areas for the living species to settle. It is true that nothing man-made can match the imagination of nature. Sponges can take on the appearance of veins. Staghorn coral morphs the form, fireworms scrawl white lines across the faces as they feed, sea urchins crawl across the body sculptures devouring algae at night, coralline algae settlements apply a kind of purple paint. As a sculptor I am very fortunate to have a team of marine assistants to apply the final patina.
JKG: What are you trying to achieve?
JdCT: As we all know, our reefs are dying, and our oceans are in serious trouble. Climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification, and habitat loss due to human developments are the perfect storm that could devastate our planet for generations to come. We need to understand that when we think of the environment and the destruction of nature. We also need to begin thinking of our oceans too. Over two-thirds of planet is water, yet it is largely forgotten and a rarely explored world. The iconography of the ocean is that of a flat blue endless expanse which could never be affected. Yet we now know that we are unleashing terrible change. I hope that my works change our relationship to this blue world, create a portal to explore its majesty and foster a new sense of connection and empathy.
JKG: And what do you foresee for the future?
JdCT: I foresee a turning tide; I think change is afoot. Inevitably as part of my work I travel a lot, and I am starting to sense a large cultural change or shift; whether it will come fast enough remains to be seen but I think there is a growing realization that our planet is finite and capitalism isn’t.
Author:John K. Grande A leading figure in art and ecology, John K. Grande is author of a range of books including Art & Environment (Friendly Chameleon, Toronto, 1992), Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994), Intertwining: Landscape, Technology, Issues, Artists (Black Rose Books, 1998), Art Nature Dialogues (SUNY Press, New York 2003) and Dialogues in Diversity; Art from Marginal to Mainstream (Pari, Italy 2007). Grande has curated Earth Art shows worldwide at the Royal Botanical Gardens and Van Dusen Gardens in Canada, the Pori Art Museum, Finland (2011), Meran, Tyrol, Italy (2014), and the Pan Am Games in Toronto as well as many other venues. He curated Small Gestures at the Mucsarnok / Kunsthalle, Budapest, Hungary in 2016. John K. Grande’s writings have been published extensively in Artforum, Vice Versa, British Journal of Photography, Public Art Review, Ciel Variable, LensCulture, On Paper, Arte.Es, Artichoke, Border Crossings, Public Art Review and Landscape Architecture.
This interview is part of John's book "Art, Space, Ecology", which will be published by J.S. Klotz Verlagshaus in October 2020.