Famous for its turquoise waters and spectacularly diverse animal and plant life, the Maldives also bears the unwelcome distinction of being the country most vulnerable to rising sea levels. The island chain in the Indian Ocean is the flattest nation on earth, with most of its land lying less than five feet above average sea level―and large areas in imminent danger of flooding.
“It’s obviously the main topic of conversation. They are already making contingency plans to relocate some communities,” says British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, who is currently installing a new piece in one of the archipelago’s 26 shallow atoll lagoons.
In a career that began more than a decade ago when he was working as a diving instructor, Taylor has become known for building underwater museums filled with his own sculptures. This latest one, The Coralarium, is as strikingly beautiful as it is eerie, an omen of the island nation’s precarious environmental state. Its cube-shaped structure is made of marine-grade stainless steel that reflects the deep blue of the surrounding water. Ocean currents flow through the openings that pierce the structure’s surface—openings that also allow marine plants and animals to find their way inside. The roof of the structure stands above the water and is visible from the shore, while the walls and floor are washed by the tides, inviting divers and snorkelers to explore an underwater realm.
As did Taylor’s submerged concrete VW Bug off the coast of Cancun and his Museo Atlántico in the waters surrounding the Canary Islands—which features sculptures depicting hundreds of selfie-taking tourists, people talking on their phones, and a raft full of marooned refugees—The Coralarium draws attention to the impact of human activity on the oceans. “I very much wanted to tell a story about rising sea levels and the threat it poses to low-lying islands, and obviously, a very clear way to do that is to work above and below the water,” the artist explains. “The three tiers of the work connect the three worlds—the aerial, the terrestrial and the subaquatic world—to highlight how these are interconnected and equally dependent on one another.”
Often placed in tourist zones, Taylor’s sculptures serve to draw visitor traffic away from coral reefs and marine ecosystems that have been damaged by snorkelers and divers while attracting attention to their plight. And since The Coralarium is situated near the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi resort, it targets the sort of visitor who might be able to make a difference. “The people at the hotel are fairly wealthy, to be honest,” says Taylor. And with an audience of influential consumers, he points out, “this is a good opportunity to bring important issues before people who have some power to change things.”
This is a strategy Taylor has used before. The Rising Tide, his 2015 installation of four statues in the River Thames in central London, presented businessman-like figures mounted on horses. Only when the low tide revealed the base of two of the figures did it become apparent that the horses’ heads were made up of pieces of oilfield machinery. All four of the provocative statues were clearly visible from Westminster’s Houses of Parliament, a gathering place for the lawmakers too often behind policies that drive climate change.
For his next project, Taylor is working with the government of Queensland, Australia, to build an underwater park adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef to bring attention to the catastrophic coral bleaching that’s currently threatening the ecosystem. While some of Taylor’s previous projects have been works of art as well as artificial habitat for marine plants and animals, the objective of his art here will be more overtly political. “Australia is in huge conflict. It has one of the greatest underwater wonders of the world, but it also has one of the biggest fossil fuel energy industries.”
As a debate rages over the proposed expansion of a coal-shipping port on the Queensland coast, Taylor plans to get in the water with sculptures that are “more activist” than his previous work, which he sees as a way of giving the silent seas a voice in the conversation. As he said in a TED talk delivered on a boat in the Solomon Islands in 2015, “I think there’s a real danger that we never really see the sea. And if we don’t really see it—if it doesn’t have its own iconography, if we miss its majesty—then it’s a big danger that we take it for granted.”
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