© 2017 The New York Times
The changing natural world inspired two of the works of art that were among those most discussed during the past year, with both of them fostering or bringing life to areas that appeared desolate. A third echoed the past, comparing the ongoing destruction in Syrian cities with that of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. Here, the creators talk about their work.
A vaguely sepulchral quality prevails at the Museo Atlántico, a group of sunken sculpture installations created by Jason deCaires Taylor, a British artist, diving instructor and underwater naturalist. They are populated by hundreds of human figures that rest off the coast of Morocco, in the Atlantic Ocean near the Canary island of Lanzarote.
The undersea gathering, submerged at depths of 10 to 12 meters, was made from high-density, PH-neutral concrete, without metals or other corrosive materials, and is intended to have no negative impact on the marine ecosystem or the local flora and fauna. Indeed, the figures could become an artificial reef and breeding ground for marine life as they are colonized by corals, fish and other local species.
The underwater display is accessible only to snorkelers, scuba divers and travelers in glass-bottom boats, so the figures are both literally and figuratively remote, and in their submerged state can suggest an almost Pompeian stillness, even as they teem with life. It opened to the public in January 2017.
Jason deCaires Taylor
It’s a very different environment, working in the sea. Traditional public art often tends to involve metal or foundry work, but I’ve had to spend a lot of time evolving the materials so they’re suitable for an underwater site and don’t cause any damage. They actually promote life and sustain life.
A lot of people say “You make all these incredible sculptures and then you just throw them in the sea, and they’re lost and forgotten about.” I wanted to be able to change that and sort of bring to the public’s attention the fact that, actually, a sea floor is a precious place, a really sacred place, and we should aim to protect it and to cherish it. By putting artwork there, I think we sort of helped change that value system.
It really shocked me just how quickly things developed. I think the marine biomass on the site has increased by 200 percent. We now have schools of thousands of sardines. We have rare angel sharks, butterfly rays. A whole chain of species has moved into an area that was barren two years ago.
Big orange sponges have completely engulfed some of the sculptures. Various different species of algae have grown, some which are really beautiful — red and green plants that move in the current.
But the human figure is embedded in our psyche and so is recognizable no matter how much it changes. I think we empathize more with things we can see a part of ourselves in. I wanted that to connect us. The deep, underwater world seems like a completely alien place, completely divorced from ourselves. I wanted to be able to use the works to feel connected to the space.
An antiwar installation in the heart of the eastern German city of Dresden set out to recreate one of the more haunting images from the Syrian civil war. Overseen by the artist Manaf Halbouni, three buses, about 40 feet long and weighing 12 tons each, were hoisted upright in front of the magnificent Frauenkirche church, itself rebuilt from rubble beginning in the 1990s, in Neumarkt square. The work was unveiled in February.
Mr. Halbouni’s work was based on a photograph, taken in 2015, of three ravaged buses propped up vertically in an Aleppo street, serving as a makeshift barricade to protect civilians as fighting raged between Syrian government troops and rebel forces. Mr. Halbouni, 33, whose mother is from Dresden, and who grew up in Damascus, said he could not get the image out of his mind.
The buses sparked an emotional debate in Dresden, itself all but destroyed near the end of World War II, when Allied air raids unleashed a firestorm that killed tens of thousands. The city has more recently become a conservative stronghold, as Germany grapples with the question of how to house the thousands of refugees that arrive there every day.
In Syria, I was always the German because of my German mom. When I moved to Germany, I became the Syrian. I don’t see myself as integrated. I am local. I don’t have to integrate.
On this bus project I worked on many different layers. Dresden was totally bombed out in ’45, and a lot of people have forgotten how the city looked after the war. The buses also remind people who are living in wartime now that they also will get a chance to rebuild their cities. No war goes forever. It took Dresden a long time to rebuild many parts of the city, 72 years, and they’re still not finished.
But the far right tried to categorize the work as this Arabian thing or this Islamist thing. While the installation was up, every Monday they always went to the buses and started shouting at the buses.
It was funny to watch. The buses never moved. They were much stronger than the people who were shouting.
I felt sometimes that it was like therapy for those people, because they’re not happy and they’re having problems and then they had this thing they could shout at. And then they could go back home.
“Sephirothic Flower: Diving Into the Unknown”
From a desert in Nevada, Makoto Azuma has watched a floral sculpture of his creation soar over 100,000 feet into the Earth’s stratosphere. In other experiments, the Japanese botanical artist has frozen flowers in ice blocks, lit them on fire and set them adrift in the middle of the sea.
His work is deeply connected to the ephemerality of flowers and the inchoate emotions we often associate with nature — the fleeting beauty, and sadness, implicit in life and death, in strength and delicacy.
For his latest project, “Sephirothic Flower: Diving Into the Unknown,” Mr. Azuma turned his gaze downward, to the ocean floor. In August, he and his team lowered four elaborate bouquets and a bonsai tree into Japan’s Suruga Bay, near the base of Mount Fuji. Documented in photos and video footage, the artwork is the latest installment of “In Bloom,” a series that introduces flowers into unnatural realms and conditions.
We rarely think about the deep sea, but this is where life originated. For this project, I wanted to juxtapose flowers, living creatures, with these dark, unknown depths. My home country of Japan, an island with advanced marine technology, was a natural choice for the location. We picked Suruga Bay because Japan’s deepest trench is found here.
For three years, my team and I meticulously planned how to lower the arrangements and cameras into an extremely high-pressure environment. We partnered with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and performed experiments in pools. For the arrangements, I chose a variety of strong, vibrant flowers that would move gracefully with the ocean currents. When we were finally ready to shoot them, we went to five areas of the bay that ranged from 300 to 1,000 meters deep.
Once we dropped the flowers, I was most amazed by how resilient they were. We encountered severe stormy weather on the first day, but the flowers did not break or get crushed. Instead, they flexibly changed shape and floated to the bottom of the ocean. Their colors looked even richer underwater.