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Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), a site-specific installation created by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, is a post-colonial inversion and commentary on the complicated state of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations. This iteration of what appears to be an ongoing project also develops one of their consistent themes: light as illumination, energy, and power. Dan Flavin’s iconic Minimalist, fluorescent-light sculpture Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake) made in 1965 was originally used by Allora and Calzadilla as part of a 2003 exhibition at the Americas Society. In their earlier version, a solar-energy battery bank charged by the sun in Puerto Rico and flown to New York City powered the Flavin sculpture. This time around, the light sculpture has made the reverse journey to the island for which it is named, and the Puerto Rican sun more directly generates the solar energy that powers it. Flavin’s title was apparently the result of a casual remark by a gallery assistant, who commented that the sculpture’s red, pink, and yellow colors reminded her of the Puerto Rican Day parade. Thus the Flavin Puerto Rican associations refer to mid-twentieth-century New Yorkers’ impressions of the new cultural presence in their city, as captured, for instance, by the period musical West Side Story. Intrigued by this embedded cultural history, Allora and Calzadilla have again recontextualized the Flavin sculpture, this time in a carefully selected cave on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. As much a political and environmental statement as a travel incentive, the work continues to evolve in meaning.
Organized by curators Yasmil Raymond and Manuel Cirauqui, the project is commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation. As with all far-flung Dia-sponsored projects, such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) and Walter De Maria’s The Lightening Field (1977), Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) poses the question of who is the intended audience? Only a few thousand art pilgrims will actually see the work. It will be known to most through description or art-world legend. The experience must be approached with intention. Requiring advance planning, only six visitors a day can reserve through the website of the nonprofit Puerto Rican Conservation Trust partner, Para la Naturaleza. A long journey is necessary for most viewers. A casual drop-by is impossible.
All these anticipation-building factors contribute to the experience, which begins upon arrival at a red gate barring an unmarked road. Greeted by several park rangers, visitors are offered water and energy bars while signing a release form granting immunity in case of physical injury. Those who proceed are pointed down a path disappearing into the tropical jungle. As the visitor traverses the verdant forest with its peaceful, flowing streams on a forty-five minute to an hour hike, the first cave entrance encountered is guarded by boa snakes waiting for their evening meal of bat. While continuing to enjoy the super-oxygenated air, though also wondering if the helmet provided is for protection against snakes dropping on one’s head, the visitor reaches a final steep flight of steps cut into the rocky incline. This Camino de Compostela is rewarded at the top as the Flavin sculpture is revealed in its vast, cathedral-like setting.
Approximately 200 feet wide by 250 feet high, the immense cavern provides a stunning backdrop for the 8-foot-high light sculpture, which is elevated and set deep within the cave. The solar battery pack powering the work is hidden behind rocks, and the viewer is at far enough of a distance to be unable to examine the custom casing, designed and monitored by conservators at the Museo de Arte de Ponce, that houses the fluorescent lights in a safe microclimate. Though the installation of the work (half-jokingly described by Calzadilla to The Art Newspaper as “our Fitzcarraldo moment” [Cristina Ruiz, “It’s Cave Art, But Not As We Know It,” The Art Newspaper (December 2, 2015): http://theartnewspaper.com/news/it-s-cave-art-but-not-as-we-know-it/]) was clearly arduous, that meticulous planning and effort is not evident. The entire focus is on the dramatic contrast between the cool, rational, Minimalist sculpture and the rugged, stalactite-filled setting.
The Flavin sculpture glows like a beacon. One of my first associations was with the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Perhaps this mysterious object is an extraterrestrial communication device? It certainly has an alien presence. The collision of North/South, industrial/organic, material/immaterial feels penetrating and deeply symbolic. The quasi-religious atmosphere is amplified when considered in a pre-Columbian context: the Tainos venerated caves as mythic places of origin. This cave of winds contains two oculi, which at mid-day cast beams of natural light on the sculpture of artificial light. Solar energy is both direct and contained. The layered imagery encompasses spiritual, environmental, and political interpretations.
This project is the first one sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation outside the continental United States since Joseph Beuys’s 7,000 Eichen (7,000 Oaks) in 1982. For Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), the artists spent years searching for the perfect cave. A benefit of the oculi in this cave is that fewer bats will live in a partially lit environment so the fluorescent lights did not disturb an existing colony. The species identifier “colony” may even serve as a metaphor here. Clearly it was important politically and artistically for this sculpture, named for an island that Flavin never visited and did not seem to have any real knowledge of, be “returned” to Puerto Rico. The artists are “empowering” and transforming the meaning of a light work that originally represented a clichéd, outmoded concept of the island into a reconceptualized piece situated within a naturally beautiful setting of genuine Puerto Rican light and protected by local institutions.
The artists have longstanding ties to the island. Calzadilla was born in Cuba, but grew up in Puerto Rico. The duo began their career in San Juan in the late 1990s, and maintains a home/studio there. Several of their former projects, such as Land Mark (Footprints) (2001–2) and Returning a Sound (2004), highlighted Puerto Rico’s opposition to the U.S. Navy’s occupation of Vieques, an outlying island. The political connotations of Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos) are less explicit. Despite the long planning for the project, the circumstances around its presentation are striking. Puerto Rico is in the midst of a cataclysmic perfect storm of economic, political, and health crises. With Puerto Rico effectively in bankruptcy, hundreds of thousands of residents have moved to the United States. The effects of the widespread Zika virus are just beginning to be felt. It is significant that the artists effectively bring attention to the island in its hour of greatest need.
Perhaps the siting of this new iteration of Puerto Rican Light is a way of putting Puerto Rico on the map for serious international art travelers, and creating, literally and figuratively, a bright spot locally through their successful collaboration with Para la Naturaleza and the Ponce Museum.
independent curator and writer