Environment

Eco-artist Jason deCaires Taylor’s latest underwater sculptures are helping to preserve the Great Barrier Reef, and constantly evolving as hosts for corals and other sea creatures. By Mark Dapin.

Underwater sculptures preserving the Great Barrier Reef

A sculpture on the ocean floor.
A sculpture from the Ocean Sentinels installation on the Great Barrier Reef.
Credit: Jason deCaires Taylor

On the day he and I do not take a catamaran to Queensland’s Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA), sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor is sipping a cold beer at a table in the Longboard Bar and Grill overlooking the Coral Sea. It’s a warm afternoon in Townsville, but the wind is too strong for our planned sail out to the reef to view his newly installed Ocean Sentinels – eight hybrid human and marine sculptures fixed on the seabed at a depth of four to six metres. The works were commissioned to promote the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef, and Taylor is disappointed he will have to return to England without seeing his works in situ. We are confined to the land to talk about them instead.

Jason deCaires Taylor is as much an environmentalist as a sculptor – he makes underwater art to help save the world’s coral reefs. New Scientist called his work “meticulously designed pieces of art, sent on a real-life rescue mission”.

“Other people have said it’s a kind of devil worship,” says Taylor. “When I was working on land, I was always slightly disillusioned by the wastefulness of it. You’d do an exhibition, you’d store it, you’d maybe sell some works, but it was kind of making things for the sake of making things.”

British-born Taylor, already a trained sculptor, was working as a diving instructor in Grenada when the Caribbean island was mauled by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. “There was a bay that was completely wiped out,” he says, “every coral ripped off. But there was a bay nearby which was still in pretty good nick, and all the divers and snorkellers were going to that one area, and over time it started to degrade.”

Heavily visited reefs can be damaged by divers touching and breaking coral, intimidating wildlife and putting down anchors. In Grenada, Taylor took the chance to realise his dream of building an aquatic sculpture garden, which might draw visitors from the healthy reef, while creating an artificial reef that would bring fish back to the area. “I liked the idea that I could still make things, but they could have a benefit for the environment,” he says.

When Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture park in Molinere Bay, National Geographic declared it one of the “25 wonders of the world” and Grenada bestowed on him a national award, the Most Distinguished Order of the Nation.

He made eco-museums from the Bahamas to Indonesia before designing and building The Coral Greenhouse for the MOUA at John Brewer Reef. It’s a skeletal structure 12 metres by nine metres, and six metres tall, like the ribcage of a trigonal whale, alive with sculptures and sunk to the seabed 70 kilometres off Townsville.

“I finished it,” says Taylor, “then went back to England to see my family, and the pandemic hit. So this is the first time I’ve been able to come back.”

The underwater setting changes “totally everything” in Taylor’s art, from the materials he uses to the structure and orientation of the figures.

“Certain-sized holes encourage certain species,” he says. “If I make flat ledges on the bottoms of the sculptures, I get a lot of lobsters and other crustaceans. If I make round glass holes, I get lots of sea urchins, and they’re really good because they clean off all the harmful algae at night. If I make them flat and smooth, I get all the herbivorous fish coming and scraping them for algae. If I make little matrixes of dense habitat, I get all the little damsel fish and smaller species living inside.”

He takes inspiration from shipwrecks, but “shipwrecks degrade and break down over time because they’re made mostly from steel or wood”, he says. His sculptures are fashioned out of high-grade pH-neutral cement reinforced with stainless steel. They will last for centuries – but they change in days.

“I was fascinated by how things change under water, how things are absorbed into the seascape,” he says. “Some of the sponges on the reef cover the sculptures, but they put lots of veins and capillaries on the sculptures because they’re filtering water – sucking water in and passing it through their bodies – so the sculpture’s covered with all these networks and it looks almost like a living artwork.”

I ask if he guessed that would happen.

“No, that was pure luck,” he says. “There’s loads of fluke. There’s a snow of embryonic life coming down and whatever touches the sculpture determines how it will change. That’s the real art of it, the colonisation, and that’s the bit that intrigues me the most.”

Taylor describes how underwater sculptures are experienced differently to land-based statues, and how that is factored into this work. “You don’t view them as you normally would an artwork in a gallery,” he says. “You’re floating above them and swimming around them.” When working on a sculpture, he says, “I’m thinking about it a lot from how it looks from above. I quite often go on the roof of the studio, or climb up high ladders to see. A few of the new ones look up to the surface, so the snorkellers can actually see them.”

 

Although Taylor does not get to swim among his sentinels on that occasion, I do. It’s an easy two-hour trip through calm water to John Brewer Reef on World Ocean Day for the public opening of the new snorkelling trail.

I step off the back of the boat and fall into what feels like a fish-tank Acropolis or a steampunk Atlantis, or perhaps a scrap yard for figureheads, the guardians of the prow. The sentinels wait like wreckage at the bottom of the sea, staring sightless at the riot of fish and coral all around them. They appear colourless in the marine light; the upturned faces among them seem to yearn for the sun.

They might be relics of a lost civilisation – perhaps our own – or the product of an interbreeding program with octopuses and Daleks. Whatever maladroit vocabulary I use to describe them, they are not like any art I have seen before and tomorrow they will look different again.

Throughout the journey to and from the reef, passengers are lectured and entertained by some of the figures on whom the sentinels are modelled. The best-known of them is probably Professor John Veron, author of Corals of the World, who is believed to have identified and catalogued about 20 per cent of coral species on the planet. He says that the Ocean Sentinels are just one way of drawing attention to the Great Barrier Reef, and bringing visitors out to sculptures will help people to understand and care about the reef. If the voters care, he says, then politicians will act to save the coral.

When Veron emerges from the water, I ask if he saw his own sculpture.

“Oh, yes,” he says. “I was hugging it.”

And how did that feel?

“Silly,” he admits.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Coral service".

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