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Hollow Earth review – delving into the curious history of caves in art | Exhibitions

IIn the 2002 book The Mind in the Cave, South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams explored a transient episode in early human history: the urge to create art, to carve bones and stones tender, or to spread a mixture of grease and ocher on the rock. walls. Why, Lewis-Williams asked, did early humans crawl along narrow shafts in the dark to paint in subterranean spaces few would see? His (controversial) theory was that these early artists were shamanic figures; that their paintings related to visions experienced in altered states of mind, achieved perhaps through intoxicants and rhythmic ritual; and that the cave wall was seen as a membrane between the spirit world and the realm of the living.

The Mind in the Cave is one of the guiding texts of Hollow Earth, which explores the cave in the art and the art in the cave. Nottingham’s location is significant: the city sits above a network of over 800 caves, carved out of soft sandstone and repeatedly used as homes for the poor, tanneries and beer cellars.

The exhibition is a stroke of luck: shards and archival documents from the underground city share the gallery space with architectural models, museum paintings, sound art and curiosities, including a pomegranate japanese ceramic. It’s not so much a contemporary art exhibition as an exhibition about the kinds of things that interest contemporary artists: geology, deep time, the peculiarities of nature, strange sounds, forgotten processes, primitive art.

“Cave” is not a term reserved for natural caverns. California’s fascinating research organization, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, documents the ways in which human construction frames, carves out, and interacts with the earth’s hollows and surfaces. Photographs from their archives show underground spaces used for car storage and parking. The pioneering French photographer known as Nadar takes us to the ancient catacombs beneath Paris. Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band bring us the sounds of the Dan Harpole Cistern, a 200 million gallon concrete container sunk underground near Seattle by the US military.

Hollow Earth progresses by a theoretical descent from the mouth of the cave to the depths. Allusions to Plato abound. Painting in the 1780s, Joseph Wright of Derby uses the mouth of a cave as a stone frame for a view of the Gulf of Salerno. His contemporaries were fascinated by the power manifested by natural phenomena: chasms and volcanoes that invited contemplation of the inner Earth. Caragh Thuring’s 2018 painting Inferno features a group of tall tourists in Georgian dress balancing on a crater lip, silhouetted against a plane of golden lava, a fantastical composition that reminds us of the lingering taste of danger, the thrill of threatens.

Room with a view… The Human Condition by René Magritte, 1935
Room with a view… The Human Condition by René Magritte, 1935. Photography: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2022

Santu Mofokeng’s Chasing Shadows photo series shows worshipers in cave complexes in central South Africa. Strange by candlelight, the caverns provide numinous space for rituals. As marginal spaces between the built world and nature, caves feel like sites beyond regulation, a world apart from organized religion, connecting worshipers to something ancient and ancestral.

A highlight is Lydia Ourahmane’s 2022 film Tassili, shot among otherworldly rock formations in Tassili n’Ajjer National Park on the Algerian-Libyan border. A site of human shelter for millennia, the rock walls of Tassili bear works of art dating back 12,000 years – including what appear to be demons and aliens – that trace the region’s gradual desertification. In his notes for the show, Ourahmane highlights the growing inaccessibility of the region. During her first visit, there were three water sources: when she went to Tassili with her team to make the film, there was only one left. The site is the star here, but a thrilling experimental soundtrack composed by musicians Nicolás Jaar, Felicita, Yawning Portal and Sega Bodega links contemporary rhythms to ancient ritual.

Goshka Macuga’s witty installation Cave from 1999/2022 reinvents the cavern into a museum of the modern era. In past iterations, she has shown works by contemporary artists and items from museum archives. Here, a tunnel lined with crumpled brown paper houses wobbly displayed sculptures and paintings. In the center is a miniature spaceship, seemingly about to launch through a retractable roof, Tracy Island-style.

Some of the most exciting works come from artists who engage with distant ancestors. Chioma Ebinama’s glorious scroll-like Tibetan paintings look ancient, but slyly insert (otherwise absent) female figures into an 11th-century tale of meditation and enlightenment.

To complete the mood, Emma McCormick Goodhart worked with a perfumer to replicate the aroma of one of the Lascaux caves (the base notes are apparently “wet clay and moon milks”). Enveloped in the cavey smell, cozy darkness and heart-pounding music, you’d be forgiven for wanting to daub the gallery walls.


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