When we last checked in on artist Jason de Caires Taylor, he was lowering an eight-ton Volkswagen Beetle made of cement into the waters off the coast of Mexico to create an artificial coral reef. Of course the Beetle isn't the only thing de Caires Taylor has lowered into the ocean; for the past several years, he's been building an entire sculpture park about 8 meters beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Before that, de Caires Taylor installed underwater sculptures off the coast of Grenada, and in the time that's passed since he first installed them, colorful coral, starfish and seaweed have all colonized de Caires Taylor's sculptures, creating unique and at times creepy growths on the human forms.
The cement sculptures serve a dual function: they provide a surface on which coral, sponges, tunicates and other marine organisms can make a home and they attract divers, drawing them away from some of the more sensitive and fragile underwater habitats. But why do corals need cement statues — why can’t they just find a place to set up shop on the ocean floor? The problem is, most of the ocean floor is soft and sandy; according to NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich, only about 10 to 15 percent of the bottom is naturally solid enough to host a coral reef.
While de Caires Taylor’s medium is cement sculpture, the coral serves as his paint, adding vibrant colors and interesting textures to the otherwise plain sculptures. As Krulwich notes in his NPR report, water is a magnifier, and it also refracts light, so the coral-covered sculptures will look different when approached from different directions.
At the sculpture park in Granada, the long-term impact and beauty of de Caires Taylor’s work is apparent. There, divers can see small clusters of human forms located about 5 meters below the surface that are completely covered in brightly-colored corals, sponges and sea urchins. Some of the sculptures look like psychedelic abstractions, while others have become so overgrown that they scarcely look like people anymore.