The work of Jason DeCaires Taylor has a literal impact on its surroundings (featured previously in October 2010, February 2011, and our EK TOP 100 of 2010). He creates underwater habitats where before there was nothing.
And he’s doing it with dope sculptures. Unsatisfied with saving the ocean one installation at a time, Jason DeCaires Taylor also has an English accent, women love it, men are envious. When you read this interview, please imagine all his responses in that accent. If you’d like, add a top hat and a monocle to your mental picture.
Can you tell us about yourself, how you started, how you got to where you are now?
I’ve been an artist for a while, I always work with the environment. I was a graffiti artist when I was very young so I was always painting trains and subways and making things in public spaces. Then I became somewhat disillusioned with my work in London and decided to move away and started to really get into diving and I kind of felt a guilt that before I was producing work that like I said was just producing objects whereas I sort of stumbled upon this idea where if I created work underwater it would actually have a beneficial response to nature you know? It actually enhanced the environment so I felt like that sat much better with me. I started really small and it’s just grown since then really.
After submerging a piece, how long does it take before you see an impact on the local ecosystem?
The process is incredibly quick, I mean literally days after I’ve put the sculptures in the water you can see changes already. Young algae start to form and then the fish eat those algae and already the ecosystem starts to build up. You’ll see quite marked changes after a month or so: the bigger coral start to attach onto the structure, more algae, you’ll see these other types of plants that called tunicates that filter the water and they grow very quickly. I mean I just did the big installation last year. We got most of it in and I went back yesterday and it must have had a few thousand fish living on it so it takes a pretty short span of time.
Have you worked elsewhere besides Mexico? Where?
Yeah I’ve done this in different places, the main body of work was in the island of Grenada. And I’ve done some stuff in the UK which is obviously cold water based but I was quite attracted to this project because it was in a natural marine park so it’s very well organized and it has a vast audience, i think seven hundred and fifty thousand people a year come to dive and snorkel in this marine park so it has a lot of accessibility to the public.
How did you get connected with the work you’re doing at the moment?
They saw my work before and they were looking for solutions to manage this vast number of people because a national park puts a lot of strain on the natural reefs that are already there so they were looking to create artificial reefs to lure the people away and they started off by making plain artificial reefs and the director had the idea that if they do something more creative it would increase the traffic. That was how it was actually started.
Do the sculptures degrade over time? Is there any concern about their condition being affected by the water?
No, it’s a special type of marine cement that’s reinforced, it’s twenty times the strength of normal cement, and everything’s completely inert, there’s no metal used in the sculpture at all. They [the sculptures] actually take the same properties as rock so they should be around for hundreds of years.
Can you tell us about what’s going on biologically? How do these sculptures foster and support ecological growth?
Basically working underwater is a completely different environment. Most coral and algae actually release their juvenile offspring into the water so the sea is like a soup of different microscopic organisms that are looking for a new home to settle in. They can’t settle on anything that’s unstable so they can’t attach themselves to sand or silt, so anything they come across that’s hard or solid they try to stick to and that starts the growing process. And those organisms form the basis of the reef so as they grow they provide a habitat space for other marine life, for fish, for crustaceans, for different creatures and that’s really what forms a reef. It’s quite an interesting process.
Did you go to school to study art?
I went to art college so I studied sculpture for four years, most of the marine side has come from working with the marine park here and working with a company in the states that designs artificial reefs. It’s actually quite a scientific process and even the cement I make I have to make it so that it’s ph neutral so that it has the exact appearance of natural rock.
Where did you go?
I went to the London Institute of Arts Camberwell College.
How do you think your education was and is beneficial to your maturation as an artist?
It’s really good because I had the opportunity to work with other artists but also because I was able to experiment with so many different materials and techniques and have some to help guide your work. It was a very good experience and I actually feel that I was maybe too young, I started it when I was nineteen and I think that if I did it now, I would get much more out of it than when I was at that age. It gave me such a freedom to express my thoughts and ideas. I definitely think that I developed in many areas, developed new technicals skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but also gained the ability to think about life in a different way or take on a different approach to problems.
How long have you been diving? How has your experience as a diver affected your work?
Yes definitely, part of my work now is I’ve been a diver for quite a long time, I lived in Malaysia when I was young and just in my short life I’ve seen vast physical changes to natural reefs, to the populations of fish and it’s in such a short time in the grand scheme of things. So as an artist I really feel like I have a responsibility to raise an awareness to how we’re living and how blind we are to the reactions to the way we live. So yeah, some of these new works are futuristic portrayals of how we’ve ignored these problems and until it becomes such a critical point that we’re left with the consequences.
So quite a few people see your work every day when they dive?
My work has two lives to it, there are those who have the opportunity to view it but it also has a much bigger online community. Obviously you realize but the strength of the internet these days and having good documentation of my work is something that I’ve given a lot of attention to because it really opens it up.
You spent some time in Malaysia, when was that?
When I was in Malaysia I was about eight years old, they all speak Malay.
No, no, a few words but nothing big.
How’s your Spanish?
I wouldn’t say fluent but I’m certainly getting there.
How long have you been in Mexico?
I’ve been here for around a year and a half.
When will you be finished?
There’s no set date, we’re building a museum, which could take hundreds of years to fully finish. I don’t know up till what point I’ll participate but I’m here for the next few years and I have another series of work coming up this year and we’re also looking at expanding the Silent Evolution sculpture by a couple hundred. So the museum will be ever growing and will have new rooms hopefully as it were, salons they call them here.
You mentioned salons, what does that mean, are there specific areas that are set up for each exhibit or what?
No, it’s just sort of zoned off, buoyed off in certain parts of the marine park.
So can people just swim out there?
No, for the moment we have two areas and both of them you have to access via boat. So the facilities in this area are obviously huge, you can dive, there are water taxis, there are glass bottom boats, submarines, there’s glass helmets you can walk along the sea beds, so they’re pretty set up for diving here.
Have you gone in any of the submarines?
Yes, I went in one the other day. It was actually bad visibility the day I went so it was quite difficult to see the sculptures.
How can you see out of it?
It’s got glass walls but you can’t get too close in the submarine in case you hit it so they have to keep a distance and when there’s bad visibility it’s quite hard to make out stuff.
Do you have people put the sculptures in the water for you? How involved are you in submerging your pieces?
No, I go through the whole process, I’m there from the beginning right till the last anchor that goes in. All the sculptures are lowered in and that’s the last part.
How long does a piece usually take to complete?
It really depends on what’s going on, I work with a couple of assistants so we’re fairly fast. The Silent Evolution which is four hundred pieces we made in a year, but then some of the other pieces took us three months to make one so it depends.
Where do you find inspiration for your work?
I think as an artist it’s twenty-four hours a day, you’re always thinking, looking, recording, I mean most of the time it’s daily events, I always carry a camera and take photographs of normal things. It could be two birds sitting on a wall and I’ll take a photograph and think about it. I wouldn’t say there’s one thing that triggers my imagination, it’s sort of an ongoing development of my day. The important thing is to write things down.
If I have a thousand thoughts a day and I don’t record it, the next day I’ll have forgotten it all. So I’m constantly writing things down, photoshopping ideas, images of everyday life onto underwater scenes and backdrops. I also spend a lot of time studying the natural reefs so I’ll go swimming and snorkeling and it’s quite interesting if you watch how organisms work underwater and if you watch how coral and creatures colonize things it’ll give me ideas for different sculpture.
The man on fire sculpture I created using live fire coral. I was snorkeling one day when I watched how this fire coral completely invaded another species and just crawled across it and engulfed it in this yellow coating and I though it looks like it’s been engulfed by flames. So yeah you just have to stop in the bustle of life and try to sort of concentrate on the details that are around you.
Are there any sharks? Are you strapped when you go diving?
[Laughs] Not too much, I’m desperate to see a shark. I’m desperate to get a photo of a shark with the sculptures. I’m not sure the Cancun tourist board would like that circulating around, but barracudas I see all the time, I’ve got plenty of footage of them. It’s quite interesting, the Silent Evolution sculpture was designed to aggregate fish, the mass gathering of people was to create these void areas in the legs where fish can hide, they love finding dark areas where they can feed but if there’s danger they can hide very quickly and it’s worked brilliantly. You can actually see schools of fish hovering around the heads of the sculptures and a team of barracudas on the outside trying to strike inwards and when they strike the fish sort of sink below to the feet of the sculptures and can’t be got, it’s really interesting to see.
So there’s a measurable ecological impact from these pieces?
Yeah very much so, we haven’t completed a study on it [Silent Evolution], but it was a barren patch with nothing on it at all six months ago and now there’s thousands of different fish, hundreds of different coral starting, we counted like thirty lobsters and then we said in the news “It’s so great it’s creating lobsters” and one of the local fisherman went down and caught all thirty and started serving them in restaurants. [Laughs]
When was it submerged?
It was submerged last summer, September so it took a year of actual construction and two month to submerge it.
Well thanks for your time and for answering all my questions.
Good talking to you too, bye.