Richard Noyce interviewed Jason deCaires Taylor in July 2017, following the artist’s participation in the Grenada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, during which time a controversy arose concerning the nature of that work, and the work shown in an unofficial exhibition in two major locations in Venice of work by Damien Hirst.
The website, www.underwatersculpture.com contains a comprehensive overview of the ideas and working practices of Jason deCaires Taylor, one of the most innovative artists of the 21st century. His practice is diverse, encompassing not only the making and installation of sculpture in underwater locations, but also a strong commitment to the conservation of the marine environment, and work as a professional underwater photographer. He was born in 1974 to an English father and Guyanese mother, and graduated from the London Institute of Arts in 1998 with a BA Honours in Sculpture. Since then his permanent site-specific works have been installed in underwater Museums and Sculpture parks, the world’s first being situated off the coast of Grenada in the West Indies, now listed as one of the Top 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic. Other major sites include the MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte), a vast collection of over 500 of his sculptural works, installed between Cancun and Isla Mujeres in Mexico. Other major projects include Museo Atlantico (2016), a collection over 300 submerged sculptures and architectural forms in Lanzarote, Spain, the first of its kind in European waters, The Rising Tide (River Thames, London, 2016) and Ocean Atlas a monumental 60-ton single sculpture located in the Bahamas.
Considering that your work is highly complex and evolved, I am interested in your work process, in how you create your sculpture. Could you describe, briefly, the material you use, whether or not you use casts of models, and if you have studio assistants.
Most of my works begin as life casts. Models (mainly local residents) arrive at my studio and I take a full body, life-size cast. This is then worked and recast into a silicone mould which will eventually be used to extract the final piece. I use a high density inert pH neutral marine cement with basalt aggregates for the final work which helps to encourage life to settle and will survive the harsh conditions. The final work will include habitat areas for marine life, textured surfaces for coral polyps to settle and a series of anchor points to prevent movements in storms. It is very labour intensive and I use assistants/divers to help make the moulds and deploy the sculptures.
The process of installation is clearly a major project in itself. Could you describe how this is achieved and the degree to which you cooperate with the communities in the various international locations?
Yes, the installation part is certainly the most challenging. Volatile sea conditions, permitting, heavy weight loadings and diving limitations create a complex working environment. In each location I work closely with local operatives. It can take a lifetime to understand local marine patterns/ conditions at each site, so its imperative to get as much local knowledge onboard as possible. Some of my installations have weighed over 100 Tons, and it becomes as much as an engineering project as an artistic one. I am constantly balancing creativity vs practicality. Patience, a sense of humour and listening to local advice have been the most valuable lessons learned.
Your website describes clearly how your work has a strong link to ecology and to environmental despoliation. Could you outline the philosophy that you have developed over the decade or more that you have been working on underwater sculpture? How do you see this developing in the future?
At the beginning of my career I was focused on more of the practical aspects of creating habitats, spaces and artificial reefs. So the works were very much designed to house different types of species and installed in way that would facilitate coral growth. Although this is obviously still an important part, I now also focus on trying to control tourism interactions with the marine environment by creating alternatives and drawing people away from natural fragile areas, which has been proven to aid reef rejuvenation. I have also found by charging entrances fees to the works (which I don’t personally benefit from) helps create important revenue for local communities which can help fund marine park rangers and implement further conservation efforts and studies. Finally the existential threats facing our oceans and marine life are presently so grave, including immense threats such as global warming, ocean acidification and pollution, that it becomes hard to comprehend or digest. I hope my work can somehow highlight these issues and engage the audience in a visual and emotional way where maybe facts and figures can’t reach. The deep sea is a largely misunderstood and sometimes feared world. By creating these undersea “museums” the aim is to change the iconography of the marine world and assign some of the same values systems that we place on terrestrial museums, such as preservation and conservation. Looking to the future I am hoping to expand on these themes and I am looking into ways to make it more accessible to a wider audience by incorporating underwater dry viewing platforms.
It seems to me that there is an inescapable element of personal response to geo-politics in your work, in particular to the ever-present problem of international migration, in which refugees make dangerous sea journeys to escape conflict and strife. How important is your work in commenting on and highlighting this ongoing human tragedy?
I think over the past few years such enormous shifts are taking place in society that is it virtually impossible not to discuss what is currently unfolding: to not do so as an artist would be the equivalent to water colour painting in your living room whilst your house was burning down. The problem with three dimensional works is that events are now taking place at such a rapid pace that a medium like sculpture can be slow to produce and react, it can quickly become irrelevant. But for me it’s important and I hope it serves as a kind of petrified diary of our actions and our inherent apathy and denial.
The works in Lanzarote were not just about the ongoing migration crisis in the Mediterranean but were also a response to the history of the local environment, as the island had been a gateway into Europe for several decades and the sculpture was based on the vessel found on a local beach. Many of the models for the piece are African migrants who had established new lives in the Canary Islands. I really feel that everything is connected, we are all migrants in a way and with our current changing climate we should be cautious how we treat others. Migration and environment are intrinsically linked, the protectionist, nationalistic approach can only ever lead to war.
At the same time your work makes clear and powerful comments about matters such as coral reef depletion and oceanic pollution by oil, chemicals and plastics. Could you comment on the ways in which your work combines both political statements and the highlighting of the fragility of our global environment?
Many of the works try to incorporate both themes, The Rising Tide, 2016, Thames London, which was placed in front of the Houses of Parliament and the Shell headquarters was a direct attempt to link the fossil fuel industry to the four riders of the apocalypse. Its immersion in an 8m tidal system intended to demonstrate how we are all ultimately at the mercy of the earths cycles. Similarly “The Human Gyre 2017, Lanzarote, Spain” intends to convey a similar message as I try to connect ecosystem loss to our own inherent fragility. The idea is that we are shaped, moved and controlled by the immense forces of the sea.
I have recently been involved in a campaign with Greenpeace to raise awareness about Ocean plastics and put pressure on the Food and beverage industry to reduce plastic waste. At present 90% of all sea birds across the world have traces of micro plastics in their digestive systems.
Many visitors to the 2017 Venice Biennale have noted the strange ‘coincidence’ between your works included in ‘The Bridge’ exhibition at the Grenada National Pavilion, and the work of Damien Hirst that is shown in his massive two-venue exhibition under the title, ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. There has also been a considerable amount of press and media comment. While there is of course a wide and crucially important contextual difference between the work you have been doing for over a decade and the works made for the Hirst exhibitions, what has been your reaction to the exhibiting of these respective works at the same Biennale?
Firstly, it is important to note that Hirst’s exhibition is not part of the Venice Biennale but merely co-ordinated to coincide with (or to exploit, depending on how you look at it) the event. I do agree there are many coincidences, but as you mention my works are crucially very different in terms of context, narrative and execution. I have always hoped my work was about giving something back, creating new life and providing glimpses into a fragile imperilled world. After viewing Hirst’s latest exhibition it seems I have certainly created an art genre that has been responded to.
Given the obvious, cynical even, apparent appropriation by Hirst of themes in your work, to what degree (if at all) does Hirst’s showmanship, and the populist allure of his work, devalue the moral and environmental nature of your work? Or do you see the works in his somewhat megalomaniac exhibitions as belonging to a part of the international art market and 21st century art world, that is very different from that of your work, considering that it has been making a strong impact for over a decade?
Yes, most of my works are very site specific and often commissioned by governments or environmental NGO’s so we operate in very different fields and markets and I don’t really feel it devalues my work. I do endeavour myself to appeal to a large audience, not as way to increase market value but as a way to engage larger communities, and to be critical for social action and environmental change.
Art for me has always been about describing the indescribable and about, more than anything, feelings. When I visited Hirst’s exhibition, after admiring the amazing craftsmanship of his production line, I marvelled at how he managed to extract, simultaneously, the magic and soul out art, archaeology and nature. The end game of capitalism.