Creativity
Dive into Europe’s First Underwater Sculpture Museum
By Abigail Cain
Jan 11, 2017 3:34 pm
Jason deCaires Taylor, The Human Gyre, 2017. © Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

Jason deCaires Taylor, The Human Gyre, 2017. © Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

Like most museums, the Museo Atlántico opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But this time, there was a twist: British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor and local official Pedro San Ginés did the honors underwater, some 45 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Floating above in boats, a crowd of press and other guests watched the action unfold.

The Museo Atlántico is Europe’s first underwater museum, located off the coast of Lanzarote in Spain’s Canary Islands. Two years in the making, the project features 12 installations comprised of more than 300 of Taylor’s sculptures. Although he sank the first works in February of last year—including the Géricault-inspired The Raft of Lampedusa—Tuesday marked the museum’s official inauguration, with the reveal of several new installations. Perhaps the most striking is The Human Gyre, a whorl of tangled, life-sized figures splayed across the ocean floor. Another, Crossing the Rubicon, sees the sculptor experimenting with large-scale architectural pieces including a 100-ton concrete wall.

While this project represents a first for the continent, it’s not a first for Taylor. His sculptures make up the vast majority of the work on display at the world’s first underwater museum, the Museo Subacuático de Arte in Cancún, Mexico, which was completed in 2013. His pioneering practice has also led him to break records of size—in 2014, he crafted the world’s largest underwater sculpture, a 60-ton, 18-foot colossus titled Ocean Atlas that now kneels in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas.

© Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

© Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

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These works can be haunting, even eerie. Human figures are suspended mid-step (or mid-selfie) on the ocean floor, bathed in a cool, otherwordly light. As they age, the sculptures develop a certain surrealist quality; Taylor’s photographs of his installations months and years after they’ve been submerged capture faces and limbs transformed by coral in brilliant colors or rippling tufts of seaweed. Schools of fish can be seen flitting back and forth amidst the otherwise frozen tableau.

These changes are part of what’s so compelling about Taylor’s practice. Beyond its artistic merit, his work fosters new ecosystems in otherwise barren aquatic landscapes. The spectacle of these underwater sculpture parks diverts tourists from fragile natural environments; Cancún’s museum, for example, was conceived as a way to draw the 87,000 annual visitors away from the area’s endangered natural reefs.

Although Taylor began this work with some understanding of underwater flora and fauna—he was a diving instructor and naturalist for years before committing full-time to art—he’s learned much more since he sunk his first sculpture in 2006. All his creations are crafted from pH-neutral concrete to avoid altering the acidity of the water. He keeps surface texture in mind while creating each work—roughness caters to corals and sponges drifting through the water, while glassiness attracts worms and certain types of algae that sea urchins prefer. “And there’s a massive element of luck as well,” the artist tells me. “You can never quite predict how it’s going to change.”

The sea life that grows depends on location, as well. While beginning work in Lanzarote, “I didn’t think it would be as heavily populated as the Caribbean,” he notes. “I associated tropical waters with an abundance of life. I thought, ‘Colder seas, it’s going to be a little more subtle, the changes.’ In fact, it’s actually been more.”

© Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

© Jason deCaires Taylor and CACT Lanzarote. Photo courtesy of Museo Atlántico.

Taylor said biologists hired by the government to track the project recorded a 300% increase in biomass between February and December 2016. “The seabed is quite arid here, and it’s mainly just sand with small volcanic rock areas,” he explains. “But by building the artificial reef, it’s attracted life from miles and miles away.” The site has been frequented by an array of marine species since its inception, including barracuda, sardines, octopus, marine sponges, angel sharks, and butterfly stingrays. “We even had a pod of dolphins that came by recently. It’s really become a chain reaction,” Taylor says.

These efforts are particularly vital now, as the world’s oceans begin to feel the unprecedented effects of global warming. Reefs are in particular danger; since 2014, warmer waters have caused widespread bleaching that leaves coral particularly vulnerable. Scientists reported this spring that in parts of the Great Barrier Reef, over a third of the coral is dead. To reverse the effects of bleaching, water temperatures must drop—which itself requires a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. This challenge will only grow under the incoming U.S. administration, which includes both a president and potential head of the Environmental Protection Agency who believe that human-caused climate change is a hoax.

Although Taylor’s installations have already had a measurable effect on marine life, the sculptor hopes his work can influence a human audience, as well. “I think people are generally quite narcissistic and to empathize with something they have to see something human in it,” he says. “I try to make my work with human elements. To see it changing with the environment, I hope it draws a greater sort of empathy to our oceans.”


Abigail Cain is an Associate Editor at Artsy.