Underwater sculptures both protect and become coral reefs

It speaks to the power of art when a group of underwater sculptures becomes as popular as the original coral reefs it was meant to protect. A total of 500 permanent, life-sized figures created by artist Jason deCaires Taylor are situated near Cancun, forming the underwater museum MUSA, which this month opened an on-land visitor’s center to complement the attraction.

Silent evolution jason decaires taylor sculpture

The figures in the “Silent Evolution” installation of MUSA serve as an artificial reef, providing a new home for fish and other species. All images courtesy of Jason deCaires Taylor.

The Museo Subacu├ítico de Arte (MUSA) was established in 2009 to help protect the natural coral reefs in the area. The natural reefs were perhaps too attractive for their own good: The area draws more than 750,000 visitors each year, according to Taylor’s website, and the popularity of diving and other water activities, along with hurricane and pollution damage, raised concerns about the reef ecosystem.

Silent evolution jason decaires taylor sculpture

Sculptures in “Silent Evolution.”

While the creation of artificial reefs is not new, in the case of MUSA, the hope was to provide something with enough aesthetic appeal to divert traffic from the natural reefs. Artificial reefs can be created with any material that will support the growth of marine life — everything from deliberately sunken ships to old subway cars, tires, and concrete blocks have been used.

As soon as these items are put in place, they begin to become colonized by algae, coral, sponges, and other organisms, eventually attracting fish and larger species. For his sculptures, Taylor uses environmentally friendly, pH-neutral materials, working with marine biologists to support specific forms of marine life, according to his site’s overview.

Silent evolution jason decaires taylor sculpture

Over the past few years, sculptures have become colonized by marine life.

The museum is divided into two galleries containing a range of sculptures: Salon Manchones is 6- to 9-meters deep, while Salon Punta Nizuc is 4-meters deep. Many of the sculptures are based on casts of local residents; titled “Silent Evolution,” these works show the “imperceptible changes of nature on human artifice,” as they slowly become transformed by the growth of marine organisms, his website states.

The installations also include works such as “Time Bomb,” which looks as its name suggests, and “Inertia,” in which a man stares blankly at a TV, with a remote and fast food on hand. There’s also “Anthropocene,” a Volkswagen Beetle with a young child curled on top of it, and the “Banker,” in which businessmen quite literally have their heads stuck in the sand. (Examples of each are shown below.)

Time bomb fuse jason decaires taylor sculpture

Part of “Time Bomb.”

Anthropocene jason decaires taylor sculpture


Taylor’s work explores the balance between society and nature, noting how we’ve affected future generations and our environment — while simultaneously offering regeneration. “Anthropocene,” for example, is designed to attract crustaceans, while the TV in “Inertia” offers a new home for fish.

Inertia jason decaires taylor sculpture


Banker jason decaires taylor sculpture

The “Banker.”

There’s also a theme of loss and fragility in Taylor’s work, according to his website. “Over the last 20 years, our generation has encountered rapid change; technologically, culturally, and geographically. I feel like this has left us with an underlying sense of loss. My work tries to record some of those moments.”

Eleven new additions to the MUSA collection were submerged on September 17, bringing the total to 500, the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau reported in a press release. The new pieces are part of the “Silent Evolution” group, which in 2010 was the original phase of MUSA sculptures.

Silent evolution jason decaires taylor sculpture

A sculpture of a young girl attracts the attention of local fish.

The new visitor’s center, inaugurated on September 7, provides an alternative for those who would like to learn about the sculptures without visiting them personally. It features replicas of 26 of the most popular underwater sculptures, along with a step-by-step explanation of how Taylor created them. The center is located in Kukulcan Plaza in Cancun, and there are plans to open another on Isla Mujeres, according to the bureau.

Taylor currently serves as the artistic director of MUSA and has also created other installations in other locations. For more information on his projects, visit his website or Facebook page.


Nicole is an editor and writer living in San Francisco.

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