Last month, The Creators Project was on hand to capture the installation of Jason deCaires Taylor's 18-foot-high, 60-ton Atlas sculpture (officially titled Bahamian Ocean Atlas), the single largest underwater sculpture on Earth. The work, part of the Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden, which also includes Lucayan Faces by Andret John, and Virtuoso Man by Willicey Tynes, is a permanent, ocean floor-based installation commissioned by the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) to provide a new, artificial habitat for corals off the coast of New Providence, Bahamas.
In our documentary above, watch the modern re-creation of an Atlas designed to support the oceans, hear about Tynes's experiences initially contacting deCaires Taylor, and see the inauguration of the environmentally-minded site-specific sculpture garden set to give snorklers and scuba divers something to explore other than threatened coral reefs.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, "Planned manmade reefs may provide local economic benefits because they attract fish to a known location and are therefore popular attractions for commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, and snorkelers." Coral reefs provide shelter and sustenance for some 25% of all marine life, and for Jason deCaires Taylor, they're the perfect mediums for exploration. Formally trained as a sculptor in the United Kingdom, deCaires Taylor realized that his works could make a positive environmental impact by allowing nature to be his co-creator. Today, coral colonies are thriving around his 400-sculpture underwater museum off the coast of Cancun, Mexico, and from statues of bankers with their heads stuck in the ocean floor, to giant time bomb sculptures, his works exist as both artworks and artificial coral habitats.
But while underwater projects including The Silent Evolution and Vicissitudes challenged his abilities to sculpt en masse, the Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden would require deCaires Taylor to face up to another obstacle: unprecedented scale. To create Bahamian Ocean Atlas, deCaires Taylor and his team had to rely on digital modeling technologies to scale up the photographic image of the sculpture's model, a local Bahamian girl named Camilla. "Part of this work was because I wanted to experiment with, you know, scaling up and seeing how that worked out," deCaires Taylor told The Creators Project. "Obviously when you scale up the work you also have to scale up the process and the logistics to actually install it […] in an environment which is constantly moving, whether it's waves whether it's light changing conditions."
And it didn't just have to be large—it had to be environmentally sound, too. "Most public sculptors use metals in their works to reinforce them, whereas I can't do that. It degrades and pollutes the environment, so I have to engineer it completely differently," deCaires Taylor tells The Creators Project. "I find that a lot of the man-made things, you know, are interesting but the real sort of inherent beauty, the most sort of spectacular form and shape and texture is the actual corals themselves," he continues, "I'm trying to find ways to get them to grow in a certain orientation. The view is to actually concentrate on how much more wonderful they are than cement."
In only a few short months, the statues will bear algaes, corals, and a whole horde of other aquatic creatures. Explains John, "The sculptures themselves are supposed to encourage reef growth, reef regeneration, increase habitats for fish, marine life, crustaceans." He notes that "All kinds of marine life so just to have some type of influence on life creation, you know, which is completely opposite to what human beings have been doing for the past decades," and thinks it profound that "Art can affect the environment."
"[Coral propagation is] actually one of the processes I'm looking to develop more," explains deCaires Taylor. "I find that a lot of the man-made things are interesting but the real sort of inherent beauty," he continues. "Usually in the space of kind of three or four weeks I start to see a green film of algae cover the entire sculpture and that gets slowly sort of larger and larger the fish then start to eat it and scrape it off so you see all the teeth marks of parrotfish coming along and then over time you start to see pink blotches, coral and algae, and that's just sort of a very good sign that the sculpture is actually taking on the characteristics of a reef." deCaires Taylor hopes to return to Bahamian Ocean Atlas "in a year or two time and start to see some juvenile corals and some nice sponges," but hopes that he "won't see any oil from the oil plant just around the corner."
Even if the sculpture was too large to directly integrate a nearby coral propagation into, as deCaires Taylor admits, it's still all part of a concentrated effort that combines artistic creation with conservation. The result is a set of artworks that is expected to evolve for generations to come. "As artists, we speak loudest through our work, so definitely the future looks bright in that respect," says John. "With BREEF, our partners, they have an awesome campaign where they deal with kids, and we take kids out to the beach and just show them the environment so all of that is going to just meld into this beautiful, beautiful journey of discovery and reconnection with nature."
According to Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, the Bahamas has "committed to setting aside 20% of our marine environment within marine protected areas by the year 2020." She believes it is "essential that we have parts of the ocean that are not touched by people." With a report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) predicting that coral reefs "may disappear in the next 20 years," due to problems including overfishing, pollution, and tourism, the Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden aims to relieve local environmental pressures by providing divers with explorable, man-made beauty beneath the sea.
From the currents that spread their polyps from surface to surface, to the weeks it takes for them to begin growing, each coral is a one-of-a-kind work of art. They're sculptures in their own rights, molded by the hands of nature and time, and thanks to the work of deCaires Taylor, John, Tynes, BREEF, and everyone involved in making the Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden a reality, they've essentially got a new gallery to populate. The next time you see a work of public beauty, be it natural or man-made, think about the confluence of forces it took to get the work there in the first place. Artmaking, it seems, is simply nature's way.