Where do you think your fascination for caves and subterranean places comes from?
The truth is that I've always been interested in holes, from mouse holes to a hole in the floor that invites you look into look into it. We live in the darkness of the body and the pupil of the eye tells us about that darkness. We recognise this in holes and they invite us in. Ever since I was small, I felt the invitation to look into and go into holes, into the underground.
Your interest in underground places started when you were a boy?
Yes, I caught the caving bug when I was at school. I've been going down holes all my life, whether it's the cave that goes right underneath Tintagel Castle in Northern Cornwall, or leads to the Prosper Hanien, a deep black coal mine in the Rührgebeit (where I was asked to create a sculpture to mark the end of German black coal mining).
In your BBC documentary, “How Art Began” you went into caves around the world, exploring cave drawings as the root of art.
While making that film, going into the caves brought a palpable sense that you were venturing into the veins and arteries of a giant system. It was like trespassing into the very body of the Earth. A place where ancient forces are at work. It is contradictory: On the one hand, going down into a cave gives a sense of returning to the mother’s womb, to a place of protection. On the other hand, it is a risky void which can be flooded, where the ceiling can fall in, where your air supply can be cut off.
Did you experience this sense of fear from the start?
Yes, I had claustrophobia - and I still have a deep-seated fear of being trapped and of not being able to move. It's very powerful. My hands were even trembling when I read the passages in Underland by Rob Macfarlane where he described being in a confined limestone catacomb, somewhere beneath the Metro in central Paris. It was so impossibly narrow that he could only pass through by putting his head sideways, if he moved his head upright he would get stuck. The trains were vibrating the rock around him. I had to put the book down! But despite this sense of fear, I think we are drawn to these spaces. They offer the promise of being released into a new and larger space. Fundamentally the acceptance of your physical limits is linked to the promise of intellectual or spiritual freedom.
Which cave experience affected you the most?
The biggest cave I've ever been in is the Gouffre de Padirac in the Dordogne, France, where the main cave is over 100 meters high. I've never been anywhere like that before or since. It's like being in a kind of Tiepolo ceiling fresco painting. You look through these calcite clouds and you see tiny people 80 meters away, moving around an outcrop of rock, high above you while being deep underground. Going into those subterranean spaces gives us a sort of intimacy across time, it flattens time. The sedimentation of this limestone millions of years ago suddenly merges with the present.
As if it’s a time capsule?
Not quite, you feel the presence of the past; you feel the cave as the artists felt it, 25,000 years ago. That sense of immediacy collapses time as a linear experience. Maybe that's at the root of our fascination with caves generally: that geological time is becomes palpable and present within our mortal lifetime.
And physically, what hits you first when you enter a cave?
If you are carrying a light source, you've got the continual modification and mutation of shadows. Shadows of all forms flicker around you, human and geological - and they move constantly. But maybe the most powerful thing of all is the acoustics of those chambers and how they resonate. Everything is amplified: your footfall, your breathing, your heartbeat. Your sense of your own mortality in those circumstances is overwhelming.
And that adds to the sense of fear?
There is terror and beauty in equal measure in great underground caverns. I am a sucker for the unheimlich.
And at the same time these underground places spark creativity?
When you go underground it is like you are closing your eyes and going into the darkness of the body. We spend a lot of our lives running away from that inner void - which is our space of imagination and potential. I think that it's no accident that our ancestors used the cave as the studio for imagining and creating. In El Castillo and many of the Neanderthal cave sites, we find abstract creative works: repeated patterns of dots and lines, abstract and rhythmical, notations of interval. Our ancestors left the above-land world of light and elements and went into a cave to recreate the world on their own terms. In the film, there was the extraordinary image of the two reindeer, with the stag licking the body of the kneeling female in the Font de Gaume cave in the Dordogne evokes a very real empathic identification with other creatures.
Around the world you saw hand prints left on cave walls. Do you think these were made by people wanting to leave their imprint on the underground?
These prints are more than people just seeking to leave their mark on the cave. To me, there is an implied energy from the other side of the wall. I think it's actually about people trying to make connection with whatever is on the other side of the rock. It is interesting how these handprints are found around the world. In the case of the Maros Caves of Sulawesi the hand prints are 35-40,000 years old, twice the age of Lascaux, for example. Recently in Borneo they have found even older handprints.
And you have also repeatedly returned to bunkers and caves in your own work as a sculptor.
Bunkers are in essence man-made caves. I was really impressed by the Northern Atlantic wall, going to Jutland and seeing the massive bunkers made by the Germans in the second world war which lie washed out on the beach, half covered by sand. You can slip in and lie there, enclosed, listening to the echoes of seabirds and the crashing waves. It reminds me of a work called Cave that I'm about to show at the Frieze Masters in London, showing it for the first time since 1986. It’s a mould of my body made of plaster. I cut through the 25 millimetres of plaster at the point of the pupil, giving access to the dark interior where my body once was. Here I was thinking about the body as a bunker, recognising that we dwell within its protected space. I made a second work called “Cave” and that was shown in the Royal Academy in 2019.
When you rebuilt a cave with lots of black cuboid blocks inside a gallery, in central London.
Yes, I wanted to give people an ur-experience within the neoclassical architecture of the Royal Academy, to offer them a return to the cave, a place for dreaming and escaping. You have to bend down to get into the entrance, like you are going into a longhouse in Borneo or the Amazon. Then, in the next room, I imported fifty thousand liters of water from the Atlantic and five tons of clay, they settled into a still body of water. There was no electric light in that big gallery space and at night it was dark but you could sense and smell the sea. It could be a recreation of the uncanny encounter with a lake deep underground. I wanted to re-ground things, and focus on the elements, allowing an encounter with the palpable, far from all the ways that the cyber world virtualises life.
Interview by Jess Smee