In 1968, the Virginia Dwan Gallery in New York hosted a ground breaking exhibition called EARTH WORKS that redefined the art world as it was known. This exhibition took art into new fields of materials, locations and scale, as the artworks it exhibited were built in and from the natural environment, but it did not necessarily include environmentalist responsibility. This came to be known as Earthworks or Land Art. The introduction of art that engages with, and addresses social issues such as poverty, addiction, capitalism or equal rights (to name a very few) brought forward another new field of artistic expression, where art has become a form of activism. We currently exist in a time of great environmental damage, where the destructive activities of industry and the daily consumptive habits of individuals, wreak environmental havoc on our planet. Each day, habitats are destroyed, whole species are lost and climate change alters the living conditions across the world. Small changes can be made that can ultimately have a big impact, the first step of which is bringing about environmental awareness of the conditions of the various ecosystems around the globe.
Environment, Art and Activism
In this current heightened climate of global environmental awareness, a new form of art that maintains aesthetics (in a traditional sense) but is also conceptually-based, aims to raise awareness of the broad health of the environment or highlight specific concerns. Building on the foundations laid out by the Land Artists, a new generation of artists has emerged that place environmentalism at the forefront of their practice, each with unique concerns and ways of addressing these concerns to draw the attention of the viewer. The art of Jason deCaires Taylor is situated within this emerging environmental paradigm of art, taking the viewer to the depths of the ocean.
Among the many strengths of art, is the ability to introduce the viewer to new ideas and thoughts. However, to be an artwork that is active in bringing about positive change, it must be more than thought provoking. Taylor’s installations provide wide reaching benefits on many levels. They are infused with complex concepts and social commentary while working with and enhancing the marine environments they are placed in. Whole coral reefs are subject to bleaching through rising sea water temperatures, changes in acidity, pollution from agricultural chemicals and removal of key species by over fishing, resulting in the destruction of entire marine habitats, and prompting initiatives like artificial reefs to be produced.
Taylor’s artworks are essentially artificial reefs, formed of carefully manufactured sculptures installed at various locations around the world. Each sculpture is created using low carbon, pH neutral marine grade cement, which is free from harmful pollutants. The cement is highly durable with a rough texture that encourages coral larvae to attach and thrive, while nooks created throughout the sculpture designs provide homes for fish and crustaceans. The timing of installation is significant to ensure they are in place downstream before the larval coral spawning occurs, yet not so early that other sea life colonises it before the coral can take hold.
The placement of sculptures is further carefully considered to maximise positive environmental impact. In many cases Taylor’s sculptures are placed away from existing reefs often in areas of barren sandbanks to boost diversity, but also to draw tourists away from the delicate ecosystems and fragile corals of existing reefs, where divers may do more harm than good with their well-intentioned curiosity.
Marine scientists are able to maximise their impact through Taylor’s underwater installations as well as they can study and monitor the development of a functioning ecosystem from its very beginning through to becoming well established. There are also economic benefits as they can provide alternative employment as museum guides to bring visitors to the underwater galleries either deep sea diving, snorkelling or in glass-bottomed boats. Entrance fees to the sculpture museums also provide crucial funding for further marine conservation efforts and coastal patrols to enforce protective laws.
An Underwater Art Museum
Visiting Taylor’s underwater museums allows visitors the opportunity to broaden their minds and educate themselves on fields that are outside their daily lives. They experience samples of worlds beyond their own in a safe and non-destructive manner. For marine ecologies, this is a significant benefit as they are an environment that most people will only experience briefly.
Describing these collections of underwater sculptures as a museum highlights another conceptual layer of Taylor’s works. Museums house collections of objects that the everyday person may not usually see in their lifetime, yet behind the scenes museums involve research into different cultures and preservation of objects from ages past or foreign lands. In this way, the underwater museums are no different, as Taylor states:
“We call it a museum for a very important reason. Museums are places of preservation, conservation and education. They’re places where we keep objects of great value to us, where we value them simply for being themselves.” Ted Talk
As Taylor describes, in both the conservation and preservation of marine ecologies and in the ability to educate the world about the health of the oceans, his underwater museums have an essential role to play in fostering care and understanding of marine ecologies. Because of the brevity of most people’s exposure to our ocean environments, the concerns of the oceans fall from the forethought of people’s minds. Therefore, exposure of a wider audience to marine ecologies combined with the educative function of galleries, encourages prolonged thought on the condition of the environment and the role that humans can play in ensuring its continued health, or indeed its destruction. Over the past few decades, we have lost over 40% of our natural coral reefs. The World Resources Institute projects that 90% of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and all of them by 2050.
The Human Face of Marine Ecologies
Taylor’s underwater museums appear in locations all over the world, reflecting the global concerns that affect underwater ecologies. While the groups of sculptures can be conceptually viewed as a museum, each individual sculpture contains its own personal message. A conceptual social commentary is made through the figures included in each installation. Before they gradually become obscured through the growth of marine life as the reef claims them, the figures show such groups as business professionals, a couple recognisably taking a selfie, or a man ensconced on a couch. All of these are indicative of the daily actions of humanity, living above the waves, often oblivious to the impact each of their actions can have on the environment. We can see ourselves in the everyday faces of these sculptural peoples that are entombed beneath the waves; the underwater context allowing an atmosphere of otherworldly reflection.
The figures are part of a realm that brings forth fantasy and the imagination. Visitors to the various museums who are able to sink themselves beneath the waves can experience the reality of marine life more directly and intimately than a traditional white-walled museum. Unconstrained by gravity their bodies are subjected to the feelings of weightlessness and the cool of the water, while the sounds are muted and visibility reduced and improved with the shifting tide and environmental conditions. These works truly allow visitors enter an entirely different reality, charged with the notion that it is a reality under threat.
Each artwork is brought alive through its union with the biological marine life that attaches to it. There is a distinct interactivity between the living organisms and the sculptures. The various forms of ocean life complete the sculptures, transforming them from concrete to textured, living organisms like the figures in Viccisitudes; a name that reflects the changing conditions of the planet. In this installation a ring of people stand holding hands as the ocean takes them, coving their bodies with motley of coloured pinks, vibrant oranges, greens and greys. These colours shift with the changing filtered light that shines down upon them creating a patterned circlet on the ocean floor. These changing colours and tones and the gentle play of light are qualities that all of Taylor share, and it gives them a sense of calm and peace, and an ambience of mystery.
No two visits to any given sculpture will be quite the same. The changing formations of the sea surface affect the filtered light that scatters down to the ocean floor and depth alters the visual spectrum of colour that can be seen. Spawning and other ocean cycles also change the dynamic of these artworks, as it also affect the visibility of the waters while bringing forth new life to seed the sculptures, which may take hold and grow. The appearance of each sculpture is in many ways ephemeral as the coral grows and spreads out and other marine life, including fish and crustaceans inhabit the artworks, moving from a clean cement sculpture untouched by marine life to a mature coral reef and functioning ecosystem. As each artwork grows and becomes complete the original forms become obscured and a frequent visitor may mark the passage of time by these gradual changes.
The movement of artworks from the gallery to the oceans represents a new frontier for both the arts and continued health of marine ecologies. Like the leap from gallery to the environment that occurred with EARTH WORKS, the oceans represent a new, contemporary frontier of artistic experimentation with its own challenges, particularly with artworks that endeavour to be remedial.