Politics, Environmentalism and Underwater Sculpture with Simon deCaires Taylor

Jason deCaires Taylor is a sculptor and environmentalist, and professional underwater photographer. He has permanent site-specific work spanning several continents and predominantly explores submerged and tidal-marine environments. He’s the only sculptor that I have included who does not work in bronze, and that’s just because he’s so fantastic, I had to include him. You definitely need to know about him. Not only is his work utterly fascinating, but also, he has a really deep understanding of the crisis that humanity is facing with the damage that they’re doing to the environment. The fact he enables expression of this through his underwater sculpture is well worth listening to. 

I began our conversation today by asking him if he’d always been creative?

Jason: No, not necessarily. No, I actually started my art career much, much later on in life. I studied sculpture at university, but then, after that, I sort of did a whole range of different professions, none of which were particularly creative. But it was only later on in life that I managed to, you know, make it a full-time profession.

Lucy: What sent you off to art school then?

Jason: Oh, yeah, certainly. I mean I come from a family that…you know, there’s many, many painters and sculptors and, generally we’ve always been involved, in some way, in the creative arts. But yeah, I think it was a really, sort of, natural choice for me to go to university. You know, when you’re at that age and you’re, sort of, weighing up all the different options of what to do in life, I kind of just went with what I enjoyed the most and what I loved doing, and it was certainly art.

Lucy: So, a family, being artistic, who were quite happy for you to do that. That’s not always the case.

Jason: No, I was very lucky. You know, I had parents that really encouraged me to, sort of, follow my own vocation. Yeah, some people are not as fortunate but, for me, it kind of really worked out.

Lucy: What did you do after you left university?

Jason: Many different things. It was quite, sort of, an interesting path. I mean I studied sculpture and ceramics at Camberwell College of Arts. And after that, I actually had that dreaded feeling, like,

“Oh my god, you know, how am I going to make a living out of this?”

I actually found it quite… you know, the equation of taking on jobs maybe that I didn’t like too much but they paid the bills. I always wanted the creative part to be free and not constrained in any way, which, I suppose, everybody does. But, practically speaking, it’s not always possible. So, I really turned against that and I thought,

“I’m just going to try some other different types of jobs and see what I enjoy doing.”

I did all sorts: a stint as a diving instructor; I did a bit as a paparazzi photographer; some time building big sets for theatres and concerts, worked quite a couple years in the Millennium Dome. So, I sort of did a real variety of jobs. And I kind of look back at it all now and I think, “God, that was really random.”  There wasn’t, you know, an overriding goal that worked out through there.

Lucy: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, from what you’ve now built – I mean photography – you have to have really an eye for a shot. And it’s not easy, especially under pressure. With the paparazzi, at times, you’ve got to be able to get your shot in deadline for whatever publication it is. And, obviously, the diving, there’s an obvious link with what you’ve gone on to do. And big sets and things like that, you have to have that capability of pulling things like that together as well.

Jason: Definitely. I mean, a big part of my projects now is logistics and really getting away from that desktop scale that you learn at art college. You know, really now, I’m forced to produce works, even in the studio, look enormous, but as soon as I put them into the underwater world where it’s so vast, they really, really disappear and shrink out of sight. So, yeah, it’s a huge part trying to work out how to make enough artworks that it becomes a tour that will attract people’s attention for long enough. And I also create reefs on a pretty large scale.

Lucy: Because it is a stage set, essentially, what you’re creating. I mean, I know that you do isolated pieces but often they are ensembles, aren’t they?

Jason: Yes, very much so. You know, for me, they’re just full-on construction projects. And the types of machinery and skills that we use are pretty similar to lots of parts of the construction industry. So, yes.

Lucy: Well, I think the construction industry needs a creative side to it as well. All those skills I’m always stealing; well, particularly tools from other industries. I go to the dentist and come out thinking, “Oh, I’m going to buy myself one of those,” whatever he’s just used on my tooth to drill! And same with the construction really.

So, what was the first paying gig? When did it become a profession rather than something you were doing as well as work?

Jason: I sort of had this tentative plan to earn my living in a different career and then go back to art when I was a bit older, and I could just do it as a hobby, but a kind of serious hobby. But I became more and more disillusioned with working in jobs I didn’t particularly enjoy. So, I thought,

“Right, I’m just going to take a year out, not worry about whether, you know, I can pay the rent with the artwork.”

And I just, yeah, took a year and experimented. And I was lucky enough to be living in the Caribbean at the time, so, I was working as a diving instructor there. And I just started producing sculptures and got in touch with the government and made a proposal that I self-funded. And I thought of it as that: it would just be a year out, I’d do something interesting and see where it led.

After a year of doing that and having quite a bit of success with a lot of places publicizing my work, I got a job in Mexico. They contacted me to build an installation for their marine park. And they were finding that it was being overly visited by too many tourists and they were damaging parts of the reef. So, they started closing parts of the reefs and, in turn, the tourism industry said, “Well, if you’re closing the reefs, you have to offer an alternative.” And so, they found out about me and we began consulting for a few years. And yeah, that was probably my first major paying gig, as it were.

The Rising Tide Sculptures, River Thames, London by Jason deCaires Taylor ©

Lucy: Yeah. That’s fascinating. So, I kind of pictured you maybe as having some kind of eco-warrior mother or father figure in your life, but it sounds like the interest came later.

Jason: Not necessarily. I mean my parents were actually teachers, so we used to travel the world to different corners. We lived in Malaysia for quite a few years, and so, I was quite fortunate, at that time, to be able to go to all these pristine islands and snorkel these amazing reefs. And so I did develop a kind of love for the ocean and conservation quite early on. But no, they’re not eco-warriors. And I think I’ve had quite a normal British upbringing in my teenage years.

Lucy: One of the parts that you do see is the characterisation in a lot of your underwater sculptures. Like, when I listened to your TED Talk – which was fantastic, by the way – I did think that you were incredibly modest about your sculptural work. You were talking very much about how the wildlife in the sea added much more to your underwater sculpture. And they do, obviously, bring a whole other dimension to your work. But actually, the sculptures themselves are fantastic. So, what I was really asking is about the interest in the different characters that you have and how you bring those to life.

Jason: Yes, you know, that’s obviously a really critical part. And I think my work sort of lives in two realities. It has a complete digital life, where I think 90% of people who know about my work have only seen it reproduced. You know, only a small percentage actually see it in person. And as such, it goes to all these stages that I document. And people see it at various points along that journey. But yes, certainly, I do put a lot of attention into finishing the works and making sure the personalities involved come through.

Lucy: Where do those come from, those ideas? Is that too difficult a question?

Jason: Oh, they’re constantly flowing, it’s trying to pin them down and turn them into something tangible. Yeah, I mean, obviously, working different places around the world, I try to make each one of the installations as relevant and meaningful to the local community as possible. So, a lot of the characters involved in the projects are local residents or people who are very connected to the sea. But again, I’ve also produced, I think, a thousand underwater sculptures now. So, each one has a kind of different aim or agenda. But for many of the pieces, we work with them and they’re really detailed, we spend hours and hours sculpting them. And within like two or three weeks underwater, all that detailing has been lost.

Lucy: I know it is so beautiful to see how they do change and develop. But then I’m like, “Oh no, I can’t see that little detail that was so clever in the face!” Just the little bits of personality that you’ve taken the trouble to include are no longer visible. And I know that’s part of what you want to see, but then, on the other hand, I can’t bear it.

Jason: Yes, it’s a real sense of letting go. And it’s one of the reasons why I do spend an incredible amount of time and effort and resources documenting them really, really closely. And especially in the early days, I really do make sure I heavily photograph or scan all of the sculptures in that phase. But yes, I’m actually doing a piece at the moment where I have made these lions that have just taken, you know, almost a year of carving and grinding and polishing and sanding. And we’ve just been, sort of, destroying them with graffiti and damaging them. And these are not even going underwater, they’re for an exhibition. But yeah, I’m quite interested in that sense of loss and that sense of change: that we’re always changing and evolving.

Lucy: So, do you set aside time to feed that flow of ideas, or is it part of your creative day, or is it happening while you’re chiselling away?

Jason: That is a continuous battle, basically.

The biggest thing, the biggest conflict, is trying to let ideas flow and evolve and, you know, have time to think about things.

But, on the other hand, you also have huge logistical, contractual things, cultural things, there’s so many different parameters to actually executing the projects. So, it’s a bit of a battle.

Lucy: So, what’s the creative routine like?  Your day?

Jason: It’s a bit of a mix. I’m probably half the time in an office space working through designs on a computer or on 3D software. And then there’s probably half the day in the studio, experimenting with maquettes or paintings or smaller versions, and then probably also supervising some of the bigger works as well.

Lucy: Gosh. And then the logistics, on top of that, is that another part you’ve got to squeeze in as well?

Jason: Yes, yes. It is pretty full-on. And what’s quite interesting is I have people that come and help me, obviously, on each of the projects and share some of the workload. And they’ve worked in other different fields and they just can’t believe how difficult working in the arts is, because there’s no standardised model that they can apply. And there’s no routine, every job is very different and has, well, in my case, different countries, different cultures, different designs. Often, I change the materials or test out new ideas. And so they’re constantly bewildered, thinking, “Oh, we just learned this process and now we’re applying it in a different way.”

Lucy: Yeah, I can sympathise with that. We have similar sorts of issues. Every statue we go on, environmentally, it’s changed for a different reason. It might be to do with just the weather or it could be to do with the way that people are constantly touching the object. Every single situation is completely different, and so it’s really hard to train people. For you, you’ve got big projects at a time, but for us, we don’t get long enough on an object before they’ve gone on to the next one. And actually, you need quite a lot of time and repetition to get really expert at one particular aspect of it.

Jason: Definitely, definitely. And every time we’re trying to improve the environmental footprint of the materials. So, there’s always a constant pressure to try and make things better and test new things out. And it’s really, really challenging within the spaces between projects.

Jason deCaires Taylor  ©

Lucy: I’m quite interested in the materials, and particularly actually the fixing of the underwater sculptures. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Jason: Sure, sure. Obviously, most… well, that’s a bit of a generalization, but a lot of public sculpture has metals involved: you know, either foundry work or armatures or sheet material. Whereas I don’t use any metals at all because they generally tend to corrode or they don’t produce very good artificial reefs. So, I have used some. We occasionally use a high-grade stainless steel, if I’m designing architectural pieces. But most of the time, we try to make all the sculptures completely inert.

So, that poses, obviously, some big structural issues: how do you reinforce delicate areas, how do you make thin ankles on a figure? And it also is about trying to make the surface of the material pH-neutral and acceptable for coral to adhere to. So yeah, it’s got a few different challenges on that. And, generally, it means that the works become extremely heavy because we’re making very robust, large-scale works that will stay on the seabed in case there’s a hurricane or a cyclone.

Lucy: So, you just completely now made me think, “Well, how does he make the ankles strong enough to support the body?” What are you using? I need to know!

Jason: A magic rebar! No, it’s definitely a bit of a challenge. We actually use a type of fiberglass rebar and a type of basalt, it’s like volcanic basalt that’s been woven into strands. That’s very effective. We just do what many sculptors have done over the years and support figures with additional parts of the set. So, yeah, there’s certainly a few challenges. Or sometimes we just upscale the work, so some of the pieces can end up weighing forty or fifty tons, and that generally secures the ankles.

Lucy: Yeah. I did, for my undergraduate, History of Art with Material Science. And they said at the beginning, when I was interviewed, “We’ve never had a student want to do Material Science with History of Art.” And I was like, “But it makes complete sense if you’re going into something like conservation.” Because, you know, materials and understanding them and the potentials can solve lots of problems if you go outside of just what is being used every day. Usually, commercial off-the-shelf products are the easy thing, but actually there are so many solutions to problems if you’ve just got the time to dig in and really understand different sorts of options.

Jason: Definitely. Bamboo, I realised, is a very good reinforcer for cement, which is quite interesting, and really low-tech. But yes, what we’ve been trying to do recently is to offset the carbon footprint of everything we do. And that’s proving to be really difficult and complex. You know, we can find the right materials which capture the carbon and we can sequester them inside the sculptures. But just sourcing those materials and getting them to the area of the project uses up more carbon. We use up more carbon than actually sequester. So, yeah, we’re really finding it quite hard to do that. The only way to really do it is that we’ve been trying to buy land to plant trees to offset it. But it still doesn’t feel 100% the solution.

Lucy: Yeah. But the thing is that the more we go along and the more awareness there is about this, the more solutions, and more companies will be trying to provide these solutions. I think it’s kind of in its infancy, at the moment still, even though it’s been topical for a very long time. People are just sort of trying to slot these things in. So I’ve got great hopes for art being a greener field eventually. But there’s certainly big gaps at the moment.

Do you have days where you just think, “I wish I’d done something else?”

Jason: Oh, that’s probably every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Yes, definitely, all the time. I can’t begin to explain the difficulties that we’ve had over the years. Yeah, we’ve had huge, huge challenges. Probably one of the biggest things that you wouldn’t really think would affect you is politics. And politics just weaves its way into all of my projects and causes all sorts of different issues.

Lucy: Is that people asking things of you?

Jason: I think when there’s anything public that’s happening, it becomes a perfect vehicle for politicians to subvert. We did a project in the Maldives where, you know, the government smashed it up and made it into a sort of PR exercise. I’ve had governments that have been sponsored by rival artists, that also try to sort of censor the work. We’ve had politicians that have actually stolen money from the grants that were issued. All sorts of different dramas have happened because we’re also working in very different locations, and that has tended to be the most stressful part.

Lucy: Gosh, it sounds incredibly stressful. It’s hard enough to run a business, I think, in the creative industries. But having governments, who’ve got an awful lot of power and weight, to be muscling in as well, I can’t even imagine how hard that would be.

Jason: Yes. Well, you know, I’m generalising it always. Not every project has been that way.

But it’s always the things that you just don’t expect to come up. There are the things that kind of wipe you off your feet.

Whereas, the things you really plan for and try to minimise, you know, they never crop up!

Reclamation, Jason deCaires Taylor  ©

Lucy: What about some advice for others thinking about becoming a professional sculptor? Would you encourage them or would you not?

Jason: Yes, of course, certainly. It’s incredibly fulfilling, and for me, I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else. For years,

I spent so much of my time worrying, “What career I should do?” and “Is this right, and is that wrong?” And as soon as I discovered sculpture, all those doubts completely disappeared and I just knew this is what I was going to be doing.

But I think for new sculptors starting out, I think it’s just a case of not thinking of it as instant success and that you’ll be thriving and making a living after six months. I think you’ve really got to be committed to a very, very long time. And I think I remember listening to some of the lectures with Grayson Perry, and it took him ten or fifteen years to really get established. And I think that’s how you almost need to approach it.

Lucy: So, do you think that the fact that your sculpture is making a difference, it’s bigger than just the arts? Do you think that those two things coming together also gives you even more purpose, because you’re dealing with a big picture?

Jason: Yes, certainly. I think that’s one of the overriding motivations for all the projects. I am extremely concerned about the damage that we’re inflicting on our natural world. And just in my small, short lifetime, we’ve had such a dramatic impact. And I’ve seen so many different ecosystems decimated that I really feel that, with my artwork, I can’t talk about anything else. It’s something that’s going to affect my children, everybody’s children for generations to come. So, if my work can, in some small way, help to talk about that issue or bring about any kind of social change, then I think that’s a good thing.

Lucy: So, can you tell people where they can find out a little bit more about you and your underwater sculpture if they’d like to?

Jason: Sure, certainly. All my work is online at http://www.underwatersculpture.com/. And you can also follow my work on Instagram, and that is Jason deCaires Taylor.

Lucy: And do you like social media? Is it something you enjoy doing or not so much?

Jason: I absolutely despise it! But I understand it’s a necessary evil and is a way of networking and a way of connecting to a lot of people. But I relish the day when I could just delete all the apps on my phone…

Lucy: …and just have a slightly more peaceful day at work?

Jason: Yes, yes. For sure, for sure.

Lucy: Thank you ever so much for talking to us today, Jason. I’ve really appreciated it.

Jason deCaires Taylor ©

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