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Coralarium – remembering the world’s first inter-tidal art gallery

PRF8JA Coralarium sculpture installation at sunset in Maldives
Luxy Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Isn’t it strange? With so many stars and galaxies that have far outlived our own solar system, how is there so little evidence of extra-terrestrial civilizations? This is the premise of the Fermi Paradox. Even today, with our planetary ears and eyes pointed at the darkness, nobody’s calling, nobody’s waving. We’ve even attached a plaque to a couple of probes that are on a trajectory into interstellar space. The expectation is that they are discovered; a galactic hello in the hopes that somebody is listening.

But how do we even communicate with aliens? The problem was left to Carl Sagan who developed the pioneer plaque which uses principles in physics to communicate. If you’re curious how it works, it’s probably best left to Vsauce to explain it.

GE4H42 The Pioneer F spacecraft, destined to be the first man made object to escape from the solar system into interstellar space, carries this pictorial plaque. It is designed to show scientifically educated inhabitants of some other star system, who might intercept it millions of years from now, when Pioneer was launched, from where, and by what kind of beings. (Hopefully, any aliens reading the plaque will not use this knowledge to immediately invade Earth.) The design is etched into a 6 inch by 9 inch gold-anodized aluminum plate, attached to the spacecraft's attenna support struts in a position
NC Collections / Alamy Stock Photo
FFD0J3 PIONEER PLAQUE, 1972. /nCosmic greeting card developed by astronomer Carl Sagan, attached to Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes, to provide information about man to other life forms in the cosmos, 1972.
Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

It begs the question: why is there this mathematical improbability in the first place. One possible answer is the ‘Great Filter’ which posits that civilizations always reach a point where they wipe themselves out through disease, war or any other apocalyptic method. With all the division and volatile rhetoric that’s been building recently, it’s not difficult to see how humanity could make itself extinct along with the many other species we’ve already killed off. But the most likely ‘Great Filter’ for us is probably global warming that is perhaps best conveyed by Kunio Katō’s short animated movie The House of Little Cubes.

When British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor opened his inter-tidal art gallery, titled Coralarium, it appeared to depict a similarly stark premonition of the future where humans have been submerged into the blue. Get a little closer though and it becomes clear that the sculptures are calm and content. All twenty of them are part-human, part-plant and part-coral (dead calcium coral were embedded as bones) highlighting our innate reliance on nature and her resources.

Statue of the Coralarium embedded with coral in Maldives
Luxy Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

But the poignant exhibition barely stood for two months before being removed for being a “threat to Islamic unity” despite being approved under the previous government. In response, James said: “The Coralarium was conceived to connect humans to the environment and a nurturing space for marine life to thrive. Nothing else!” The unexpected expulsion means that the gallery only exists in pixels but the Coralarium and its interpretation of our relationship with nature echoes on.

Jason asks many questions of the viewer. The first question: do you relate to the people on top of the Coralarium or those within it? There’s a marked difference between the statues: those on top are not covered in coral and root systems; but those inside the box are. I’m particular drawn to the man stood on top looking towards the horizon with his binoculars. Is this a statement on our current attitude towards climate change and on our future actions? That despite seeing other people being submerged below, is he simply ignoring them while he searches for pastures new? Is he looking to run away from the problem rather than face it?

But the Coralarium is more than just an exhibition or a message to the world. It’s also appreciative of its location and the Maldives; next to a northern atoll in the Maldives Indian Ocean. Not only does the embedded coral does act as a symbol of reliance on nature but it also serves to highlight how coral reefs are a part of Maldivian DNA. Jason takes this sensitivity one step farther and took much inspiration from endemic species of the island such as banyan trees, screw pines and strangler ivy to build his sculptures.

Sculpture of boy looking up. Commentary on the effects of our actions on future generations
Luxy Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Unsurprisingly, the most profound sculpture can be found submerged in the water: a child looking up to the surface. It’s a startling hint of the impact we could be having on future generations. Do we really want our children looking up at us in the future wondering what kind of world they’ve been born into? Waterworld may have seemed slightly fantastical at the time, but Coralarium is making it feel more like a prophecy. Many even believe that it’s too late, that the rising global temperatures have already passed the point of no return as it spirals out of control.

Art has always had a strong and necessary voice when it comes to all kind of social and environmental issues that we face. Edward Burtynsky is perhaps the most prominent photographer who specialises in photography that showcases how our seemingly innocuous actions can scar the land. He once said: “[we] come from nature…There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it…If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.” We’ve been warned.

Luxy Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
Luxy Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Fortunately, despite the removal of the human-form sculptures, much of the structure and underwater tress remain intact to encourage coral regeneration. It is a welcome relief when so much thought was put into ensuring the structure – the porous structure and pH-neutral cement are designed to be as accommodating to sea life as possible.

But it really is such a shame that the exhibition can’t be enjoyed in its full glory anymore. Messages are often much more resonant when we can interact with it and experience it in a way that sticks in the mind. Ironically though, the act of destroying the sculptures, the environmental commentary, the poignant pieces of art, is a symbolic message in and of itself. Much like our planet, it’s much easier to destroy it than it is to build it.

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