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Jason de Caires Taylor’s piece “Vicissitudes” is not a work about the Middle Passage. Except, of course, that it is. Before examining the work itself, one needs to consider the context. Taylor’s official site tells us that “In 2006, Taylor founded and created the world’s first underwater sculpture park.” “Vicissitudes” went up in 2007, and was immediately understood to be a tribute to African slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. This, however, was not Taylor’s intent, and so, after this interpretation gained popularity on the internet, he clarified that “It was never my intention to have any connection to the Middle passage, below is the original text. Although it was not my intention from the outset I am very encouraged how it has resonated differently within various communities and feel it is working as an art piece by questioning our identity, history and stimulating debate.” That original text read[i]:
Vicissitudes depicts a circle of figures, all linked through holding hands. These are life-size casts taken from a group of children of diverse ethnic background. Circular in structure … the work both withstands strong currents and replicates one of the primary geometric shapes, evoking ideas of unity and continuum. … The sculpture proposes growth, chance, and natural transformation. It shows how time and environment impact on and shape the physical body. Children by nature are adaptive to their surroundings. Their use within the work highlights the importance of creating a sustainable and well-managed environment, a space for future generations.
Interestingly, both the original description of the work and Taylor’s statement that the work was not intended to be about the Middle Passage are no longer found on his official website[ii]. They were, nevertheless, widely recreated on the internet. And it is the debate itself, and questions of appropriation and interpretation, that are of interest here.
Having noted both Taylor’s proclaimed intentions and his willingness to let the sculpture determine its own meaning, one can proceed to read the piece with the history of the slave trade in mind. First, it comes as no surprise that Taylor’s work was interpreted as a tribute to lives lost during the Middle Passage. Consider the second picture above, which offers a closer look at the sculpture. The supports that connect the hands of the figures must be there to reinforce the sculpture at its weakest points, where hands grasp, against the currents of the water. These structural supports look, however, very much like manacles. Coupled with the fact that this underwater sculpture resides off the coast of Grenada, a country in which the vast majority of the population descends from African slaves, the image of seemingly manacled figures at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea produces unavoidable associations.
By creating a work of art which literally becomes part of a living thing, the coral reef, Taylor taps into another rich thematic vein for thinking about the slave trade. Scholarship on slavery often works to account for the way in which the institution simultaneously produced tragedy and generativity, the latter in terms of culture and collective memory. Finding ways to celebrate the genesis of cultures and affective communities created by collective trauma without obscuring their tragic origin is difficult. “Vicissitudes” manages to do precisely that, taking figures that in one sense represent death and turning them into the medium for new life. The tragic is never forgotten; in fact, as the coral takes hold in the concrete, unsettling effects are produced as the figures slowly become less recognizably human. At the same time, the very process that deforms their faces and limbs, that is, that enacts violence on the body, produces an afterlife in vibrant color. These mixed characteristics, both emotional and aesthetic, result from the way the sculpture physically combines generativity and decay.
Though many of the pieces this project is examining deal with water, Taylor’s decision to submerge his work is unique. This choice was made, as he notes above, with a particular sense of community in mind. And here again we find an entry point for thinking about the slave trade. The artist relied on the collective strength of the figures forming a circle to resist the currents of the water, achieving that strength through “unity.” He also deliberately chose children of diverse backgrounds, and of course these figures become part of a non-human ecosystem. In all these ways, he points to an expansive, a global or even ecological, form of community. But the choice to submerge these figures signifies in other ways as well, ways which bring it into the tradition of scholarship on slavery.
Scholars have argued that the Middle Passage and the slave trade are key moments for understanding the modern condition. In thinking slavery and modernity together in this way, the legacy of the institution has grown far more global. Taylor’s choice to use children from different ethnic groups does not undermine a reading of “Vicissitudes” as about the slave trade so much as it reminds us that the legacy of the tragedy is a shared one, and one that very much remains a relevant force in the modern world. Thought of in this way, seeing a diverse group of children holding hands on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea serves as a powerful reminder of how the tragedy of slavery continues to shape the modern world.
Please click here to go to the next section: Comparative Reflections
How to cite this page: Davide Carozza, “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/ (accessed on (date)).
[i] Please see the first comment, and subsequent responses, for evidence that the author originally posted this explanation, then removed it.
[ii] The comments I reference in the previous note link to pages on the author’s site which no longer exist. With that said, a search engine query for either of the quotes I attribute to Taylor will lead one to numerous sites indicating what I claim. As always, take the internet with a grain of salt, though in this case I am confident we can know what happened.