Interviewee / Photographer: Jason deCaires Taylor
Interviewer: Zan Boag
Zan Boag: You’re dealing on such a grand scale here that’s there’s almost no limit to the size of the project you could potentially undertake. Is that a little bit daunting – do you get overwhelmed by the vastness of the ocean?
Jason deCaires Taylor: You can’t comprehend the scale of working in the ocean – it’s like being asked to produce an installation in the desert. It’s so big, and that’s partly what dictated the direction of my work, from making small sculpture parks to making huge museums with thousands of sculptures. To have any sort of impact in that space you’ve really got to be ambitious. We did a project in Mexico where I made hundreds of works, hundreds of figures and we had them all in the studio – it filled the studio, they filled the car park, they filled the street. We couldn’t move. We walked in and thought, god, it looks so impressive. Then we put them in the sea, in this huge flat stretch of sand and there they just became a tiny speck. I could swim around it in four minutes.
Viewing much of your art requires viewers to get wet and off stable ground. In a way, they are immersed in the art – it is not just something to be viewed, but also experienced. How do you think this change of environment affects the way viewers experience art?
Massively, of course. It’s one of the main motivations for it, why I first contemplated it. I was a diver and an artist and I realised what an amazing space it was. There are so many different things that happen – there are physical things that happen, the colour is different, refraction is different, light has to penetrate the surface of the water, which is obviously ever-changing. The deeper you are, the more the colour is distorted, and things appear larger underwater to the human eye. But most importantly, you’re in this liquid medium, you’re suspended, and I think that – there’s a couple of things. One, it affords you the opportunity to look at things from completely different angles, totally different perspectives, get really close, move around, fly over the top of it. It also affects you mentally; it puts you in a very different place. It puts you in a more contemplative place, slightly detached from the reality of the world; more open-minded.
In an interview, quoting Jacques Cousteau and his influence on you, you said that he believes that we have to protect what we love – and that this is the root idea of your work, that you are in essence “trying to make people love the ocean”. With much of most people’s lives spent in urban environments and online, do you think that it is difficult to make people love the ocean?
Certainly. It’s definitely a challenge and it’s something I try to address in my work. A recent sculpture that I did in Australia, the Ocean Siren, that’s a piece that changes colour – it’s a coastal piece – but it changes colour in response to water temperatures. As the water around The Great Barrier Reef changes temperature and the risk of coral bleaching becomes greater, the sculpture changes colour to issue a warning, or a stark prognosis. That’s really trying to take an event that’s happening hundreds of kilometres out to see and bring it to an urban environment, to provide live conditions that are happening in the water to people who are very divorced from that situation.
The Rising Tide, London
In The Rising Tide, your sculptures were able to be viewed in full up to two hours either side of low tide. Could explain the symbolism of this artwork?
I try to make the works multi-level, but many are very obvious and fairly easy to read. That particular piece is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the horses have been converted into oil drilling machines – nodding donkeys, as they’re often known – and it features two businessmen and two children on the horses. It was very much about who’s driving our future and where we are going. There seems to be this great standoff between corporate interests and where the future lies for our planet. Placing the pieces in this environment, with eight metres of tide that rose up and completely covered them, it was a statement about our ultimate fragility to the cycles of the planet and the consequences of ignoring that.
The Raft of Lampedusa, Lanzarote, Spain
Your artwork The Raft of Lampedusa, with a nod to The Raft of the Medusa, comments on the plight of immigrants coming from Africa to Europe. What inspired you to create this particular piece?
That sculpture was part of a larger series of works off the coast of Lanzerote, in Spain. We did 12 different installations there and I very much wanted to recount local stories and connect the museum to its place, to its people. This was a very important story that I thought needed to be told. Just on that island, the summer I was there, there were three or four boats that washed up on shore without people inside. So it was very pertinent to the place. For that installation, I tracked down quite a few of the immigrants who had come over from Western Africa, who had settled in Spain and the Canary Islands, and they became the models for those sculptures. So a lot of it was about telling their story. The painting – The Raft of Medusa – was about a French frigate that sunk very close to that area of Africa and the painting was about how the commanders of the ship abandoned their crew and let them drown or fend for themselves. I thought that was very much a metaphor for what is happening now, where the authorities are abandoning our duty to care for these people. They should try to solve the root of the problem and not see it as something threatening, but rather something that needs to be treated in a humane way.
There is obviously an increased awareness of the issues surrounding climate change, yet our behaviour is much the same. What are some of the reasons why we’re not making the changes necessary to combat climate change?
I think we are all realising that the capitalist system just does not work for the planet. It’s impossible for our systems of government to be attached to this model of constant growth and constant consumption. There is definitely an end point. As populations are increasing, there’s only one place where that can head. Systemic change is what’s needed and for me, our governments have been corrupted by corporate interests. I don’t think they make decisions about what’s best for people or for the planet, they just make decisions based on what keeps them elected and that ultimately is going to end in catastrophe.
The question is: do governments ultimately hold the power?
I don’t think they do. Not when you have media moguls who control 70 per cent of the titles of a country, and you have a mega-companies that have annual turnovers that are bigger than the GDP of some countries. The power has shifted dramatically due to many different factors – globalisation being one of them. When these companies have such a hold over political parties, it’s very difficult to change and I think we’re heading for a period of severe social disruption and some form of collapse at some point. This maybe will provide the impetus to make widespread change. I’m not entirely putting the responsibility on them – there are certainly choices that individuals can make, and individuals still have a lot of power to change the way they consume or the way they live. But there is a little bit of a con where the onus is put on the individual – it’s really important that regulation catches up in all areas of society that prevents you from building a house that is not renewable, prevents you from buying a car that causes pollution – the regulation has to be there and people will adapt. Change has to come from the top and it has to be fast, unfortunately.
The Coral Greenhouse, MOUA, Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Crossing the Rubicon, Lanzarote, Spain
Although ultimately the ocean will claim your art, it will persist for generations and will be viewed by those who are not yet born when you and I are no longer here. Has this knowledge that your art will outlast you made you contemplate your own finitude?
I certainly think about it as a way of documenting what is happening here and now. The sculptures are made from traditional materials – stone or concrete, quite monumental, and I feel like I am creating a diary of what’s happening at the moment, in a way so that future generations will know and understand that we knew what was going on and we tried to say what was going on, but maybe ultimately we didn’t succeed – or we might have succeeded, who knows. There’s a way of looking at us being absorbed back into the sea, or back into the landscape, that makes you face your own mortality and I think it makes you think that ultimately, the planet won’t die; we’ll die. And the planet will go on.
Silent Evolution, Mexico
You say that your art is like leaving a message for future generations – now how do you think future generations will view us and how we have treated the only known inhabitable place in the Universe?
There’s going to be a furious backlash, and I think that is already happening, we can already see it with the massive divide that we’re seeing between the older generation and the younger generation. They’re realising now that the system has been rigged and the system isn’t working for them. I think that brings with it a lot of positivity but also at some point, probably soon, they are going to clash very strongly. There’s certainly a great awareness that my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, had some very good times that were short-sighted and they’re being looked upon very negatively.
Silent Evolution, Mexico