In deep

Not long now till the horticultural apocalypse

Words: Ben Dark

Pictures: Jason de Caires Taylor

On the ocean floor off the Isle of Mujeres under nine meters of seawater there stands a drowned congregation. Down there in the silent deep men, women and children are succumbing to seaweed and coral, losing their identity and becoming living reef.

Four hundred and fifty pairs of unseeing eyes still stare towards the surface as faces, limbs and torsos are slowly swallowed by species of Lobophora and Dictoyota- the brown algae.

This is La Evolución Silenciosa.

Zombie mermaids

Zombie mermaids

It’s fair to say that there is something of the apocalypse about the work of Jason de Caires Taylor.

Since 2006 this idiosyncratic British artist has been submerging life-sized concrete figures in the waters of the Caribbean and letting them slowly be colonised or crumbled by the ocean. Heads sprout offensively coloured protuberances, legs disappear into the seabed and fingers drop off. The statues lose their dry-world identities as they morph into beautiful sinister zombie mermaids - truly beasts from the sea.

Return to Nature

Taylor’s living sculptures have a stomach tightening quality that seems unique manmade spaces returned to nature, the feeling that is evoked by walking in ivy hung Victorian graveyards or looking at photographs of the overgrown Chernobyl, a portent of man’s transience.  Ozymandias meets Luca Brasi (he sleeps with the fishes).

The overall effect on the viewer is one of exotic and welcome terror.


Stream lines

Those who would prefer to confront their own mortality without the use of a snorkel should take the pilgrimage to Taylor’s home town of Canterbury. Here the artist has created a fresh-water piece on the bed of the Stour. Under clear and fast flowing water two female figures recline, their streamline shimmering curves reflecting the flow of the river itself.

The work is beautiful yet tragic, holding an acknowledged debt to John Everett Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Ophelia, a Danish princess drowned in a Surrey ditch.

The pieces contained in the Museum of Underwater Art, Taylors ongoing project off the coast of Mexico, bear a resemblance to Anthony Gormley’s Horizon series. Those life sized casts of Gormley that used to appear silhouetted against the skylines of London, New York, and Crosby beach. But they also owe a debt of gratitude to the genius of coral-synthesising, visionary architect Professor Wolf. H. Hilbertz who dreamt of solving the woes of man by building living cities in the deep.


Sublime entropy

If the pieces contained in the Museum of Underwater Art resemble any garden, it is the garden of the Villa Orsini, at Bomarzo near Rome, one of the most unsettling gardens ever built. Here, on rocky outcrops in darkly wooded valleys, huge monsters, giants, dragons and lions, all carved from the living stone, have been battling since the Renaissance.

To walk among those titans is to excite emotions deeper and more primal than those evoked by wild flower meadows and English cottage gardens. It is a pure victory for the sublime over the beautiful – something we rarely see in contemporary horticulture.

I believe there is a place in gardening for stomach tightening dread, and that with Jason de Caires Taylor as our champion we should stride into the terrifying unknown – in 2012 lets have less peace gardens, more gardens of the apocalypse.

Deadly dioramas

Of course horticultural Apocalypticism has been hovering on the verge of being trendy for around the last fifteen years. What do you think “gardening in a changing climate” really means? It’s RHS speak for ‘this planet’s buggered and you’d better all start liking pebbles’. Global warming and environmental catastrophe have already lead to a change in gardening practice, but growing Mediterranean plants and building a rockery is going to be a pretty insipid response if the ice caps really do melt.

Installing something inspired by Jason’s work is a better idea as it will be more imposing than a lavender border and will work best under three meters of sea water.

Humanoid plantings

So, my fellow forward thinkers, some tips. Adapting La evolución silenciosa for gardens lacking in coral forming organisms and aquatic algae is surprisingly easy. Buy a statue, drill holes in it, insert soil and you already have a humanoid tufa wall for growing alpines. Good, but still more novelty ornament than zombie mermaid.

To really get the right look you need a tangled dumper load of naff mass produced concrete figurines (go naked and classical if possible) piled in a corner of the garden, preferably in half shade. Arrange them to form a human stumpery, limbs faces and genitals should protrude in places. Spoon top-soil liberally into crannies and cavities and plant up – the look you should be aiming for is a Jake and Dinos Chapman diorama crossed with a hanging basket.