Go for a swim with the sculptures

Sculptures created by Jason deCaires Taylor in Museo Atlantico, an underwater museum off the coast of Lanzarote, Spain.
Sculptures created by Jason deCaires Taylor in Museo Atlantico, an underwater museum off the coast of Lanzarote, Spain.PHOTO: JASON DECAIRES TAYLOR

Lanzarote's Museo Atlantico addresses life-or-death issues such as Europe's migration crisis as well as less critical ones such as the obsession with selfies

LANZAROTE (Spain) • In the dim underwater light, a man lies on a funeral pyre, his arms outstretched. He is not a real person, but a statue created by Jason deCaires Taylor, a British sculptor whose works form Europe's first underwater museum, here on Lanzarote.

The figure is also meant to convey the renewal of life, as his pyre becomes a new habitat for fish and other sea creatures.

Taylor's statues - some 300 of them - depict life-or-death issues, including one of a boat filled with refugees that evokes Europe's migration crisis. He also addresses less critical social issues, such as the obsession with selfies.

The use of art as an artificial reef is meant to raise awareness of the destruction of ocean reefs around the world. Taylor uses concrete, fibreglass rods and other materials to make his installations both resistant to corrosion and pH neutral.

"Sculptures are normally seen as static and monumental, while these are always living in the moment," he said during a recent interview at his seaside studio. "The more texture the pieces have, the more they transform" underwater.

One striking piece looks like United States President Donald Trump playing on a seesaw. But the life-size concrete figure is actually sitting on an oil pump. Businessmen have been "treating the world like a playground", Taylor said.

The resemblance to Mr Trump is accidental, he said, since the statues were cast from residents or visitors to the island.

Another installation is a 30.5mlong fence with a gate that seems pointless, since a diver can easily swim above it.

Though Taylor started his Lanzarote project before Mr Trump promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, he said the US leader "seems to be very much about protectionism and divisions, the kind of ideas I wanted this wall to show as being absurd".

He added: "Our attitude is to build borders and claim ownership of the world and its natural resources, when the threedimensional natural world really doesn't work like this."

It took more than two years to make all the works and submerge them 14m into the sand below. The Museo Atlantico opened officially on Jan 10 and feather worms and sponge are already starting to cover the statues. Details such as clothing buttons are designed to disappear after a month.

Scuba divers pay an entrance fee of €12 (S$18.30) and are accompanied by guides certified by the museum, which is about 300m offshore. Snorkellers can also get access, but they have limited visibility because the statues are so far below the surface.

Since the political turmoil in the Arab world began in 2011, Lanzarote and the other Spanish islands of the Canary archipelago off the coast of Morocco have attracted visitors who previously travelled to countries such as Egypt and Tunisia during Europe's winter months. Overall, Spain welcomed a record 75.3 million tourists last year, 10 per cent more than in 2015.

The museum is part of a cultural project dating to the 1960s and is inspired mostly by Cesar Manrique, an artist who turned the volcanic island into his canvas. He designed houses, statues, restaurants and cultural centres, often carved into the lava rock.

He started to transform Lanzarote in the final decade of General Francisco Franco's dictatorship, which ended in 1975, when the regime used tourism to improve Spain's economy and end its international isolation. Yet, Manrique was a staunch environmentalist, opposed to mass tourism projects such as resorts.

Many of his works were inspired by local people such as Mr Eloino Perdomo Placeres, who grew more than 2,000 varieties of cacti around his home and donated seeds to help Manrique build his own cactus garden nearby.

Mr Placeres, 86, grows cacti as a hobby in a village that was once economically reliant on cochineal. Cochineal, an insect that grows on cactus, produces carmine, a red pigment used to dye food, beverages and cosmetics.

"Tourism has brought vitality to an island that, apart from cochineal, really used to have nothing except desert and poverty," Mr Placeres said.

Manrique died in a traffic accident in 1992 on one of the roads where he had successfully campaigned for the banning of advertising billboards that could spoil Lanzarote's landscape.

Mr Ben Hutchinson, a British diving instructor who moved to Lanzarote nine years ago, said he has received several requests from people wanting to dive the underwater museum. But he offered a note of caution, saying it remains to be seen whether the museum could achieve both its tourism and conservation goals.

"I'm here because of tourism, as is almost everyone else working in Lanzarote," he said, "but there is also no point pretending that attracting more people doesn't normally disturb sea life."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Go for a swim with the sculptures'. Print Edition | Subscribe