Jason deCaires Taylor is sinking fast. Below, 15 metres under the surface of the sea, a crowd of figures, unmistakably human, are motionless. It is eerily still but for the schools of fish weaving through this newly arrived sunken society. Taylor has just submerged these sculptures in what will become Europe’s first underwater museum, Museo Atlantico, in Lanzarote. Under the surface of the water, The Raft of Lampedusa, a sculpted boat carrying 13 refugees, is still just visible as it is lowered. Divers surround it, inflatable buoys hold it while Taylor waits with a waterproof clipboard, ready to place it in its new home.
Taylor’s Raft of Lampedusa – a modern take on Géricault’s 1818 painting The Raft of the Medusa – will soon be joined on the seabed by other statues; a faceless couple taking a selfie, people glued to their phones, others wielding an iPad or pointing cameras. Everyone – the boat and its passengers, the “Instagram generation” – will be heading towards a wall, the entrance to a city and the point of no return. Beyond, a human botanical garden – fantastical hybrids of people and plants drawn from the flora and fauna of Lanzarote. With plans for an underwater fountain, lighting and a giant mirror reflecting a “pool” in the sea, Taylor is clearly aiming for something epic with this thought-provoking journey.
This is the latest in a succession of his underwater installations. The first was in 2006, when he placed Vicissitudes, a ring of beautifully sculpted schoolchildren, on the edge of an ocean shelf, in Molinière Bay, Grenada. That work was instrumental in creating a protected marine park and is now listed as one of National Geographic’s 25 wonders of the world. Just over a year ago, in the Bahamas, he sank the world’s largest underwater sculpture, the 40-tonne, 16ft Ocean Atlas, positioned near the surface, shouldering the weight of the water. Last summer, with The Rising Tide, he conjured four “horsemen of the apocalypse” in the Thames near the Houses of Parliament, the beasts’ heads – cast from oil wells – revealed in full only at low water.
Taylor is a British artist, a sculptor and photographer; a diver and a naturalist. It is fair to say he’s something of a pioneer. His largest-scale work to date – and, until now, the only underwater museum in the world – is Museo Subacuático de Arte (Musa). Here, 26ft under the Caribbean in Cancun, Mexico, the work The Silent Evolution, made of nearly 500 statues, was cast from local people in the nearby fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Among the figures, a pregnant woman holds her swollen belly, a child clutches a small bag; the fisherman Joachin raises his head skywards. Last year, I visited the site with Taylor – after his two-year absence, these casts have come to life. We swim to one statue. A blood-red sponge has spread like scar tissue across her features, softening her expression, outlining her nose, lips and eyes. She is vibrant with colour, her cheeks pulsing with life. Algae trace her hairline, purple acropora coral protrudes from below her chin. Taylor points to lobsters peering out from beneath and nods. All good signs of a healthy, thriving reef.