With one foot in the diving world and the other in the art world, Jason deCaires Taylor has carved out a unique position for himself, but who is the man behind the now famous underwater sculptures? STEVE WEINMAN has a chat with him
Back in the early 1990s, Jason deCaires Taylor was a teenage graffiti artist, exploring abandoned sites around Canterbury in Kent and leaving his tag on public walls and trains.
Did he ever get into trouble? “A few times, yes,” he agrees, but doesn’t elaborate.
Nowadays he leaves his signature in places that are public only to scuba-divers and snorkellers, in the form of the 800 or so trademark sculptures that have made him the world’s most celebrated underwater artist. And he still finds himself in trouble from time to time…
The sculptor comes from an artistic family, particularly on his Guyanan mother’s side, he says. His father was from Birmingham, and both parents taught English as a foreign language, which meant extensive international travel for the young Jason, who was born in 1974.
While based in Malaysia in the 1980s he discovered the joys of snorkelling, consolidating his love of the sea in Thailand. “We went to Koh Samui when there were only 100 people living there, and other Thai islands that were uninhabited, as in the film The Beach.
So I got to see some incredible marine life from a very early age. I’m not sure a lot of it’s still there, but it was pretty fantastic.”
Time spent in the Caribbean would later be repaid when his first installation appeared in Grenada. Spain’s southern shores also made an impression.
But he attended secondary school in England and, while at Camberwell College of Arts in London, undertook his scuba training with a dive-centre.
“I haven’t got thousands of dives here but I dived in Scotland and quite a few murky lakes and quarries,” he says.
Always attracted by public art, much of his degree work involved making sculptures for urban environments.
“I put some of my figurative pieces into temporary installations in Trafalgar Square and Regent’s Park, and along the Thames. I was thinking it would be great to do an underwater installation, but it wasn’t feasible in those days.”
Jason graduated in 1998 pledging to himself “not to make a living doing art” – a promise that today makes him laugh.
“My over-riding goal was to find a profession that would allow me to be free to create what I wanted, but not in any sort of commercial environment.
“I’m a bit of a doer, so I need to have a plan, and I didn’t like the insecurity of working completely freelance.
“And I saw so many contemporaries compromise their ideas, so that in the end they weren’t really free as artists anyway. So I went off exploring lots of other jobs.”
He helped to build the Millennium Dome, which involved a certain amount of aerial-access work, became a paparazzi photographer, worked in set design and tended bars around London.
“Then I decided that maybe I could make a career from diving, and do the art on the side. So I went to Australia and spent a year on the Great Barrier Reef as a divemaster, and then a dive instructor.”
Jason’s next thought was that “it would be really nice to own my own dive-centre!” He looked around the world for properties for sale, visiting a number of them, and was still looking some three years later.
“I ended up at one in Grenada called ScubaTech. I realised that as a business diving could be pretty tough, but at the back of my mind was the idea that if I owned a centre I could build an underwater park as a sort of sideline.”
He didn’t buy ScubaTech, but decided to build his dive park anyway. “That was how it all started – and I’ve just been getting busier and busier ever since.”
I had always assumed that Jason somehow secured a commission for his inaugural installation in Grenada, but not so. “I went to the Grenadian government and said this is my plan, but I’ll fund it myself,” he says.
“I sold a house in the UK, as I’d planned to do to buy the dive-centre, and thought I’ll give myself a year to do this.”
Armed with the necessary permits, he consulted the island’s other dive-centres about location and found them supportive – but the investment was all his.
“It was very experimental. I was trying out new techniques because I was self-funding, so didn’t have a colossal budget for giant barges or cranes and things.
“So I made a lot of the works using smaller components that could be built under water.”
I had dived Grenada’s Sculpture Park recently, enjoying the gradual transition from reef to park, the level of colonisation and even the storm damage, which made it feel part of the natural scene.
“The area’s quite shallow and it’s a strange place because it has these periods where the wind changes direction and quite big seas come in.
“It has been damaged over the years and because nobody else funded it there’s been no-one responsible for it. There’s been a lot of conflict about who looks after it and raises funds for it.
“I’m very fond of that park, because it’s where I started, and some of the marine life has been fantastic, but it was also a steep learning curve in how to build the sculptures and how to manage them.”
Jason’s enthusiasm for underwater photography developed while building the Grenada park.
“I quickly realised that documenting the work was key, so I went on another pretty steep learning curve and invested in good camera equipment. It’s been a vital part of my work. Even now, I’m constantly upgrading my equipment and trying out new techniques.”
“I’ve seen millions of brilliant underwater photographs, so when I see marine life now I’m more into watching it rather than seeing it through the lens – but I am always keen to get shots of my sculptures that include marine life.”
Grenada’s Sculpture Park was widely publicised, but didn’t lead to floods of work. Back in England, Taylor undertook a few smaller commissions.
“I was quite naive in those days. I got a lot of half-hearted offers and never quite realised how many projects fall through because people aren’t really serious.
“So I pursued a few things that in hindsight I wouldn’t have done.”
Then came an offer from the Mexican government. “That was the first time I got commissioned and paid for doing the work,” says Jason. If only it had been that straightforward.
“We did the surveys, applied for government grants and, having raised $200,000 to begin the work, I had a meeting at a business conference with a state governor.
“After our presentation the governor said: ‘That’s amazing, it’s the project this region needs and I’m going to double the budget and give you another $200,000!’
“I thought, fantastic, then I’ll obviously double the amount of work I produce and we can make it really ambitious. Everyone clapped, and there was a big media release.
“A year later, the governor requested the funds from central government, stole them and put them into his election campaign.
“Two years later, he was in prison for being a narco.”
Jason applied for other grants and won some corporate sponsorship, but planning ahead remained difficult. “It was also quite a big leap of faith for the government, but in the end they were very keen just to get it into the water and see how it worked.”
An ally in the marine protected area’s director proved invaluable: “If I’d gone out under my own steam it would 100% never have happened, but the more I’ve got involved in projects, the more the politics.”
The eventual result of all this manoeuvring, the MUSA Underwater Museum, cemented Jason’s reputation.
“It had a huge media response, got everybody listening and got the government very interested in following it up. I started to get quite a few offers from other places after that.”
After a one-off project for an underwater sculpture of a piano for illusionist David Copperfield on his Bahamas island, Jason’s focus shifted mid-Atlantic to the Canary Islands.
“So I moved my family, dogs, the whole operation over to Lanzarote for the next five years. Again, it was difficult to get going – it was using government grants again, and whenever you work with government you get sucked into politics, no matter how hard you try.
“The opposition party was very keen on criticising the Atlantic Museum. It thought it would be a good way to damage the government, using the old argument that it should be investing in roads and hospitals.” But the project went ahead.
The prime example of Jason being caught up in a political whirlwind occurred in the Maldives last year.
“That was a private resort with private funding, and all we needed was the government’s permission. So we gave presentations, discussed it and they came and inspected the sculptures, all fine.
“But then the president was losing in the polls prior to an election, and was desperate for more votes. He felt that by defending Islam he might gain more of the religious vote, so he just sent in the army and lots of journalists.
“It was a very stupid act. Pictures of the military smashing up sculptures of a mother holding a baby was probably the last thing the Maldivian Tourist Authority wanted, and other major hotels that invested there were really upset.
“But the president lost power three days later, and was kicked out and exiled.”
The wanton destruction hurt, however. “It had been a really hard project, with the logistics of working on an atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Every challenge we faced was really difficult to solve, and Screwfix doesn’t deliver that far.
“It’s very easy for people to use your art to push their agenda. It can be difficult, but it’s never boring, that’s for sure.”
Jason now has a core team of around seven people travelling around the world with him to run different projects, with local people employed depending on the scale of the work. “It’s also changing now that sculptures are going digital,” he says. “There are new techniques whereby you send your design to a company that can mill it out of a block of whatever you like.”
Currently Jason’s focus is on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and MOUA, his Museum Of Underwater Art. “It’s an exciting project that’s been gestating for almost three years since I went out to present the designs.
“We’ve been setting up companies, applying for permits and organising the work. I wanted to make sure there was an entity in place in Australia to oversee its implementation but also its future.
“It’s a bit like going full circle, because I became a dive instructor in Australia and it‘s probably where I’ve done most of my diving – every day, when I was working on the liveaboards.”
And the GBR must be desperate for some upbeat publicity. Shortly after this interview, its own Marine Park Authority downgraded the eco-system’s long-term outlook from “poor” to “very poor”.
“It’s difficult, because obviously some of the reefs in the north have been heavily bleached and degraded, but two-thirds of the reef is still pristine and incredible,” says Jason.
I express surprise at this, in view of recent scientific reports. “It still makes for incredible diving and snorkelling, so they’re very keen to convey that not every area is affected,” he says. “Certainly where I’ve been working in Townsville the reefs are incredible, really healthy.”
December sees Jason’s colour-changing topside piece Ocean Siren unveiled off Townsville, followed by the first in a series of works on the reef itself – a huge Coral Greenhouse with surrounding gardens.
“It’s all running to time, and it’s very nice to work in Australia because they’re so organised and professional – almost the opposite to some of the places I’ve worked,” says Jason.
“It has all the infrastructure and components, and in marine research it has James Cook University, arguably one of the leading science institutions, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). So there are a lot of marine biologists in Townsville and it’s great working alongside them.”
The 4.4m-high Ocean Siren is a new departure. “It’s quite a complex piece made of glass resin, and inside will be hundreds of LEDs on a matrix connected to a solar display.
“AIMS has a series of temperature-loggers from the north of the GBR right down to the Rockhampton area, and we can track and collate all that livedata and feed it into a series of lighting programs in the sculpture, so that it changes colour according to how high temperatures are.
“We’re experimenting with different cycles, and also thinking about showing temperatures from sites around the world.
“All this happens from a 4G signal from shore – in theory!”
Phase three of the project could well prove the most challenging – Palm Island. “Different aboriginal communities have been displaced there over the past 200 years, and it’s been listed as one of the most violent places in the world.
“Poverty and unemployment are very high, there’s not a lot of future for the residents and there aren’t many tourists, but it’s a very beautiful island and some of its reefs are stunning.
“We’re hoping to build a series of works along the shoreline and in the water in the hope of generating an economy for the island, and employment for local people who will act as guides, and produce aboriginal artefacts for sale.”
The funds have been secured from central government, says Jason, but the next steps are delicate.
“Because it has such a troubled history there has to be caution, especially with any idea of a white English person going over and appearing to dictate terms.
“It has to be a collaborative effort, deciding what form the works will take, where they go, how deep etc.” The project is due to be finished next August.
Meanwhile Jason is working on yet another “museum”, this time off Aya Napa in Cyprus. “It’s an underwater forest planting of around 200 trees, a mix of sculptural trees and floating kelp to form quite a dense matrix of structures, with sculptures in between them.
“There will be a guided tour through this forest. We have almost 30m visibility every day, so it’s a nice place to work.”
I wonder whether Jason ever worries about nations coming to regard artificial reefs or installations like his as a substitute for conserving natural reefs?
“Not so much conserving, but I am worried that people will start cutting corners when building artificial reefs. Doing it correctly is an expensive business, and quite difficult because it involves a lot of marine engineering and surveys to clean and make them safe.
“I do worry that people see it as an easy excuse for dumping things in the sea.
“It sounds an awful thing to say, but I’m not the biggest proponent of artificial reefs. They have such a small footprint, and I don’t think they solve many of the problems our seas face. I see their benefits more in drawing water-users away from fragile areas, and raising the issues.
“We don’t talk about what we’re doing in Australia as an artificial reef. The GBR is the largest reef in the world and certainly doesn’t need any more surface area. It’s much more a case of telling stories about it, getting children involved in conservation programmes, using it as
a source of education or science platform and a way to engage people.”
And what about some of the copycat sculptural installations around the world – is he ever bothered by their aesthetics, or does he just think the more the better?
“A lot of people seem to think that because you’re putting it under water anybody can do it but, like public sculpture for towns and cities, there needs to be a consultation process and some sort of curation. The minimum requirement is to know the artist’s background. So yes, I do worry!”
I ask if he feels his work gets the credit it deserves as art. “I don’t know. It’s good that it touches on so many different areas, not just art, or conservation or tourism – it’s not easily pigeonholed.
“I don’t feel I’m completely in the diving community or in the art community but in-between, and I feel that confuses a lot of people. In the art world, I think a lot of people are still unsure.”
Is his work profitable? “I’m not in the road, as I have been most of the time. You never know where you’ll be in two or three years’ time but yeah, I make a profit. But I can’t retire yet!”
He is however “changing a little bit”, he says. “Lots of artists get stereotyped and just repeat what they’ve done before – it’s what the public expects. I’m not sure I need to keep doing things on a large scale – you can tell a very strong story with a singular piece or just a couple of pieces.”
Smaller private commissions such as Copperfield’s piano or his recent Ocean Atlas in the Bahamas (albeit the world’s biggest single underwater sculpture!) seem to hold an increasing attraction, and a project in Norway brought him some consolation after the Maldives episode.
“It was in a murky marina in a freezing-cold fjord, and you wouldn’t expect it to harbour much life at all.
“But we put the sculptures in, went back a year later and they were much more developed than any works I’d done in tropical areas, completely enveloped in tunicates, with thousands of mussels growing on them, and shrimps.”
He says he is increasingly moved to produce “activism-type works, with stronger messaging and denunciation of fossil fuels and other things that are driving climate change”. Look out for one such tidal piece in London’s Thames soon.
There is also talk of an installation that ties in with a Cyprus shipwreck – which one could that be? – and a secret interactive project in the Middle East.
Also read: Ancient harbour is new draw in Cyprus
Because his is living art, Jason clearly derives great pleasure from revisiting his previous works, seeing how they’re developing and capturing new images.
He had recently returned to Grenada, and was heading for the Canaries shortly.
“That’s the part I love. I get really frustrated when I see other people photographing my stuff on Instagram and think: that looks amazing – I need to go back!”