The Beit Guvrin caves in southern Israel in the Negev Desert have sheltered human activity since ancient times. Byzantines, Jews, Romans, Moslems, and other peoples passing through left remains of ancient industries and homes there. The Nabateans connected to Petra are part of that story. There’s ancient art, too: the walls of Phoenician burial caves bear impressively preserved paintings. Recently, some of the caves came alive to art again, with an extraordinary 21st-century art installation created by sculptor Ivo Bisignano.
The caves, an intricate underground labyrinth, are part of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They had been closed to the public for 25 years, except sometimes to mountain climbers and rappellers.
But visiting multi-media artist Ivo Bisignano immediately grasped the visual and emotional impact his humanoid sculptures would have if placed in the cavernous spaces where light and shadow sweep in and out throughout the day. He persuaded the park authorities to host the large wooden sculptures in several of the southern caves.
Green Prophet has already reported on human sculptures in natural settings with the intricate sand sculptures on the Ashkelon beach.
Video projection and wooden sculptures in ancient Beit Guvrin caves.
The exhibit, “Human Forms,” comprises five videos projected on the cave walls and seven standing humanoid figures. You recognize human poses of sadness, contemplation, hubris, conventionality and desire for connection. Placed against the infinitely old cave walls, they at once contrasted and conciliated ephemeral humanity with eternal nature.
“I want these human forms to be completely comfortable in these caves,” Bisignano said. “Art was first created in caves.”
Bisignano created the exhibit in his Tel Aviv studio. He had been given permission to place the bulky wooden figures in a specific cave area, but plans were derailed when the cave’s ceiling collapsed, and then again when Covid-19 brought everything to a standstill.
In August 2020, Bisignano was at last able to move the exhibit into a cave even larger than the original one. In an interview with The Observer, he said, “If the other cave was like a church, this was like a cathedral. It’s 120 feet high and double the space.”
And indeed, the photographs show something of the echoey feeling of a cathedral as visitors stepped from space to space inside the caves. “Human Forms” was professionally illuminated by light designer Felice Ross.
Bisignano hopes that going through the exhibit, visitors will waken to a new appreciation nature itself.
“The cave has been transformed into a natural museum and this means that we need to feed our vision perhaps by going outside the box, outside the social networks and many other traps that block our points of view.”
For a while, the caves hosted a museum where air moves freely through the grounds and people could appreciate the art while staying socially distant. The exhibit in Beit Guvrin closed at the beginning of November, but Bisignano hopes to take his solo show around the world from one UNESCO World Heritage site to another.
“In each site, I wish to show through my work the possibilities of human forms in nature. I want that my work will erase the borders between humans and nature,” he concludes.
Photography: shai epstein