American photographer, Austin Irving, has turned her artistic lens towards the cave, the oldest, humble abode known to man, while however shining a different sort of light into its thick, plummeting darkness. Through her large format photographic series, Show Caves, Irving examines how these prehistoric wonders have been silently altered, slightly rearranged and overall curated in order to promote yet another one of mankind's age old experiences - tourism.
The naturally occurring caves featured in her series are located around the world –in locations as far flung as Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, New Mexico, Virginia, Arizona, New York to Tennessee - and are cared for and "renovated" by government or commercial organizations.
A pink torch highlighting a stalagmite; a light blue illumination shining on a cluster of stalactites; a concrete pathway winding through an enormous cavern and leading to… a gift shop? These are just some of the modern elements that have been added to these primeval marvels in order to create a more pleasant "experience" for any modern day man, woman and child who want to experience the thrill of what it felt like for their primitive ancestors who might have called such caves "home." At the very least, a newly curated version with an underlying thread of commercialism.
"These caverns have been curated to cater to both the physical needs of sightseers as well as our collective expectations of the fantasy of a cave," the photographer says in her artist statement. And on the one hand, a certain amount of alterations are logically called for in order to enable nature tourists' to safely visit these locations in order to be educated about them. So while handrails leading up and down-slippery pathways are very much called for, unless the visitor is a scientist wearing protective gear, non-slip boots and a harness attaching him or her to safety, notwithstanding, Austin has managed to capture the certain peculiarity of the whole ordeal with her art.
"Are these additions acts of vandalism disrupting a delicate eco-system for the sake of commercial profit?" Austin asks. "Or do these human interventions draw attention to the preservation of caves and make hard-to-access natural wonders readily available for appreciation?" This tension is exactly what Show Caves examines and brings to light (no pun intended) causing one to reflect on whether or not these alterations do actually enhance these natural, awe inspiring beauties or if they belittle them as well as the experience of witnessing them.
Whatever the case, Show Caves is a series that is bewitching and enthralling in its subject matter and is a visual question mark that both bears witness and cross examines a view that is not of the everyday but one that is very much worth taking notice of.