Thrilling and transient art below the waves

February 14, 2016

Art lovers are used to looking at work in warm galleries, occasionally going outside for sculpture in manicured gardens. Now an exciting new European museum is encouraging us to enjoy art in the depths of the oceans. It’s an incredible and poignant reminder of what we miss of our planet when we stay on land or above the water’s surface.

To see the artworks of the new Museo Atlantico, we must don diving masks and wear oxygen tanks to look below the warm blue waters of the Canary Islands, off west Africa. Here we will find giant and thrilling sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor, showing refugees aboard The Raft of Lampedusa, a 14m installation.

So far most of the visitors have been fish with fins and gills, not cameras and catalogues. But human divers will soon follow, taking selfies and noting the inevitable mutation of artwork that is not protected from the oceans and the attention of crustaceans and algae. The installation will age and weather as coral reefs or shipwrecks do, assuming an entirely different shape and appearance over the centuries to come.

Taylor has already placed work underwater, off Cancun, Mexico. The Silent Evolution depicts nearly 500 locals from the village of Puerto Morelos. Last summer, he sunk four “horsemen of the apocalypse” in the river Thames near the Houses of Parliament. The beasts’ heads – cast from oil wells – are revealed in full only at low tide.

The artist’s work has an environmental purpose too: by creating artificial reefs, which will attract marine life, and provide it with secure space to breed, Taylor hopes to divert attention from the world’s rapidly diminishing natural reefs which have been damaged by over-fishing and over-visiting. Lord Byron said: “Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.” Sadly, our generation has proved more destructive than he could imagine.

Not all the damage to our reefs has been for mercenary gain through over-fishing. Too many admirers, with snorkels and flippers, have been destructive too. Have we been guilty of loving our seas too much?

The UK’s Wildlife Trusts have an Undersea Art Award, now in its seventh year, to encourage the creation of art inspired by the creatures that live in the UK’s cold water coral beds, sponge meadows, canyons and sandbanks. The award highlights the urgent need for Marine Conservation Zones, protected areas at sea where human activity is restricted.

Underwater art reminds us, I feel, that we are not quite as powerful or even creative as we might imagine. Taylor’s sculpture is marvellous and demands that we think about our purpose and our planet; but it is not until the oceans themselves have got to work, that it becomes truly remarkable.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation