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  • Harriet Maher

Back to the Cave: 60,000 Years of Art

L: Peter Randall-Page, Twixt Line and Form (2013); R: William Tucker, Void (2005)

Stepping into Clearwell Caves is like taking a step back through time. The darkness closes in, the temperature gradually drops until you can feel it pressing against your skin, and the sky disappears, replaced by rough, cavernous rocks that loom as big as houses in some places, as low as your knees in other. Formed millions of years ago underneath the ancient Forest of Dean in South-West England, this vast network of caverns and iron ore mines has been in use for nearly 5000 years. So it seems only natural that an exhibition showcasing the best of modern and contemporary sculpture, an art form itself that dates back 40,000 years, would be curated and installed in this awe-inspiring setting.

But despite the obvious correlations, the exhibition Back to the Cave, curated by Gallery Pangolin, is the first of its kind to be staged deep underground. The show brings together an impressive array of works from nearly fifty internationally renowned artists. The sculptural works, although modern and contemporary in their origin, seem completely at home in the dim, cold and damp arena of the caves, often seeming to jump out at you from hidden crevices and around unseen corners. Visiting the exhibition was a tightrope walk between surprised delight and a sense of knowing that this is where the works really belong. It seems, in these gloomy galleries, that art really hasn’t come as far as we might think, or, at least, that it maintains a connection to its prehistoric roots.

STIK, The Ochre Man (2022)

Street artist STIK makes an overt reference to cave drawings, having created an original in-situ piece for the exhibition directly on the wall of Clearwell Caves. Fittingly, the striking installation uses ochre mined from the caves themselves. Others are more subtle, blending into the mining machinery and materials around them as if they had always been there. Hamish Black’s rusted steel forms, finished in wax and scattered around the cave floor amongst the detritus of old coal wagons and buckets, are almost indistinguishable from their surroundings, despite having been made twenty years before the exhibition’s conception. And equally, the inspired placement of Tom Price’s Carbon Void Blue (2014) on a mine cart lends this breath-taking coal, resin and jesmonite artwork a sense of having just been unearthed, still glowing in the dimly lit cavern.

Jon Buck, Longdog (2005)

There are, of course, a number of anthropomorphic and animal forms present throughout the exhibition, from Jon Buck’s Longdog (2005) to the rather more obvious Lesser Mascarene Fruit Bat by Nick Bibby (2004). The cave itself is home to a variety of bats, which find sanctuary in the cool, constant temperatures and undisturbed surroundings of the cave. It‘s refreshing to see the curators depart from traditional sculpture in some places, including a work in augmented reality by Mat Collishaw that adds life and movement to the other static pieces, and imagines a future for digital sculpture which transcends the boundary between virtual and real.

Top Row L-R: Charlotte Mayer, Turning (2015); Damien Hirst, The Unknown Penitent (2016); Ralph Brown, Turning Woman (1962)

Middle Row L-R: Jon Buck, On the Lines of Lascaux (2009); Sarah Lucas, HARD NUD (2012); Sue Freeborough, Mitochondrial Eve (2011)

Bottom Row L-R: Tavares Strachan, Burning Spear (2021); Susie MacMurray, Mirage (2022); Daniel Chadwick, Whale (2003)

The scope and installation of the works is truly extraordinary, both logistically and conceptually. Each work seems made for its nook or cranny, so it was as if I was an explorer uncovering a trove of thousands of years of artistic output. The lighting design is a feat in itself, creating striking shadow effects and drawing the eye towards each individual piece just enough, without detracting from the overall ambiance of the cave. The exhibition is a considered and deceivingly complex reflection on the last 60,000 years of art, reuniting modern and contemporary sculpture with its roots and bringing light to some of the darker areas of the world, which otherwise go unseen.

Back to the Cave is showing at Clearwell Caves, Gloucestershire until 29th August 2022

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