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Ocean Conservation Through Eco-Art

by Laura Beans

Angel Azul highlights ocean conservation through interactive art, creating a visitor experience of eco-consciousness

Marcy Cravat didn’t exactly set out to make an environmental film when she began production on the art documentary, Angel Azul. Instead, Cravat was hoping to chronicle Jason deCaires Taylor’s marriage of conservation and art through his duel-purpose human castings, no easy task, as most of his installations are erected underwater.

Taylor’s innovative concept involves submerging his human sculptures in the ocean habit he so revers, and there, they act as a plateau for cultivating artificial coral reefs. His works are an integral part of the project Mexico’s National Marine Park has taken on: to encourage the coral's re-establishment by drawing some of the 800,000 annual visitors away from the natural reefs and into the underwater museum, Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) just off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Cancun.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs are damaged beyond repair, and of the remaining, 50 percent are on the brink of collapse. MUSA, which opened in 2010, provides an important diversion from the over-crowded, snorkeling and scuba diving tourist attractions that are the local reefs, allowing the slow-growing coral time to regenerate. The ghostly sculptures, all with eyes closed, serve as a shadowy reminder that human activities are to blame—in most part—for the demise of the world’s coral reefs.

Photo Credit: Jason De Caires Taylor 

Numerous threats, including the top three identified by NOAA; unsustainable fishing, climate change and pollution from industrial ventures on land (like large-scale agriculture runoff) result in the rapid, widespread death of these vivid underwater ecosystems. The fragile coral species suffer bleaching from ocean acidification (caused by global warming), sediment smothering from dredging, and they can be damaged directly by tourists, anchors and boats.

Cast from live models, often strangers or locals, and silicon moldings, the pieces are created with PH-neutral marine cement—Taylor’s own mixture—that mimics the qualities of natural stone, encouraging the growth of propagated coral species. With tongue-in-cheek titles for works, like the figure with his head in the sand, entitled “The Banker,” Taylor gently pushes his audience to reflect on humanity. “The Listener” depicts a figure covered with pairs of molded ears and contains a NOAA-designed hydrophone that records the sounds of the reef, acting as a time machine for future generations.

Photo Credit: Jason De Caires Taylor 

Over time, nature reclaims the sculptures, which is of course, the whole point; the transplanted coral cuttings and sea anemones spread over the lips and noses of the statues, undulating softly in the ocean current and creating a second version of the artwork, as well as an important marine habitat. But the real story begins when algal blooms overwhelm the grafted coral, killing it. And when questions are raised, the direction of the film changes, as Cravat and Taylor try to find answers.

Angel Azul follows, loosely, Taylor’s creation of Reclamation, a figure of a women with fan coral attached like angel wings, reaching upwards towards the water’s surface, as if pleading for direction or clarity. The artist views his underwater angel as an optimistic piece, one that represents hope that humans will realize, before it is too late, the importance of the world’s coral reefs.

The award-winning film has been screening nation-wide since summer 2014. Upcoming showings of Angel Azul:

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