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…
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.
“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.
“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 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.
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.”
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 Jason deCaires 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
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