Lanzarote, Spain underwater museum by Jason deCaires Taylor opens

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 other 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, like 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. He uses concrete, fiberglass 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," Taylor said during a recent interview in his seaside studio. "The more texture the pieces have, the more they transform" underwater.

One striking piece looks like 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 Trump was accidental, he said, since the statues were cast from residents or visitors to the island.

Another installation is a 30-metre-long fence with a gate that seems pointless, since a diver can easily swim above it.

Though Taylor started his Lanzarote project before Trump promised to build a wall on the Mexican border, he said Trump "seems to be very much about protectionism and divisions, the kind of ideas that 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 three-dimensional natural world really doesn't work like this."

It took more than two years to make all the works and submerge them 45 feet into the sand below. The Museo Atl??ntico opened officially on Jan. 10, and already feather worms and sponge are starting to cover the statues. Details like clothing buttons are designed to disappear after a month.

Scuba divers pay an entrance fee of 12 euros, about $12.80, and are accompanied by guides certified by the museum, which is about 300 metres 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 traveled to countries like 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 inspired mostly by Cesar Manrique, an artist who turned the volcanic island into his canvas. Manrique designed houses, statues, restaurants and cultural centers often carved into the lava rock.

Manrique started to transform Lanzarote in the final decade of Gen. Francisco Franco's dictatorship, 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 like hotel resorts.

Many of his works were inspired by local people like Eloino Perdomo Placeres, who grew more than 2000 varieties of cactuses around his home and donated seeds to help Manrique build his own cactus garden nearby.

Perdomo, 86, grows cactus 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," Perdomo 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.

"Manrique brought ideas that perhaps seemed crazy and elitist, since there was then not even running water around here," said Marci Acuña, the mayor of Haría, a village where Manrique designed his final home and work studio. "But we now have to thank him."

The underwater museum is off the south coast of the island, close to most of Lanzarote's cruise ship and package tourism infrastructure, including an animal park that has generated opposition from environmentalists after it took in dolphins from German aquariums in November. Dolphins can also be viewed in open waters around Lanzarote.

Taylor, 42, studied arts in London, but his underwater work has also drawn on his other skills. He worked as a diving instructor and underwater photographer, as well as a stage rigger, which, he said, taught him how to anchor statues on a seabed.

As a teenager, he sprayed graffiti on subway cars, which would then be wiped clean the next day.

Urban graffiti is "a lot of labor that can then be gone forever," he said, just like statues once they lie at the bottom of the ocean. "You learn the idea of change, lack of control and not being precious about your work."

Taylor has completed similar projects on the other side of the Atlantic. In 2010, he opened an underwater museum off Cancun, Mexico, where, he said, the warmer water and larger natural reef are allowing more marine life to develop than in Lanzarote.

Ben Hutchinson, a British diving instructor who moved to Lanzarote nine years ago, said he had received several requests from people wanting to dive the underwater museum. But he offered a note of caution, saying it remained to be seen whether the museum could reach 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."

The New York Times