OSLO FORM LAB 2018

If Oceans Die We Die

By Elnaz Azadpour.


Global awareness on environmental issues of common concern is a current area of discussion among artists worldwide, especially those who consider art as a form of activism. Jason deCaires Taylor is a British artist whose artworks aim not only to raise awareness among people on the environment, but also actively contribute to preserving the natural resources and encourage life using materials and designs that are environmentally friendly [1].

"Nexus" by Jason deCaires Taylor in Sjøholmen, Oslo. Photo: https://www.baerum.kommune.no/om-barum-kommune/organisasjon/prosjekter-eiendom/sjøholmen/

Taylor has chosen a specific arena to exhibit his works: the ocean. But why the ocean? The artist has had a passion to explore the ocean from an early age as he believes oceans have endless possibilities [2]. In the beginning of his career, he was extremely influenced by the land art and earthworks movements and felt the ocean represented such a vast arena to further explore the boundaries of art. “The living ocean drives planetary chemistry, governs climate and weather, and otherwise provides the cornerstone of the life-support system for all creatures on our planet”, such is the importance of the ocean, as marine biologist Sylvia Earle observes [3]. Therefore, the main aim of Taylor’s art is to make the viewers aware of the significance of oceans ultimately in order to preserve them more effectively. The role of humans in damaging the ocean is another focus of his works. In an interview with Sculpture Magazine, when asked if his works are eco-driven he responded: “[...] the narrative of the works also concerns wider ecological and social issues like the anthropocene and our apathy to towards a rapidly changing planet [4].”


When we see an artwork, the artist notes, we know we should protect it, but somehow we do not value oceans as much. Therefore, he names his underwater sculptures as “museums”. Museums are places for preserving and educating - in naming his artworks under oceans as museums he wants to draw the attention to the fact that oceans are also precious and deserve our highest considerations.

Taylor has created sculpture parks under the water in different countries. In 2017, for instance, he brought some of his pieces to Norway as well [5]. Outside Sjøholmen cultural center at Sandvika people can see two bronze figures, which are a part of an installation called Nexus, standing on a floating pontoon (see illustration 1). The floating sculptures on the water create a bridge between the shore and the underwater figures. Other sculptures in this installation are placed 1-8 meters below the water and can be viewed via snorkeling, diving, or from a glass bottom canoe (see illustration 2). Each of the underwater works is tied to the bottom of the fjord by means of an “umbilical cord” which signifies our inherent connection and dependence on our Mother Nature [6].


Another major exhibition Taylor has had in recent years was his Cancún Underwater Museum in Mexico (see illustration 3). In this exhibition, through a collaboration with a team of marine scientists and local dive center, he installed an underwater art museum to raise awareness on coral reefs.

Coral reefs, like many other natural resources, are endangered because of human activities [7]. Over 40% of world’s natural coral reefs have been lost during the past decades. According to the World Resources Institute 90% of coral reefs will be in danger by 2030, and all of them by 2050 [8].

Cancún Underwater Museum. Photo: https://www.underwatersculpture.com/works/recent/

What interests me most in Taylor’s works is not the beauty of it but the areas through which his activist art contributes to the nature in which it is built. For instance, he uses PH-neutral marine grade cement to create his artworks below the ocean. Technically, this kind of cement is extremely durable but environmentally speaking using it will make sure the impact in terms of undesirable change of acidity levels will be reduced [9]. Also, because people, here ocean tourists, would spend half their time visiting his underwater museums there might be less stress on coral reefs. In addition, through his work, he claims, he has created over 800m2 of new habitats and living reefs [10]. In terms of socioeconomic dimension of sustainability, his underwater works could create economic benefits through alternative employment opportunities for instance for fishermen working as museum guides. Furthermore, the small entrance fees that local governments charge could be used in local conservation activities.


Besides the positive aspects discussed, there are also pitfalls that environmentalist artists should consider. Through a critical lens, such installation works, due to their large scale, use up many resources and therefore careful analysis is needed to evaluate if the conservational value outweighs the resource use. In addition, examples from other similar initiatives should be critically reflected upon. For instance, whale watching was at first praised by many because it could raise awareness on the species below the water and their conservation needs but soon, with the increasing amount of interested tourists, turned out to be disturbing the natural behavioral patterns of whales. In addition to aesthetic values and good intentions that justify the presence of such artworks, these need to be reviewed from a scientific point of view by marine biologists assessing whether these intrude on the lives of species under the ocean.


Notes


[1] Jason deCaires Taylor. Available at: https://www.underwatersculpture.com/about/overview/

[2] Preece. Sculpture Magazine Interview. 2016. Available at: http://425kuqjsg3y39f9jd41dpo1q-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Sculpture-Magazine-Interview-by-Robert-Preece.pdf

[3] Earle, Sylvia A. Sea change: a message of the oceans. Ballantine Books, 1996.

[4] Preece. Sculpture Magazine Interview. 2016. Available at: http://425kuqjsg3y39f9jd41dpo1q-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Sculpture-Magazine-Interview-by-Robert-Preece.pdf

[5] Sjøholmen. Jason Taylor undervannsskulpturer. Fridykk blant kunst under og over vann. Avialable at: https://www.sjoholmen.com/turnip-greens-yarrow/

[6] A New Underwater Installation Completed By Jason deCaires Taylor In Oslo. Available at:

http://artist-at-large.com/2018/09/24/a-new-underwater-installation-completed-for-jason-decaires-taylor-in-oslo/

[7] Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, 4.

[8] World Resources Institute. Reefs at Risk Projections: Present, 2030, and 2050.

2011. Available at:

https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/reefs-risk-projections-present-2030-and-2050

[9] Jason deCaires Taylor. Available at: https://www.underwatersculpture.com/about/overview/

[10] TED. An underwater art museum, teeming with life. 2015. Available at:

https://www.ted.com/talks/jason_decaires_taylor_an_underwater_art_museum_teeming_with_life