I am in a mountain cave on Madeira, a small tourist island in the Atlantic Ocean outside of the portugese coast. The cave is a long mysteriously winding tunnel about a kilometer long. It is one of a series of similar tunnels inside the madeirian lava mountains. All through the tunnels lava have flown and the floor of the tunnel is a flat lava surface.
The walk inside these tunnels is a guided tour of half an hour. A sympathetic young portugese woman explains us – a group of 30-40 tourists – how the whole island was created by erupting underwater vulcanoes, and how every surface in here shows us various fragments of this dramatic creation. The lava tunnels are opened up to the public and a safe trail through the system of tunnels have been created. The caves are lit by dramatic lighting and we are guided safely through the system of caves by fences and cordons preventing us from loosing orientation.
It is a quite overwhelming experience to be here. The colors and the forms of the cave walls create a total universe in which we are immersed. The information provided by the guide is scientific, but on such a basic level that even my 12-year-old daughter feels she knows everything from beforehand. The main thing here is the physical, sensuous experience of being immersed into this strange subterreanean landscape. The dramatic lighting and the soundscape made by dripping water amplified by the unregular tunnel-spaces, creates an adventurous atmosphere; as being inside a Jules Verne novel.
We play a little with the idea of being lost in here, but the tour is safeguarded in every sense. We are not allowed to stray from the route and the guide takes care to ensure a completely safe trip through this wild and strange inner landscape. We are tourists and we are never allowed to linger on anything else; our experience is sanctified. Its safe, fast and kept strictly within certain limits. An easy mix of lightweight educational science and digestable mainstream scenography, that secures that we are not overwhelmed or threatened by the experience of the caves.
Nature is framed. Opened up for the touristic gaze. We stay at a certain distance, never really leaving our position as tourists.
The day before we went to Madeira, I saw the exhibition ’Riverbed’ by Olafur Eliasson at Louisiana Museum by Copenhagen. Olafur has transformed the entire southwing of the museum – a series of adjecent rooms on two levels – into a gently sloping landscape of lava-stones and pebbles. In the mids of this enourmous grey desert a tiny river flows.
A quite large amount of museum visitors walks up and down the slope, strolling around the stony river side. A few even sits down and takes in the landscape in a more contemplative manner. The atmosphere is a bit hushed; there is a quiet wonder in the air, but everyone seems aware that this is a museum and we are to behave in a quiet controlled manner. When some kids become a bit to agitated and starts treating the landscpae like a playground, the museum-guard is fast and on the spot, preventing them from getting out of control.
Like in the lava caves of Madeira the experience of ‘Riverbed’ is controlled and safeguarded. Inside the art-museum we are even under that strange self-control of the museum audience: We behave and we take care to experience everything with that certain seriousness we know art demands. Here, nature is not framed, but constructed. The experience though is close to the same – a completely safe and limited experience staged within a precise set of parameters designed by the artist and the museum in close collaboration.
The difference is the gaze. Even though it is in many ways is resembling, the gaze produced in ‘Riverbed’ is not a touristic gaze, but an artistic experience. The conceptual art gaze. On top of the physical, sensous experience of the landscape, a kind of meta experience is produced. We are to reflect upon what this landscape does to our understanding of art and of nature.
To me it seemed a disturbingly urban experience. The distracted crowd of museum visitors wandering around, well-behaved and quiet in a completely controlled manner. If this is what the art-museum is now offering us – a safe and clean experience of constructed nature – then it is disturbingly close to tourism.
Somehow I prefer the pure thing, I was offered inside the lava-cave. At least this doesn’t pretend to be anything else, but tourism – and more fun, too.
Sao Vicente Lava Center & Cave, Madeira, Portugal
photo by b.e.r.n.d.
OLAFUR ELIASSON: RIVERBED
LOUISIANA MUSEUM OF MODERN ART 20.8.2014 – 11.1.2015
photo by Christian Stromqvist