Saturday, August 25, 2012

Trying to Protect a Reef With an Otherworldly Diversion

from the New York Times:

— Most people head off to an art exhibit with comfortable shoes and a deep appreciation for creativity. Jason deCaires Taylor’s work requires flippers and, to really appreciate it, a depth of at least 12 feet.

Mr. Taylor labors over his sculptures for weeks, five-ton concrete figures of men, women and children, many of them modeled after people in the fishing village near here where he lives and works. The little boy Carlito sitting on a rock. The proud Joaquín glancing skyward. The old man everyone knows as Charlie Brown clasping his chin in contemplation.

In a stifling warehouse filled with bodies — ceramic replicas and false starts — he fusses over their lips and noses. Gets the hair just right. Adjusts their clothing.

Then he sinks them in the sea.

There, they rest in ghostly repose in the Museo Subacuático de Arte here, serving at once as a tourist attraction and as a conservation effort by drawing divers and snorkelers away from the Mesoamerican Reef, the second-largest barrier reef system in the world, and toward this somewhat macabre, artificial one.

The nearly 500 statues, the first ones placed in 2009 and 60 added this year, have acquired enough coral, seaweed and algae to give them the look of zombies with a particularly nightmarish skin condition. Eventually, in six years or so, the coral will completely overtake them, leaving only suggestive shapes.

“Foremost, it’s an opportunity to view this other world,” Mr. Taylor said. “We are surrounded by water, but people have no understanding what their planet is. It helps see ourselves as part of the world.”

Mr. Taylor places the works, anchored with special sand bolts, in water shallow enough forsnorkelers to get a view, the sunlight filtering through the blue water casting odd shadows and drawing out unexpected pinks and oranges from the coral.

But divers get the most out of it, with close-ups of the rainbow swirl of coral and algae. Fish dart in and around and — in an ecological twist — feed off the “people.” At night, Mr. Taylor said, a family of sea turtles has been known to go sightseeing.

Purists may shudder at the idea of altering the sea in any way. But Mr. Taylor, who uses marine- grade concrete specially prepared to entice coral and be close to neutral pH, notes that the exhibit inhabits but a fraction of the sea.

“It’s like putting a sculpture in the Sahara,” he said, contending that the works contribute to the greater good of preserving the natural reef by diverting divers away from it.

Some scientists agree, as long as the artificial reefs are placed in a way that is minimally disruptive to the sea floor and to natural reefs.

“I have seen the pictures, and it looks intriguing,” Richard E. Dodge, executive director of the National Coral Reef Institute in Florida, said of the museum. “If it is not so extensive that it impinges hugely on the natural reef, it does help by providing an alternative dive site.”

Others are more skeptical, saying that the museum serves more as a tourist attraction and that the reef is harmed more by pollution from the resorts and by climate change than by visitors to it.

“It is neither a benefit nor a harm to the reef, but I do not see it as a conservation project,” said Roberto Iglesias Prieto, a scientist in Cancún who studies the reef.

Mr. Taylor, a 37-year-old Briton, was drawn to Mexico after an earlier project of 65 works off the Caribbean island of Grenada got a lot of attention.

He grew up in England, Spain and Malaysia, where he developed a passion for diving and coral reefs, and he was trained at the Camberwell College of Arts in London.

From his days as a young graffiti artist in London with the moniker Intro, he knew he wanted to do environmental art, but he figured it would be a retirement hobby.

He has led a vagabond life — at one point, he designed theater sets in London — that by the mid- 2000s took him to Grenada, where he initially planned to open a dive shop but reconsidered the idea for one critical reason: “I couldn’t deal with the public,” he said.

Instead, dabbling with sculpturing in his unhappiness and lamenting the damage to the reefs there, he sank his savings of about $50,000 into the lightning strike of an idea for underwater works that would represent the “serious time bomb” of humans’ consequences on nature and the hope for recovery.

It grew into an underwater park of 65 works, a collection that includes the oft-photographed “Lost Correspondent” — a lonely man typing at his desk in the vast blue water — and “Vicissitudes,” a ring of 28 boys and girls with African features clasping hands at the bottom of the sea.

Some have interpreted the ring of submerged figures as a statement on slavery. But Mr. Taylor said that the models were local children and that he sought to convey the message of “change and children taking on the characteristics of their environment.”

The work was damaged by storms, with part of it collapsing, so on a recent afternoon Mr. Taylor was putting the finishing touches on a sturdier replacement that will soon be carried by ship to Grenada.

The notice that the Grenada works received drew the attention of officials here at the National Marine Park, an aquatic preserve off Cancún visited by about 750,000 people annually. They had started building small, ball-like artificial reefs to lure people away from the damaged natural one, and, with federal financing, they wanted Mr. Taylor to design thousands of sculptures. So far there has been money for about 500.

It seemed natural to use local residents as models, Mr. Taylor said, and after carefully screening them for what he called “strong lines and good bone structure,” he subjected the volunteers to a two-hour molding process that included a head-to-toe blanket of paste.

The one common feature of the statues: their eyes are closed, seeming to give them an added air of intrigue, but it is simply because the molding materials would otherwise get in the models’ eyes.

“I was afraid when they started covering me,” said Joaquín Adame Sutter, a 53-year-old fisherman who was the model for “Man on Fire,” a statue with fire coral protruding from the skin. “I said let’s do my body first, and tomorrow you can do my face. It was a funny feeling, you know.”

The success of the museum has led to some commercial work for Mr. Taylor, including designing an undersea metallic piano sculpture for the magician David Copperfield’s private Bahamas island. It plays recorded music.

And Mr. Taylor’s photographs and sculptures were exhibited last month by the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in Manhattan.

Still, a dream project he is developing in his head would hardly be accessible, an antidote to the wide exposure of his art. It would be a provocative political work (he declined to give specifics) that would be submerged in the deep sea in an unspecified ocean, to be seen only, perhaps, in photographs.

“So much of life is built around myth,” he said, hinting at the message. “I would put it so a hundred ships would never find it.”


  1. This museum is amazing, deCaires did an amazing work expressing humanity in many aspect underwater. If someone is interested in seeing it, there a lot of cancun underwater museum tours. I think it is an obligatory place to visit there.