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It’s cave art, but not as we know it

Allora & Calzadilla install 1960s Dan Flavin light piece in the Puerto Rican jungle

by Cristina Ruiz  |  2 December 2015
It’s cave art, but not as we know it
Dan Flavin’s work has been sealed in a glass case to protect it from humidity and the cave’s resident bat community. © Allora & Calzadilla. Photo: Myritza Castillo, courtesy Dia Art Foundation
Deep in the heart of the Puerto Rican jungle, at the end of a path that winds its way through white silk cotton trees and thick vines, lies a monumental cave where thousands of bats congregate and boa constrictors and cats gather to feed on them. Now this monumental primeval space is also the improbable setting for a Modernist masterpiece: a red, yellow and pink flourescent light bulb sculpture made by Dan Flavin in 1965. This has been placed high up in the cave’s soaring chamber by artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla.

Sunlight streaming through openings in the cave’s ceiling powers the Flavin sculpture which is hermetically sealed in a glass case, invisible to the naked eye, to protect it from humidity and flying bats.

“Early humans found shelter in caves and these spaces became the archetype for what architecture could be, so there’s a fundamental link between the cave and the architectural spaces that Dan Flavin’s work is normally shown in. We also liked the idea of putting this 20th-century art object into an environment that was formed over millions of years and then connecting it with a cosmic entity which is the sun,” Jennifer Allora told The Art Newspaper during a recent visit to the cave.

The juxtaposition is spectacular. The light emitted by the Flavin sculpture illuminates the surrounding rock with a reddish glow and sunlight dances through the cave until passing clouds plunge the space into near darkness. Minimalist art has never looked this good.

The artists were first asked to make a new work by the Dia Art Foundation in New York seven years ago. They decided to bring a Flavin sculpture from the organisation’s collection, entitled Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake), to Puerto Rico, where they both live, and spent the next five years looking for a cave to house it in.

Once they found the right space, on land adminstered by the nature conservation group Para la Naturaleza, an environmental impact study was undertaken to ensure that the insertion of the light bulb piece would not harm the local ecosystem. At the same time, conservation investigations were carried out on the Flavin sculpture at the nearby Ponce Museum of Art so that it could be displayed in museum-like conditions.

When the work was ready to be installed, it took 20 men to transport it to the cave and position it on a rocky outcrop high above the ground. “Getting it up there was our Fitzcarraldo moment,” Calzadilla says.
 
The original intention was to keep the Flavin work on the island in perpetuity but a dispute with the Flavin Estate, which is reportedly unhappy with the unorthodox display (it declined to comment for this article) has curtailed the project to two years.

“We admire Flavin’s work,” Calzadilla says. “This is a magnificent setting, like a cathedral. We have done this with the utmost respect.”

• Allora & Calzadilla, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) is on display until 23 September 2017. Only six people a day can visit the installation and advance booking is required. Visit the Dia Art Foundation website for more information.

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