Go diving off the coast of Grenada or Spain, in just the right spot, and you might swim up on a collection of chilling life-size sculptures by eco-artist Jason deCaires Taylor. Writer Erik Trinidad takes the plunge to find out just what they’re doing there.
Swimming with my scuba gear on, I arrived at a clearing where I saw something I’d never seen before in all my years of scuba dive experience: a group of children, standing in a circle almost supernaturally, hand in hand, as if they were playing a nursery game. However, their bodies and empty expressions faced outwards, rather than at each other, as if in solidarity of a cause.
The children weren’t living—they were sculptures after all—yet they teemed with life. Installed as artful artificial reefs off the coast of Grenada—after Hurricane Ivan destroyed much of the coral in the area in 2004—the life-sized figures now supported marine life, from coral to fish. And as the ocean’s elements continually took their toll, the children’s imperfect ‘skin’ appeared more frail, like old people, seemingly deteriorating to create a haunting beauty. Their vague faces expressed a somber mood that made the scuba diving experience simultaneously exhilarating and eerie—more than an angel fish sighting anyway—for there’s something almost creepy about the sculptures being life-sized.
In fact, the sculptures were cast from local children by British artist Jason deCaires Taylor. The piece, known as Vicissitudes, represents the change of an environment—an ongoing theme in deCaires Taylor’s work. In this case, children were used to represent the beginning of a growth cycle over time. The passage of time didn’t bring adulthood to these kids; they eventually became consumed by the ocean and evolved into living coral reef-like ecosystems.
“That’s what the objective is—to create a new habitat, to provide a new area for marine life,” explained deCaires Taylor. “That’s the beginning of the project, and then later, we work on the content of the artworks.”
I swam around the ghastly ring of children—and the small aquatic organisms that called it home—in awe of its collective scale. While one can snorkel or even free dive to see the sculptures, I preferred scuba diving; the fact that you can’t immediately talk or comment augments the funereal mood. After some time, I swam away from the mesmerizing artwork, bubbles rising from the regulator in my mouth. After all, there were other sculptures to see and I only had a finite amount of air in my tank.
This powerful work of art is just one in an underwater gallery of 75 sculptures, mostly created by deCaires Taylor, on the ocean floor of Grenada’s Moilinere Bay. Depending on the tide, the intentionally submerged artwork is anywhere between 15 and 75 feet below the surface and invites visitors to seek them out amid the coral fields. Also featured are Norwegian artist Lene Kilde’s The Nutmeg Princess, an homage to ‘Grenada’s first fairy-tale princess,’ which she did as an artist-in-residence, and deCaires Taylor’s The Lost Correspondent, depicting a reporter at a typewriter working on a story about Grenada-Cuba relations—another symbol of things fading away over time.
“The whole idea was for it to become a portal to another world. I want it to inspire people to understand more about our oceans and the threats facing them.”
Jason deCaires Taylor
Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park, installed in 2006, is actually the first incarnation of three permanent underwater art exhibitions spearheaded by deCaires Taylor, each subsequent one more ambitious than its predecessor. In 2009, he co-founded and installed pieces at the MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte) off the coast of Mexico, with over 500 life-sized sculptures. His big contribution is the ambitious La Evolución Silenciosa (The Silent Evolution), comprised of 420 figures based on actual local people. It also serves as an artificial reef to promote marine life, and help reduce the impact of dive and snorkel tourism on real reefs.
“The fact that they actually draw people away from other areas and provide new habitats just [gave] so much more reason to create sculptures than doing it for temporary exhibitions,” said deCaires Taylor.
In recent years, the Mexican underwater art museum inspired a similar one on the other side of the Atlantic; the Museo Atlántico established in 2016, installed off the coast of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. It too includes deCaires Taylor’s signature life-sized figures cast from real people—some updated for modern times. In Desconectado (Disconnected), two figures use a phone to take a selfie. However, within the camera’s front-facing lens is another work, La Balsa de la Lampedusa (The Raft of Lampedusa), depicting the struggles of people stranded in a raft off the coast of Senegal—a nod to the current refugee crisis.
“We’re losing our ability to empathize with situations because we’re so flooded with images and information, that we disconnect ourselves from the serious things that are happening,” deCaires Taylor explained. “Some people have fun with the selfie, while others are quite moved with the people in the raft. So there’s mixed emotions.”
While deCaires Taylor’s work sometimes transcends into the current political climate, his first mission was always about drawing awareness to environmental change. Moreover, his grand art pieces exist to transport his visitors to another place.
“The whole idea was for it to become a portal to another world,” deCaires Taylor said. “I want it to inspire people to understand more about our oceans and the threats facing them.”
I have yet to visit deCaires Taylor’s latest underwater museum in the Canary Islands. It’s a whole ocean away from the Caribbean Sea where it all began, but from my previous experience, I know the thoughtful, submerged sculptures will take my breath away. Hopefully not too much breath because, you know, there’s only so much compressed air in a scuba tank.
Find out more about the artist Jason deCaires Taylor.
Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Park.
More about Mexico’s MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte).
Read about Lanzarote’s Museo Atlántico.