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With most museums closed in France due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a new exhibit has opened in Cannes that guarantees any visitors will be wearing masks -- scuba masks.

British artist Jason deCaires Taylor has made a series of sculptures of nearby residents and placed them in the Mediterranean off the island of Sainte-Marguerite.

A bisected face under the water.
Jason deCaires Taylor

The six monuments are each about six feet tall, weigh more than 10 tons, and are made from pH-neutral cement to both withstand life among saltwater and attract flora and fauna. They rest at a depth of about 7 to 10 feet underwater in a sandy location filled with seagrass meadows.

Taylor’s mission with the display is to draw attention to the state of the world’s oceans, damaged by overfishing, tourism, and pollution.

“The underwater ecosystem has been continuously degraded and polluted over the years by human activity,” Taylor told Architectural Digest.

Prior to installing his sculptures, Taylor said the area had to be cleared of garbage, pipes, cables, and other rubbish that didn’t belong on the ocean floor.

“I think we have a misconception that the underwater world is beautiful, filled with coral reefs, but that’s often not the case,” he said.

Taylor took four years to complete the exhibit, which was funded by the Mairie de Cannes and commissioned by Cannes Mayor David Lisnard.

A sculpture and a diver.
Jason deCaires Taylor

The subjects of the sculptures are based on portraits of local community members covering a range of ages, including an 80-year-old fisherman named Maurice and a 9-year-old boy named Anouk.

Each face is sectioned into two parts, with the project connecting the history of the island, best known as the location where the Man with the Iron Mask was imprisoned.

The split mask is a metaphor for the ocean, according to a press release from Taylor, who is working on another underwater project set to open later this year in Cyprus.

“One side of the mask depicts strength and resilience, the other fragility and decay,” the release states. “From land, we see the surface, calm and serene, or powerful and majestic. This is the view of the mask of the sea. However, below the surface is a fragile, finely-balanced ecosystem, one which has been continuously degraded and polluted over the years by human activity.”

The location of the exhibit was previously a location for marine infrastructure, since shuttered. It is now cordoned off from boats, making it a safe place to dive. Located just off the shore, it is easily accessible for anyone who wants to see it.

"What a joy it is to see the culmination of this magnificent project,” Lisnard said in a statement. “Mixing beauty and learning, the Cannes underwater eco-museum symbolizes my attachment to two fundamental values: cultural necessity and the preservation of the environment. The work of Jason deCaires Taylor is strong, artistic and ecological, submerged in a precious environment, where the seabed has been restored and is now protected.”

Known primarily for its annual film festival, this installation gives Americans a new reason to consider a trip to Cannes.

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