• NRuskell

Cannes' underwater mask museum by Jason deCaires Taylor

A first for the Mediterranean, the newest installation of the famous British artist creates a new eco-museum off the coast of Sainte-Marguerite Island. Acting as guardians of a sanctuary, they will provide sea life a new home to flourish.

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor carefully places the 10 tonne sculpture in the sea. c. J.deCaires Taylor

It’s great ecological news and great artistic news,” started the Mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard at the unveiling of the masks in October 2020. This international project with world-renowned artist, Jason deCaires Taylor had been almost five years in the making, finally coming to fruition in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. The unveiling of the statues was a milestone after so many years of paperwork, but it wasn't the end... the artist still had to make his final touches and the biggest hurdle - the placement of the statues - was several months away.

On Thursday, 28 January 2021, the six mask sculptures were placed in a shallow part of the sea just off the southern coast of St Marguerite Island, where the legendary 'man in the iron mask' was imprisoned for 11 years. The new underwater museum is in an area sectioned off with buoys as a marine sanctuary, reserved only for swimming. Boats that once littered the shallow space in the summer are now forbidden to anchor.

The unveiling of the masks in October 2020. Artist Jason deCaires Taylor (centre) to left of mask model, Nour Bradai, 21, and Mayor David Lisnard (left).

This project, a marriage of art and ecological preservation was very important to the mayor of Cannes. He emphasised that two major goals with this project were first, to fight global warming and second, to fight for the biodiversity of the sea. “We’ve got to protect the sea,” he said during the unveiling. But David Lisnard is also emphatic about the necessity of art and culture for humanity. In his speech, he stated: “Culture is the first priority of Cannes because culture lifts us up, it transcends our social determinism, it causes us to dream and it unites us. We’re not all the same--we don’t have the same background, the same beliefs, the same salaries, the same age--but we all belong to the same community.

Masks, as a theme, was chosen jointly by the artist and the mayor as an appropriate symbol for the location. Inspired not only by the legend of Fort Royal but also because of Cannes’ history as the city of the 7th art and its famous film festival. It was ironic that years after deciding the theme, masks have become part of our daily life. “When we started this project, I didn’t expect to be standing here in front of a masked crowd,” joked the artist in his opening speech.

The Masks

The mask just after being placed in its new home. c. J. deCaires Taylor

The mask sculptures are each split in two, one side slightly different from the other. Jason’s reasoning for this, he explained, was the two sides of ourselves and the two sides of the sea: “I wanted to symbolise our relationship with the sea,” the artist explained. “I think when we look at the sea, it seems very vast and difficult to damage. But when you look beneath the surface, we see it’s a fragile world - a world that’s rapidly changing and in grave danger. I tried to encapsulate that sentiment with the sculptures, and ourselves, with the way media and social media is working, we tend to show an expression that may be different to how we’re feeling. The left side of the mask is our resilient side and the right is the fragile side of the sea that needs our protection."

Two metres high and weighing around ten tonnes each, the six statues are made of a pH neutral, environmentally friendly marine material that respects the environment, encourages biodiversity and preserves the sea floor. Immersed at a distance of 84 to 132 metres from the shore and at a depth of 3 to 5 metres, the sculptures are accessible to the greatest number of divers equipped simply with a mask and snorkel. "My aim is that these sculptures will encourage more people to dip their heads under the surface and fall in love with the sea with the idea of protecting it.

The statues will encourage the return of underwater sea life, which will gradually re-inhabit on and around the sculptures. It is the eventual life that grows on the statues that make deCaires’ work so striking, growing and taking new shape as the years go on. The artist refers to his statues – which can be found on sea floors around the world – as living, evolving art. “For me, it’s just the beginning of the process,” he explains. “As soon as I put them in the sea is when their lives begin.

Despite the city’s connection to film stars, the mayor decided to make the models for the masks local residents. Over 100 residents applied to volunteer their image for the masks and the lucky six represent a true snapshot of Cannes society. The models range in age and background, from a retired fisherman to a young student and even a little girl. RI asked Mayor David Lisnard, why he and the artist decided on local residents as opposed to film legends from the famous Cannes Film Festival, to which he responded simply: “Because it’s a good idea!”

Creating a sanctuary

The years this project took to realise were mostly due to environmental impact studies, and permissions. Mayor Lisnard joked that it was a two-year project but France’s bureaucracy made it five. Nevertheless, an area of almost barren sea floor from years of overcrowding of boats and the inevitable pollution of man’s presence, is now a clean, sandy bed ready to be the home of new sea flora as it makes the statues and the renewed sea floor a new home.

Placing the statues in the water in Jan. 2021. c. NR

The six faces were transported by barge and then immersed near the southern shore, slowly guided into place by the artist. Only a few metres below the surface, these statues are easily viewed with a short swim and a mask of your own.

It’s a very exciting project for me,” the artist told RI. “It's my first time working in France and my first time in the Mediterranean, and also the first time I’ve made sculptures so accessible. Only a metre from the surface means they’re not reserved for scuba divers but for everyone. It’s for all the public and that’s what my work hopes to achieve.”

Now, it’s up to nature! The sculptures will evolve over time, becoming covered with algae, shells and coral, integrating into the local marine ecosystem, providing a rough texture, nooks and crannies to allow marine fauna and flora to take attach and thrive.

The masks have already grown a layer of life! Photo by Doglonan shared on the Ville de Cannes FB page 24 July. ARR

Now is the best time to go for a swim and see this special new eco-museum! Ferries depart for île Ste Marguerite from Cannes and Golfe-Juan.

-Nicole Ruskell

A version of this article first appeared in the Apr/May/June 2021 issue of Riviera Insider. To purchase this issue, or subscribe, click here.

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