British lions aren’t supposed to look like this. They’re meant to be fierce, mighty and indomitable, lords of all they survey. But the three creatures here on Dover Beach look sick, emaciated and exhausted. They seem to be crawling to their deaths.
These sculptures were recently installed beneath the White Cliffs by Jason deCaires Taylor, who calls them The Pride of Brexit. “They convey,” says the British artist, “the sense of profound loss many of us remainers feel.” His installation is meant to be “a monument to one of the most unpatriotic events Britain has ever seen”.
Why lions? Because they are “a symbol in our heraldry, representing the might of the nation”. And why this shoreline? “The White Cliffs are quintessentially British. Vera Lynn, the second world war. But our Pride is washed up on the Brexit tide.” But there’s one other reason: it was in Dover, Britain’s gateway to Europe, that Taylor was born in 1974.
There are more of his sculpted lions, also in their death throes, in London. Across the Thames from Parliament, each sad, slouching beast has been tagged with Brexit slogans: “TAKE BACK CONTROL”, “BREXIT MEANS BREXIT” , “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE”, “GET IT DONE”. The slogans, says Taylor, were “devised to divide and conquer us. The sculptures are disfigured by graffiti, their ill health clearly contrasted with the majesty of Parliament – an institution trashed by the very forces that advocate ‘taking back control’.”
It’s not the first time that Taylor has shoved his sculptural beasts in the faces of Westminster politicians. His first major British commission came in 2015 from Totally Thames, the river’s annual festival, and involved him installing The Rising Tide, an allegory of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, in the river near Parliament, targeting the fossil fuel industry. The animals’ heads – cast from oil wells – were fully revealed only at low tide. “I try to be very site-specific,” he says. “I hope some of my work can help unmask power.”
Why make such political art? “All art is political in that it seeks to express, in visual form, the challenges we face. There is a Spanish poem, one verse of which, loosely translated, says, ‘I disdain art that doesn’t take sides, till it’s soaked in blood, I disdain art conceived as a luxury, neutral for the neutrals.’”
Taylor is perhaps best known as an underwater artist. His submarine sculptural work started in 2006 when he placed Vicissitudes, a ring of sculpted schoolchildren, on the edge of an ocean shelf in Molinière Bay, Grenada. It was instrumental in creating a protected marine park now listed as one of National Geographic’s 25 wonders of the world. In 2009, while working in Mexico, he created the world’s first underwater museum, in Cancún. It is home to almost 500 of Taylor’s submerged sculptures.
Europe followed in 2016, when Taylor created the Museo Atlantico. In Lanzarote, 15 metres beneath the sea, he installed The Raft of Lampedusa, a sculpted boat carrying 13 refugees – a modern take on Géricault’s 1818 shipwreck masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa – which sought to draw attention to how many African refugees have arrived in the Canary Islands by boat. It was joined by other seabed statues: a faceless couple taking a selfie, people glued to their phones, others wielding iPads or cameras.
Closer to home, in 2017, Greenpeace activists placed his 2.5-tonne sculpture Plasticide at the entrance to Coca-Cola’s London HQ. It featured an idyllic family beach scene interrupted by birds choking on plastic. Protesters urged the company to do more to help prevent plastic pollution (In 2017, Coca-Cola produced an estimated 100 billion plastic bottles). But it was soon removed. “These public works help draw the power struggle out into the open and reframe the debate,” says Taylor.
The Camberwell College of Arts graduate and keen scuba-diver has been concentrating on Australia of late, working on a new underwater museum on the Great Barrier Reef, combining what he calls “intertidal and fully submerged artworks that change in response to environmental conditions”. The first installation is about to be unveiled, a five-metre tall figure of an indigenous girl called The Ocean Siren. She will stand in the sea and change colour according to temperatures on the reef.
But it’s another installation I’m looking forward to: the Coral Greenhouse will be a 12m tall underwater sculpture designed as an art space, science laboratory and place for marine life to flourish. In the tantalising artist’s impression, we see two girls potting coral in what looks like an submarine greenhouse. His hope is that “the breathtaking natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef” will inspire visitors to live in a more green fashion.
It all feels a long way from Brexit. Has being in Australia changed how Taylor feels about his homeland? “There is much to be proud of. Our amazing creativity and inventiveness in art, literature, music, and science. Our beautiful language, diplomacy, our beautiful landscape. Our tolerance, our unique sense of humour and sarcasm, our incredible achievements in industry, science, sport, our incomparable universities, our unique NHS, the BBC … the list goes on.”
And Brexit? It gives this underwater artist a sinking feeling. “Our youth will no longer have the freedom to work anywhere in Europe, and our European heritage will be diminished. Our union will be threatened, with the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland deciding that they will be better served remaining in the EU rather than aligning themselves with the insularity of the Brexiteers.”
He takes a breath and adds: “The sole aim of Brexit is to enable the super-rich to move their money around the world, avoiding the regulation and taxation that the EU seeks to impose. They get richer, we get poorer.”