Behind the memorial: Teresa Margolles & Jason deCaires Taylor

Part II:

Memorial artists seeking to represent the lives and deaths of displaced individuals following their migratory journeys attempt to claim visibility and agency for the deceased by positioning them with value, rather than disposability. However, many of these memorial artworks are also bound up in and perpetuate economic cycles of exploitation and commodification. Questions regarding the techniques, locations and mediums employed by the artists help to examine whether or not the artworks commodify or spectacularise the deaths of the displaced. 

Typically in memorialisation culture, monuments are made to be ‘land-anchored’ in order to withstand the physical ravages of time and to ensure that the memory depicted in them will be ‘as everlasting as its form’ [4]. There is an ongoing debate regarding the ability of monuments to remember life with life versus remembering life with the remnants of death. James Young, for example, argues that monuments that depict death monumentalise the destruction of a people and remember them by the way in which they died rather than the way in which they lived [5]. 

Following World War II, conventional memorialisation techniques started to be seen as expiation for former crimes and Young questioned monuments in terms of their efficacy of remembering past events and people. As a response to this change in perception, artists began to respond by designing new forms of remembering, such as the Counter-Monument (monuments that defied typical codes and conventions of remembering) and living memorials, such as the planting of trees or inclusion of water amongst other memorial forms. 

British born environmentalist artist Jason deCaires Taylor has taken memorial-art one step further by locating his sculptural artworks on ocean sea-beds. The artist graduated from the London Institute of Arts with a BA in sculpture and ceramics in 1998 and has since been devoted himself to creating subaquatic sculptures that confront environmental issues. His works can be viewed in various worldwide locations including: the UK, Mexico, The Maldives, Australia and The Bahamas. Taylor combines his marine conservationist knowledge to create PH-neutral sculptures, the textures of which encourage marine biomass to accrue, which eventually allows his installations to metamorphose into coral reefs. All of his installations are infused with social commentary and simultaneously play integral roles in enhancing local ecosystems and marine environments.

Taylor’s installation, The Raft of Lampedusa (2016) forms part of the underwater museum,  Museo Atlántico in Lanzarote, and since its creation has increased marine life in diversity by over two-hundred percent. The museum spans approximately 27000 square feet and features over 300 life-size human figures, known as ‘characters’, all of which have been anchored down by foundation plates, fifteen metres beneath sea-level.

The Raft of Lampedusa depicts one of the many Rigid Inflatable Boats (ribs) carrying refugees that have attempted to reach Lampedusa and Lanzarote. On the concrete rib rest thirteen concrete individuals, one of whom is already dead and another who is dying. On the bow of the boat sits a cement cast of Abdel Kader, a twenty-nine-year old from the Western Sahara who travelled to Lanzarote aboard a sinking rib at aged twelve. The other sculptural figures include three young children, a couple, two males, a teenage girl and two figures who can only be made out by their intertwining limbs.

Over-time, the sculptures encourage marine biomass to attach and flourish, leading to an unseen metamorphic memorialising process in which the sculptural figures transform into man-made coral-reefs and disappear from sight. As the installation is now a living form, created from the sculpture, it should be considered within the realm of art-memorialisation as a living memorial to the displaced migrants that perish en-route to European shores. Understanding his work as a living memorial opens up a novel appreciation and understanding of the ways in which the process of metamorphosis, when combined with the natural element of the sea and oceanic nutrients, may be construed as a means of remembering life with life.  

Taylor employs life to remember life through the abstract form of casting his sculptures with pH-neutral marine grade cement in order to promote the attachment of coral larvae which will, over time, transform into man-made coral reefs. Before the creation of the underwater museum, the waters surrounding Playa Blanca in Lanzarote were void of life, with relatively few fish and no coral reefs. By creating an installation designed in part to breathe life back into the ocean, Taylor memorialises the lost lives of the displaced by allowing growth and new life underneath a passage or route where so many migrants have perished. As the artwork creates a new form of life, Taylor arguably creates the ultimate exchange between life and death by founding life once more as the sunken rib and its characters are brought alive through their union with biological marine life. Taylor’s sculpture further reflects irreparable loss, as the sculptures will eventually disappear from view, and also evokes existential loneliness, through the sense of overwhelming isolation which can be experienced when diving in the depths of the deep blue seas. The regeneration of life in the form of coral reef however, symbolises the growth of new life, remembrance and reconstruction. Both the representation of the loss of life, and the symbolic depiction of the start of new life serves to commemorate the victims at the centre of our memories and enables us to remember them in life, rather than in death.

The ephemeral installation draws upon the novel technique of metamorphosis to both remember and reaffirm life with life itself, and also to call attention to the natural processes of bodily decomposition by mimicking the physical process of human decomposition that the migrant corpse undergoes at sea.

Working within the realm of abstraction, Taylor avoids art’s inability to represent the real as he makes visible the process of corporeal decomposition, an element of migration that is often overlooked within artistic-memorialisation processes. Taylor’s work is grounded in the materiality of corporeal bodies, as evidenced by the inclusion of Abdel’s bodily cast, and as such, the artist presents visitors with the ‘real of death’. He achieves this not only by foregrounding notions of bodily decomposition, but also by encouraging viewers to consider their own vulnerabilities in the water as they must use diving equipment in order to view the installation. Combining elements of memorialisation and ecotourism, Taylor highlights both the deaths of the migrants and the future deaths of the visitors; the difference being, however, that the visitors are unlikely to decompose at the bottom of the ocean.

Such a combination of elements reveals Taylor’s powerful critique of Western society’s  disregard for human life, which is reinforced again when considering the idea that Taylor’s artwork engages in the patterns of exploitation and commodification that are faced by displaced individuals both in life and in death. The Raft of Lampedusa demonstrates the ways in which the displaced perish at sea, decompose, are forgotten and then consumed by marine life. But, more importantly, Taylor unwittingly highlights the fact that he is profiting from these deaths, as his unique artwork requires visitors to purchase diving lessons, hire diving equipment and pay to view the artwork in the underwater museum. The deaths of the displaced in the Raft of Lampedusa are consumed, not only by marine life, but also by a globalised economy. Despite his well-meaning intentions to shed light on migrant deaths at sea, Taylor’s installation simultaneously illustrates the multiple ways in which displaced individuals are victims of economic exploitation that continue even after their deaths.

A recent example of current media exploitation of migrants can be seen in the Sky News report on displaced individuals crossing the British channel from Calais to Dover [6]. The dehumanising report shows a Sky New’s team approaching and filming a boat of displaced persons attempting to navigate the busy Dover waters to reach the UK. In a similar way that SkyNews profits from the perilous journeys undertaken by displaced individuals, Taylor’s memorial artwork also commodifies and exploits the displaced. Rather questioning the reasons for which these individuals are fleeing, both the media and artists seem more concerned with representing the flight and the deaths of the displaced rather than questioning why legal channels of migration are being abandoned, and why maritime pushback policies employed in the Mediterranean are now being considered in the UK.

[1]  This is taken to be the first documented feminicide of Ciudad Juárez. See: Sandra Jordan, ‘Rich Killers’ stalk the city of Lost Girls’, The Guardian, (November, 2003) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/nov/02/mexico>.
[2] Marcela Lagarde y de los Ríos, ‘Preface: Feminist Keys for Understanding Feminicide: Theoretical, Political, and Legal Construction’ in Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Américas, ed. by Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano (Durham, DC: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. xi-xxviii, (pp. xv-xvi).
[3] Julia Banwell.  The Aesthetics of Death (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2015) p. 90.
[4] James Young, The Texture of Memory (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 47.
[5] James Young, ‘Remember Life with Life: The New World Trade Center’, Trauma at Home: After 9/11, ed. by Judith Greenberg (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska, 2003), p. 217.
[6] ‘Sky Witnesses Migrants Entering British Waters Cheering ‘UK’’, Sky News, (11 August, 2020)<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRv64F7PfXI> .


Jennifer Cooper is a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London. She carried out a Masters by Research in Hispanic Studies looking at the Mexican Feminicide. She currently researches the representation of death and displacement in Mexico and Lampedusa, looking specifically at forced displacement, migration and memorial studies.