“My dream is to get a grant and get a Winnebago and just drive all over America and get all the caves,” photographer Austin Irving says. She stands in front of a photograph she took of the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. There is a strange tension between natural weathered rock and poured cement and modern amenities. If you look at the piece long enough you start to realize that much of the cave has been shaved down or enhanced by cement to fit into how humans want caves to be. This rich and bizarre juxtaposition is something Austin is obsessed with and has been chronicling with CAVES, a series of curious photos that gaze into natural abysses only to find awkward human touches. The work is the subject of a brief week long show that is up through the February 10.
“I’m just really drawn to this contrast between nature and what we have done to make it accessible for a money giving public,” she says as she goes from photo to photo. There’s one of an underground phone, where the first below ground call was ever made. One entryway to a room looks like a dentist office. There is what appears to be an entire church beneath another. “That combination, that tension that exists between the natural beauty and these very utilitarian things like physically getting someone in a wheelchair down into a cave. They’ll just blow an elevator through! It’s so crazy to me.”
Austin has been chronicling caves for years. She captures them with a Toyo Field camera on 4×5 color negatives and works with what the cave gives her in terms of lighting and subject. This series has gotten her traveling all across America and South East Asia to see what she calls Show Caves, “natural caves that government or commercial organizations manage and have been modified to accommodate tourism.” “What excites me about this subject matter is the fact that these natural spaces have been curated to cater to the physical needs of sightseers as well as our collective idea of what a cave should look like,” she says in her statement. Each photo carries on this idea in some way whether it is an awkward wooden fence poking into a cave wall or the addition of a small, even discrete light fixture that blends into the cave wall.
The human hand is always present in the spaces she photographs and, ironically, her hand as an artist is completely removed. Instead, you see her eye: her photos are showing you what you need to see in this cave. It may look normal, you may not even see anything wrong but there is always something strange about it. Her photo of the Dau Go Cave of Wonders in Viet Nam best exemplifies this idea. This photo in particular appears to be any other cave. There are blues and golden orange colors that you assume are natural light reflections, perhaps bounced off of colored water. When you gaze at it for an extended period of time, you find the lighting is a combination of multiple sources and, yes, there are many little penguins (Yes, penguins.) scattered throughout the image. You have a “What the hell is going on here?” feeling looking at it.
“It’s such a trippy photo because the light is both natural light and fake light because it’s lit to become this otherworldly thing,” she says of the piece. It’s a slim lightbox and faces into the gallery space. “My favorite part of this image are the penguin trashcans because that is a choice somebody made: to include penguin trashcans. There’s also porpoise trashcans, too.”
“Lighting is such a huge part too,” she says as she points out which lighting is natural and which is fake. “I couldn’t take a photograph if they didn’t light it. Getting these long exposures in with this garish lighting is something that really excites me a lot. I’m so into color saturation. It’s a very bizarre and disturbing and amazing thing happening.”
In addition to these oddities of the human hand, all of her CAVES dwell in a universe that is without time and without geography. All of these caves could be of a time period past or present. Save for an underground temple, these subterranean spaces could all be in America or all be in Asia or Africa or Europe: everything looks the same underground. Even the human hand.
Austin points out one photographed cave that is different: it is an unnatural cave. She explains: “This is a man made cave, which is double excitement for me because it goes toward this notion of what our fantasies of what a cave should be.” This cave is potentially the most perfect because it is a human’s concept of what a cave should be.
This cave is interesting in relationship to Austin’s work because you would imagine that she is a rugged outdoor woman who is an expert caver. She laughs at that idea. “I’m not a spelunker. There is no way I’m getting lowered into a cavern. That’s definitely not what this project is about. People tell me that I should cave and they think of me with some helmet on–but I’m not that girl. I’ve seen The Descent. That’s what I think of when I think of actual caving.”
In a way, Austin’s explorations are celebrating human oddity: caves are a perfect representation of how people try to cope with the natural world. Modifying caves is an effort to tame the unknown, to pacify its wildness into something safe. It’s a funny symbol.
Caves are everywhere, too. Austin hopes to see them all, at least all the caves in America. She gets extremely excited just talking about them. The cadence of her speech picks up and mentions the idea of traveling to see them in a Winnebago again. “Every truck stop you go to, there are those tourist pamphlets–and there’s always a cave!” she says. “I’m going to go to them all because they’ve all been modified to be an attraction. I’ll find something I want there.”
Austin Irving’s CAVES is on view through the February 10 at Silver Lake Art Company. You can check out photos from the opening installation here with selects below. If you’d like to visit the show, please contact Austin before visiting.