Gliding through an underwater city that is stricken with silence and beauty, divers take in the scenes of children rowing brass boats, photographers snapping images in the distance and business men playing on a playground.
All are frozen in time.
Each structure teems with algae and octopi, and crabs scuttle in between concrete crevices. A new message lies behind every turn, and if they take the time to understand each sculpture’s meaning, they can unlock the deepest secrets of Museo Atlántico.
It’s not exactly 20 leagues under the sea, but 15 meters seemed deep enough when artist Jason deCaires Taylor designed his underwater sculpture museum off the Spanish island coast of Lanzarote in the Bahía de Las Coloradas. After three years of sculpting and constructing, and even opening to the public in March of 2016, Museo Atlántico was officially completed on Jan. 10, 2017.
While this is the first underwater museum in Europe, Museo Atlántico is deCaires Taylor’s third of its kind.
He originally conceived the idea for an underwater sculpture park in Moilinere Bay, Grenada, after hurricane Ivan destroyed its reefs and coral structures. Partnering with other artists, the 75 sculptures of the Moilinere Bay Underwater Sculpture Park were installed in 2006 for the public to enjoy. Completed a few years later in 2009 and positioned on the ocean floor surrounding Cancun, Museo Subacuático de Arte was opened with a much larger collection of 500 pieces from 6 sculptors including deCaires Taylor.
With two stand-alone exhibits in England and one in the Bahamas, he is no stranger to the creation of underwater masterpieces.
Driving his art is his passion for the environment, especially that of the ocean.
Aiming to communicate the threats to oceans and marine ecosystems with each of his sculptures, deCaires Taylor hopes that people will become more aware of issues including global warming, ocean acidification, overfishing, tourism impact, pollution and habitat loss, all of which endanger marine life as a whole.
In keeping with his promotion of ecofriendly behaviors, he created sculptures to serve as artificial reefs. Each piece is created using pH-neutral cement that is installed into the ocean floor, so it is a safe place for fish to breed and make home. Since the first of the museum installations in 2016, marine life in the Bahía de Las Coloradas has increased by 200 percent, and expected to continue to rise.
“Generally a big problem in the ocean is a deficit in places for organisms like algae to attach,” says Dr. Brian Hopkins, an associate professor at the University of Georgia’s department of marine sciences. “If there’s no place to attach, then algae can’t grow, and food can’t be provided. Fish in turn can’t survive there and have to go find something new.”
While his first underwater exhibit was built to replace reefs that had been destroyed, Museo Atlántico is creating new spaces for organisms to bloom and for ecosystems to develop.
Hopkins says that in this situation deCaires Taylor’s art pieces are helpful to species; however, since they are not replacing a preexisting reef, they serve more of a “human value.” Hopkins said, “[People] like to see fish, and this is more so creating an environment for them to be seen and appreciated.”
For deCaires Taylor, tourism appeal was as important as his sculptures’ focus on conservation. While the artificial reef was not a necessity for the species near the Bahía de Las Coloradas, it is an important element that he needed in order to connect a wide public audience to the fragility of the sea.
Dr. Carissa DiCindio, the president of the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries, emphasized that for any museum, the most important aspect that artists and directors consider is the visitor.
“The museum needs to be for someone,” DiCindio explained. “It’s all based on what the visitor needs to be comfortable and to become engaged and focused on what story the museum is trying to tell.”
When it comes to telling the story of how humans interact with the oceans around them and with one another, deCaires Taylor relies on natural elements for success.
With his exhibitions that combine marine life with sculptures of everyday people, deCaires Taylor sends his message of how everything is connected and that the ocean shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Museo Atlántico continues this theme by tapping into societal values and current issues facing the world. With more than 200 sculptures that are modeled after actual Lanzarote residents, he achieved his vision of merging reality and the underwater realm.
Sculptures vary in size and tone from a couple taking a selfie in his piece, Disconnected, to a reflection on the recent refugee situation and abandonment in The Raft of Lampedusa. His largest piece in the exhibition is Crossing The Rubicón, which features a 100-ton wall and gateway that measures approximately 98 feet long. For deCaires Taylor, this is the first time he has implemented such large-scale pieces for an underwater museum.
“The ocean is the most incredible exhibition space an artist could ever wish for,” said deCaires Taylor in his Ted Talk back in December of 2015. “You have amazing lighting effects changing by the hour, explosions of sand covering the sculptures in a cloud of mystery, a unique timeless quality and the procession of inquisitive visitors, each lending their own special touch to the site.”
Sponsored by the Municipal Council of Lanzarote’s Centres for Art, Culture and Tourism, the museum is one of nine popular sites for tourism, an industry that fuels the islands economy.
Visitors who come to Lanzarote are encouraged to embark on a journey through deCaires Taylor’s undersea portal with a certified diving company. Rates for the museum include snorkeling for 8€ ($9) or diving for 12€ ($13).
Since seeing Museo Atlántico in person may be a challenge for many, deCaires Taylor has used his photography skills to publish an online photo gallery of his underwater creations from around the world.
While deCaires Taylor has not yet announced where he intends to build his next underwater project, audiences can expect him to keep pushing boundaries in his creativity and in his impact on the world.
This post was written by Gabrielle Cowand. Follow her on Twitter @gabriellecowand.