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We’ve all heard the saying, but for British-born sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, going big really meant going huge by shaping 60 tons worth of specially formulated concrete depicting a young girl holding the weight of the ocean on her shoulders into a living, breathing habitat for undersea wildlife and corals just off the coast of the Bahamas.
Something with that much literal weight to it deserves an equally enormous sounding name, and so Ocean Atlas was born. An homage to the ancient Greek statue of Titan Atlas being burdened with the heft of the world on shoulders so mighty Ah-nold Schwarzenegger could only dream of possessing them, Ocean Atlas, as with the majority of Taylor’s underwater work, is designed to help established reef beds re-populate or create new coral growth in areas that mankind’s meddlesome industrial ways have either severely damaged or flat-out destroyed them.It carries with it a message Taylor hopes the youth of today realize the importance of.
It’s kind of empowering the younger generation to take responsibility for their oceans, to feel like they are the ones sustaining it, holding it up, stopping it from collapsing.”
For an artist like the 42-year old Taylor, whose underwater creations can be found around the globe including installations in waters off the coast of Grenada (The Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park) and Cancun (The Museum of Underwater Art), tackling a project as massive as Ocean Atlas meant incorporating a wide range of underlying themes.
“Art is certainly at the forefront but there’s elements of architecture in there. There’s elements of conservation, there’s elements of science, of tourism. There’s many different things that come into it,” he explains.
The focal piece of the Sir Nicholas Nuttall Coral Reef Sculpture Garden and commissioned by the Bahamas Reef Environmental Education Foundation (B.R.E.E.F, absolutely no affiliation with the Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Ocean Atlas was installed under the guidance of Taylor in early October 2014 after nearly a year of planning, creating, and construction.
Measuring in at 18 feet tall (5.5 metres) from bended knee to outstretched hand, Ocean Atlas (the largest underwater sculpture in the world) was modelled on a 10-year old Bahamian girl named Camilla. “I was keen on having a strong cultural tie to the island and the girl is a local schoolchild there,” says Taylor. “I try and let the local culture and landscape inform the works as much as possible.”
From there several scaled-up molds were made, all of which were built by Taylor in England and then shipped to the Bahamas where they were assembled by five assistants (comprised of area residents and people who work with Taylor on other projects) and filled with a pH neutral concrete that is optimized to encourage and sustain coral growth (a recipe Taylor has been tweaking and perfecting in the 10 years he has been creating underwater exhibits).
Sounds simple enough. Hold your horses, everyone.
Huge scaffolding had to be erected first, along with a frame sturdy enough that it wouldn’t split as tons of concrete was being poured into each mold. When filled, each piece of this giant, stackable puzzle weighed in at 8 tons. Safety was a priority for Taylor and the team, since this puzzle could potentially maim or kill a person if a piece happened to fall or slip out of place.
Things weren’t any easier at the selected installation spot, roughly 100 feet from shore. There were days when this construction contingent, including certified diver Taylor, couldn’t even swim to the site because of oil slicks emanating from a deep water well being operated by a refinery further down the coastline.
“It’s a difficult situation,” begins Taylor. “The oil refinery powers the entire island and provides all its electricity and light so it’s not a case of just shutting it down and saying, ‘go somewhere else’. Solutions still have to be found.”
As a result the local government, which also happens to own the refinery in question, pledged $10 million to fix the leak and additionally clean up some of the coastline the sludge was affecting.
Ocean Atlas was gently placed underwater one cumbersome piece at a time by crane and sits atop a giant 10-ton foundation plate made of the same concrete as the statue. Additionally, two 5-ton weights were placed on the foundation for stabilization, and anchors that can hold 30 tons each had to be drilled into the sand beneath.
The intention is that everything that is submerged underwater will eventually have coral growing on, or around it. It is art that will continue to evolve, adapt, and change. Flags and solar-powered lights above the surface of the water alert area fishermen to stay clear during their trek home at night, and also allows snorkelers, scuba divers, swimmers, and tourist boats to know where to go to view the spectacle that is Ocean Atlas.
“I’m always interested in new environments, new seas, new oceans, new conditions, new marine life. I’m always trying to do something different and not repeating myself.” Taylor summarizes, just before revealing that a future project will hopefully entail a sculpture being placed 8000 feet (2348 metres) underwater on an area of the ocean floor that is in peril due to deep sea mining but would only be accessible by submersibles. Some hotshot film director/deep water enthusiast and Schwarzenegger sidekick named James Cameron has even been in touch. Ocean Ah-nold Atlas does have a nice ring to it…
Jason deCaires Taylor’s incredible work
Sometimes words can’t do an artist’s work justice, so below you’ll find a collection of photos taken by Taylor of some of the projects he’s created across the globe.