MEXICO: Jason deCaires Taylor’s Stunning Cancun Underwater Museum

Jason deCaires Taylor's Cancun Underwater Museum Sculptures

Jason deCaires Taylor Poses Alongside His Sculptures

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor

On His Stunning Cancun Underwater Museum

 

I first see her from a distance, on her knees in the sand. Her back is arched, her face and hands lifted towards the heavens as if in divine reverence. Rays of light dance across her face and nude body. She appears to me as an angel, seemingly emerging from beneath the ocean floor rather than floating on clouds. Her name is “The Phoenix,” and, like many of the statues at the Cancun Underwater Museum, she holds me transfixed with her beauty…

 

Reclamation, a.k.a. The PHoenix, at Cancun Underwater Museum

“Reclamation,” a.k.a. The Phoenix

 

It’s difficult to explain your reaction to a work of art to someone who hasn’t seen it. So suffice it to say that, unless you’ve been to Cancun and actually experienced the otherworldly sculptures of the Museo Subacuático de Arte (a.k.a. MUSA) for yourself, it will be impossible for my words to do the wondrous work of Artistic Director Jason DeCaires Taylor justice.

 

The project, which includes two sections off the coast of Cancun and Isla Mujeres, began in 2009. Taylor, a 39-year-old artist born to a British father and Guyanese mother, had recently finished work on the world’s first underwater sculpture park in Molinere Bay, Grenada. The Cancun Marine Park was having problems caused by over 150,000 people coming to swim on the MesoAmerican Reef every year.

 

"The Silent Evolution" Installation at cancun Underwater Museum

“The Silent Evolution” Installation

 

“When they closed off sections of the reef,” he recalls from his studio in Puerto Morelos, “it was actually starting to thrive and regenerate. But when they suggested that they should close more reefs, there was an outcry because it affects people’s livelihoods. If you close the reefs, then you have to offer an alternative. They came across my work, and invited me to come down. We started from there.”

 

Taylor’s work was uniquely suited to solve Cancun’s problem. While his art is undoubtedly striking on an aesthetic level, it also serves a utilitarian purpose: Over time, his sculptures evolve into artificial reefs, encouraging the growth of corals and marine life. And Taylor, a passionate marine conservationist and avid Scuba diver, acknowledges that the evolutionary aspect of his art drives his creativity.

 

"Man On Fire" Sculpture, Cancun Underwater Museum

The Evolution of the “Man On Fire” Sculpture

 

“Everything on the planet is constantly evolving and changing,” he says. “We’re all subject to time. I like the fact that the works are never really finished. I put them in the ocean, which is the beginning of the work, and then the collaboration with nature begins.

 

Of course, the project isn’t quite so simple. First, Taylor casts molds of people in the community to provide the basis for his life-like statues. Then, to encourage coral growth, he pours a mixture of marine grade cement, sand and micro-silica to produce a pH neutral concrete which is reinforced with fibreglass rebar. After the finished product is lowered into the ocean at depths ranging from 15-30 feet, Taylor grafts coral nubbins onto them, reinforcing his central theme of how human interaction with nature can be positive, sustainable and symbiotic.

 

"The Gardener Of Hope" Installation at Cancun Underwater Museum

“The Gardener Of Hope” Installation

 

The results, as you’ll see in the Cancun Underwater Museum video below, are remarkable. Set in sandy areas away from the main Nizuc Reef, the statues take on a larger-than-life, three-dimensional mystique thanks to the interplay between water and refracted light. I was mesmerized by the contrast between the organic and synthetic forms, not to mention the colorful array of staghorn coral, fire coral and sea fans that were gradually claiming the statues as their home.

 

Each of Taylor’s sculptures tells a different story. “The Gardener of Hope” portrays a young lady laying on a tiled patio, surrounded by concrete flower pots from which coral nubbins of all shapes and sizes grow. “Reclamation,” whose vibrant purple sea fans Taylor grafted after they broke off the reef during a storm, offers a message of rebirth and renewal. “Inertia,” which features an obese man watching TV on his sofa, with what appears to be a fast food hamburger in his lap, offers a sharp socio-political critique of those who blithely ignore environmental causes.

 

 

“I’ve always been drawn to the sea,” Taylor says when asked about his chosen artistic medium. “I was fortunate to see some really spectacular, pristine reefs that are no longer there. I’ve witnessed reefs deteriorating dramatically, and I feel strongly enough to want to do something about it. Reefs are sort of a canary in a coal mine, in that they are at the forefront of climate change. They’re one of the first ecosystems we could lose. I think it’s a critical problem, and a problem that needs to be addressed right now.”

 

I’m not sure many of the 50+ travelers on the Aquaworld tour I went on had any clue that Taylor’s work was a sociopolitical statement about widespread environmental apathy and a need to address climate change. They were too busy drinking copious alcoholic beverages, listening to salsa music cranked at top volume,  and crowding each other to get in line for the optional submarine tour (which we declined). But the beauty of Taylor’s work is that it functions effectively on multiple levels– as a meaningful art exhibit for those who “get it,” and as a simple distraction that keeps tourists away from the main reef system for those who don’t.

 

The "Inertia" Installation at Cancun Underwater Museum

The “Inertia” Installation

 

Four years into the project, Taylor seems to be just getting started. As of our visit in late June there were 486 statues in total, most of which are located off the coast of Isla Mujeres. But the artist’s vision for the future of the Cancun Underwater Museum are much, MUCH bigger.

 

“Obviously, a lot depends on financing, which is constantly fluctuating,” he confesses. “But the end goal? We’ve always wanted to do more than the Terra Cotta Army in China, and  I think that stands at 8,000. We hope to go beyond that at some point. We have a permit for 10,000 sculptures. We want to make it like a traditional museum, where there are different rooms that will be developed over time.”

 

Jason deCaires Taylor Installing "The Silent Evolution"

Jason deCaires Taylor Installing “The Silent Evolution”

 

Comparing the photos above with the video we shot during our visit, it’s easy to see how the passage of time gradually changes Taylor’s art. The visage of “Holy Man” is completely covered  by staghorn coral. “The Gardener” seems to glow green with a thin layer of algae that obscures the porcelain tiles. Even the smooth skin of “The Phoenix” is looking a bit more weathered now. But for Taylor, who visits his sculptures regularly, watching his work evolve is part of the process.

“I’m fastidious about collecting data,” he says, “seeing how they change and monitoring what species are doing. We’ve had big algae blooms that start to make everything look the same, which can be disappointing. Sometimes tourists break things. But sometimes I go down and it’s fantastic, with millions of fish, lobsters, pink barrel sponges, and snails eating things. It’s absolutely amazing! I see something I’ve never seen before every time I go.”

 

And that, he hopes, is what will keep travelers coming back over and over again. –Bret Love; all photos provided by Jason deCaires Taylor

 

If you enjoyed our story on the Cancun Underwater Museum, you might also like: 

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MEXICO- Monkeys, Pyramids & Pottery

VIDEO: Snorkeling Cenotes in Riviera Maya, Mexico 

 

VIDEO: Traditional Mayan Music    

BELIZE: Xunantunich Ruins

 

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  1. We’ve never been to Cancun. We might never get there. But if we do, we’re making this our first stop. And if we don’t, thanks for introducing us to a side of Cancun we weren’t aware of. Amazing photos and vid.

  2. That’s absolutely incredible! It was no where near to this degree or so artistic, but Anantara Kihavah in the Maldives is doing a project with building artificial reefs to help repair the fragile marine eco-system and protect the sand bar island.

  3. Wow … it is so ethereal … like a moment in time was captured in a dream! I’ve never been interested in diving but this could persuade me to give it a try! Thanks for sharing such a stunning installation!

  4. I used to work at an exotic pet store where our main revenue came from selling and propagating live coral. Toward the end of my time working there, one of my coworkers was telling me about this project. I had only heard about it though. Seeing the pictures of the statues and how they will take on a life of their own is amazing. I can’t wait for the day I can make it there and have a look myself. : )

  5. Absolutely beautiful and what a great idea. I was diving in that area several times about 18 years ago, it is nice to see them trying to encourage growth. We will have to make it back over there and take an up close look someday. Thanks for sharing great pictures and video.

  6. Wow! This is awesome. Can’t believe my eyes. This guy must be genius. I can’t wait for the day i will be there to see this incredible museum.

    • I think genius would be an appropriate word. I love that Jason cares more about protecting the marine environment than he does about seeing his art permanently displayed as he created it. Such a great symbol of the transitory nature of mankind’s existence.

  7. This is amazing, Bret! I’d seen photos of this installation and thought it was beautiful, but just a tourist trap. Really interesting to hear the stories behind these works and find that they are actually helping to restore the ecoystem!

    • It’s interesting, because there were definitely a LOT more tourists there than we would’ve liked. We were fortunate we didn’t go on the submarine tour, which meant my daughter and I were 2 of about 5 people who went out on the first tour of the day, so we had the area to ourselves for nearly 45 minutes. But by the time we got back to the boat, it was literally SWARMING with people. You couldn’t even move without bumping into someone. That made it obvious why an initiative like this is so necessary to help protect the reef.

    • All the more reason to go back, right? This was our second trip to the Cancun/Riviera Maya area, and I definitely foresee a third in the future. So much there to see and do!

  8. Fascinating. It reminds me of Plitvice in Croatia – a natural park where you can look into the lakes and see branches and roots of trees going through a calcification process

  9. When I first read about this installation several years ago, I had really mixed feelings about putting something artificial in the ocean. To see the way it has interacted with the sea is remarkable and completely changed my initial thoughts. Thanks for giving us such an up close view of Taylor’s work. The Phoenix, with the coral slowly moving like wings was magical. I hope I get the chance to visit again and see it in person.

    • Thanks so much for your touching comment, Alison. We all have preconceived notions about things, and especially about certain tourist attractions. So it’s really rewarding to hear that our story was able to convey what an amazing environmental project this is. We appreciate the kind words, and I know Jason will love seeing how many people are now eager to see his work in person!

  10. Wow! This is a very unique and different kind of art installations I’m used to, it looks pretty cool!
    At first glance people might think is simply a way to make money and trap some tourists, I’m glad to read that isn’t the case at all and that that they are actually helping to restore the ecosystem!

    • Yeah, we’d never seen anything like it. But hopefully its success will ultimately inspire other, similar projects around the world. Our coral reefs could REALLY use a break!

  11. Fantastic read, and what an amazing art project that is! I love how the sculptures are never done, just began by him and will change for as long as they are around. Would love to go diving there at some point!

  12. This is amazing! I’ve seen photos before and have really been wanting to check it out, but the video makes me want to go even more! I love seeing the movement of the life growing on the statues–and it’s so great that something so beautiful can also help preserve our ecosystems.

    • If the video makes you want to go even more, then we’ll consider this mission: accomplished. Our #1 goal is to inspire people to explore places they might previously never have considered.

  13. I’ve heard about these places and have seen pictures of them, but I’m still not sure what I think of them. Your video gives a better view of what they are more like. However, I’m still felt indecisive. Might be one of the places I have to see in person to make a judgement on if I like them or not.

  14. Wow! Thanks for putting this post together – I had never heard of this before, but Cancun is now on top of my bucket list! Awesome that you can snorkel to it as well – I havent taken my scuba diving cert yet – also on the bucket list!

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  22. I was able to scuba dive here in August 2015 after scuba diving the previous month in Grenada’s Underwater Sculpture Museum, the first of deCaires Taylor’s projects. I was fascinated by both and only wish I could’ve had more time to explore the Cancun installations, which couldn’t all be covered during our dive. Kudos to Taylor on initiating these massive projects, which he is still continuing to develop!