Mexico’s underwater art museum sinks sculptures beneath the sea

Atlantis meets Rodin’s garden in blue Caribbean waters of the Mayan Riviera
Is art better down where it’s wetter?
Jason deCairnes Taylor

When picturing Cancun, most think of spring break, raucous party bars and sprawling hotels—staples of Mexico’s tourist economy. But off the coast of nearby Isla Mujeres, British artist Jason deCaires Taylor has created a surreally beautiful sculpture garden beneath the sea, a world apart from the crass beach strip above. There, deCaires Taylor, also a well-known conservationist, has sunk 450 life-size sculptures of men, women and children as many as 12 metres beneath the pale blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. The eerie result combines the aesthetic of Atlantis, the fabled lost city, with Rodin’s garden, home to hundreds of the Parisian artist’s sculptures, including The Thinker. DeCaires Taylor’s subaquatic sculptures, draped in coraline algae, bathed in blue light, and visited by eels and angel fish, however, also serve an environmental purpose: in drawing visitors to the Underwater Art Museum, he is hoping to steer divers, who are crucial to the Mayan Riviera’s economy, clear of the region’s sensitive coral reefs, which have been badly damaged by the almost 300,000 annual visitors to the region.

At deCaires Taylor’s studio in Isla Mujeres, locals lined up to help with the project: fishers, fruit vendors, young and old. He covered them head to toe in plaster; later, he turned the moulds into solid, cement structures. He then sunk the sculptures underwater, gently placing them on the seabed with the help of giant, floating buoys. The sculptures serve as artificial reefs intended to breed new coral, which has receded dramatically over the past few decades. Too much traffic, too many divers swimming near—even touching—the reefs are partly to blame.

Creating artificial reefs, most frequently by sinking old, disused ships, is not new. This, however, is the first time a work of art will also serve as an incubator for new coral. DeCaires Taylor created his own blend of “marine cement” to ensure the structures are PH neutral, which allows coral to flourish. Some even have gaping holes to encourage marine life to colonize the figures. In their three years beneath the sea, deCaires Taylor’s sculptures have been transformed: in one, a woman’s face has been covered by brown seaweed, the rest of her face turned into a mask of pale pink coral, a poignant reminder of her lonely condition. Male heads, now covered by long-leafed algae, have been turned into medusas. This year, 150 sculptures will be added, including “a miniature town for inhabitants of the reef,” says deCaires Taylor.

Tourists can’t get enough. But not everyone is a fan. Juan Carlos Garrido, a Cancún diver and tour operator who takes clients to the museum, worries the sculptures are too close to the coral reef. Garrido is torn between these environmental concerns and his growing business: just one big storm, he worries, could destroy the sculptures, leaving yet more “junk” on the seabed.

The ocean suddenly seems like a new artistic frontier, and it’s not just deCaires Taylor. A few hundred miles south, off the coast of Key West, Fla., Austrian photographer Andreas Franke has mounted the first-ever underwater gallery. A passionate diver, he took a trip in 2010 to see the Vandenberg vessel: a massive retired U.S. Air Force ship sunk to serve as an artificial reef. Back in Austria, Franke merged his pictures of the ship with still photos, to create what he calls the illusion of “normal life underwater.” To bring them back to their original scene, he mounted the photos between sheets of Plexiglass, using silicone to seal them off from water, and hung them on the Vandenberg. His exhibit offers divers something completely different from fish and coral reefs: the kind of beauty never before seen beneath the sea.

Franke’s pieces, however, are impermanent. His shows run four months at a time, with the next opening in May. The reason: water eventually seeps into the frame. But Franke doesn’t mind: it gives the photos “an orange colouring, just like an old Polaroid,” he explains. “It’s beautiful.”