The Rising Tide, by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor. The four ghostly statues will only be visible twice a day at low tide. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Jason deCaires Taylor’s four horsemen of the apocalypse, close to Houses of Parliament, are political comment on impact of fossil fuels
At high tide, you might barely know they’re there. But as the water level of the Thames comes and goes twice a day with the tide, the four ghostly heads – and the horses they sit atop – slowly emerge fully into view.
The sculpture, entitled The Rising Tide, has been installed near the bankside of Vauxhall bridge and is the work of Jason deCaires Taylor, 41, a British artist best known for creating the world’s first underwater museum in Cancun, then again in the Bahamas.
For the past decade, Taylor’s work has been motivated by conservation and redressing climate change, with his underwater museums solely designed to draw divers away from the most fragile and delicate parts of coral reefs. His newest work in the Thames, he says, is no different in its political purpose.
“Working in conservation, I am very concerned with all the associated effects of climate change and the state of peril our seas are in at the moment,” said Taylor. “So here I wanted a piece that was going to be revealed with the tide and worked with the natural environment of the Thames, but also alluded to the industrial nature of the city and it’s obsessive and damaging focus just on work and construction.”
The installation, which sits less than a mile from the Houses of Parliament, comprises four life-size shire horses, standing as a symbol of the origins of industrialisation but also as a warning for the bleak future it is creating for the world by their representation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
While the bodies of the figures and horses are moulded from real life, each of the horses’ heads has been replaced by the “horse head” of an oilwell pump – a political comment on the impact of fossil fuels on our planet.
For Taylor, the position of the sculpture is particularly opportune. “I quite like the idea that the piece sits in the eye line of the place where many politicians and so many people who are involved in climate change all work and make these damaging deals and policies, yet who are in this state of mad denial,” he said.
The middle-aged suited figures that sit on top of two of the horses, looking defiantly into the distance, are also a direct reference to the politicians and businessman who Taylor believes are allowing climate change to continue under their watch.
Taylor added: “The suited figures are ambivalent to their situation – I wanted to create this striking image of a politician in front of the Houses of Parliament, ignoring the world as the water rises around him. And they are sitting on horses that are grazing, taking as much as they can from the ground.”
The work, which was commissioned as part of the Totally Thames festival, is the first of its kind to be installed in the river and Taylor admitted it had been a challenge to ensure the works could withstand the water and tidal changes. The horses, which were carried down the Thames in a large barge, were moulded from reinforced marine cement and have several tons of steel in their legs to keep them upright. The sculptures will be in place for at least a month.
According to Taylor, art had a vital part to play in the discussion around issues such as climate change, and was key in getting people to emotively engage with it beyond just facts and statistics. Having been a sculptor all his life, this was a central motivator in his decision 10 years ago to fuse his artistic practice with his climate change activism.
“I felt disillusioned that my works were just about creating art – I wanted to do something that maybe went beyond that and was actively beneficial,” said Taylor. “I started small, working a lot with artificial reefs, and found out about how a lot of conservation was about controlling people’s movements.
“It made me think about how art could divert people away from fragile areas, so the first underwater museum in Cancun was all about taking some of the 750,000 annual visitors away from these natural reefs and fragile environments and bringing them to an area where they minimise their impact.”
Taylor has spent the past year and a half building his next underwater museum in Lanzarote, which will take shape as a vast underwater botanical garden with about 300 sculptures. Once that is complete, he has an underwater project in Bali in the works, and has no plans to return his sculpture to dry land.
“It is this concealed world,” said Taylor. “If we walked past a forest that was disintegrating every day and with animals dead by the side of the road, we would be much more aware of our actions. But underwater, it is out of site and is a problem so easily ignored. So, a big part of my work is to bring people’s focus and their awareness to this destruction of our seas and of the natural world.”
- Underwater sculptures emerge from Thames in climate change protest Hannah Ellis-Petersen 2 September 2015