BBC Culture

A museum on the ocean floor

  • Snappy snapper

    “The statues often have a cloud of snappers hovering over their heads, which then dart to safety when a snaggletoothed barracuda looms into view.” It’s an unlikely description of a piece of art – and it comes from an unlikely source. Marine biologist Helen Scales writes about Jason deCaires Taylor’s submerged sculptures in a new book about the artist’s work, The Underwater Museum.

  • Diving for culture

    In 2006, Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture park off the coast of Grenada in the West Indies. Three years later, he founded the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) in the waters surrounding Cancún in Mexico, a short swim away from one of the world’s busiest snorkel sites. The sculptures attract divers away from coral reefs that have suffered from tourism. This image shows The Silent Evolution group of sculptures before it was installed from the docks in Puerto Cancún.

  • Cement boots

    Since 2006, the 39-year-old British sculptor has installed over 500 life-sized sculptures underwater and created more than 1000 sq m of habitat for marine life. The otherworldly installations are made out of pH-neutral cement that is proven to be the best substance for constructing artificial reefs: in the 1970s, one attempt in Florida – involving 2m car tyres – faltered when chemicals in the rubber kept coral larva away. This image shows one of Taylor’s series of bankers, each with their heads buried in the sand. Crustaceans and fish can breed and live in the space between the legs.

  • Anchored to reality

    Taylor is a trained diver and underwater naturalist as well as an art school graduate. For The Dream Collector, pictured, he gathered messages in bottles from around the world. Many of his sculptures show everyday scenes, jolting the viewer. Taylor “proffers the identifiable as a kind of literal anchor by which we can navigate the mysteries of the ocean deep”, writes art critic Carlo McCormick in The Underwater Museum.

  • Clay and coral

    Taylor’s sculptures have an unusual set of requirements. Their design incorporates rough textures allowing minute larvae to get a grip, crevices for reef dwellers and interior chambers for shy creatures, while positioning and even timing is also a factor. Placed downstream of healthy reefs to intercept the flow of larvae, they are often installed just before a mass coral spawning – which tunes in with the lunar cycle – sends out a pulse of larvae.

  • Making a habitat of it

    As well as housing tiny sea-dwellers, the sculptures amass layers made up of creatures: a face takes on a fur of algae, or becomes pockmarked by sponge. According to the book: “Against the blue backdrop of the ocean you can see the fine halo of stinging hydroids that first settle this statue of Leocadio Rodriguez Garcia. They are followed by red and pink blotches of coralline algae and brown coral colonies that eventually establish after three years and cover up his features.”

  • Ear to the ground

    “Taylor’s creative experiments are also helping to show how coral reef ecosystems work,” according to Helen Scales. His Listener sculpture tracks the evolving soundscape of a new reef. An electronic device records 30 seconds of ambient sound every 15 minutes. “The Listener is listening to itself as marine life moves in and kindles an aquatic hubbub that will attract more larvae as they hunt for somewhere to live.”

  • Not waving but flying

    A recent kinetic sculpture – The Phoenix – shows a woman kneeling on the seabed reaching skyward. Her wings appear to beat in the underwater currents. Other installations show a man sitting on a sofa watching TV, and a Volkswagen beetle – an ideal home for lobsters. “Jason gives us that most special gift here of allowing us to see our own lives — what we do and all the things we give value to — as if from an alien perspective,” says McCormick.

  • Urban jungle

    Taylor lived in Malaysia as a child and moved to Britain with his family when he was a teenager. Exchanging the coral reefs of his early childhood for “disused chalk pits, old paper factories, and a derelict empty railway line”, Taylor was inspired by “how nature had reclaimed human environments. Weather and plant life were slowly eroding away our marks and encroaching on the structures.”

  • Tidal tags

    Taylor finds affinity between his underwater work and his street artist background. “My objects are moments in passing. As the graffiti is washed off the trains, so too are my sculptures covered by algae. Details and forms are lost forever, to be remembered only in photographic prints. But now the roles of defacing surfaces have been reversed. Instead of leaving my mark on the environment with my work, the environment is leaving its mark on my work.”