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Ancient Israeli Cave Transformed Into Art Gallery

For his latest show, artist Ivo Bisignano created a series of massive wooden sculptures that mimic the cavern’s curvature

"Human Forms" is on view through November. (Shai Epstein)
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For the past 25 years, the Southern Cave in Israel’s Bet Guvrin National Park (also known as Beit Guvrin) has remained closed to visitors. But now, the ancient subterranean grotto has officially reopened in the form of an art gallery.

Located in a 1,250-acre Unesco World Heritage Site southwest of Jerusalem, the underground cavern—part of a labyrinthine network of 800 caves—is proving to be the perfect location for Italian artist Ivo Bisignano’s latest exhibition.

Titled “Human Forms,” the show features seven large-scale, abstract wooden sculptures of human-shaped forms and five digitized animations, reports Lilly Meuser for Lampoon magazine. Each animation, including depictions of black and white crows and various references to Pop Art, is projected onto the cave’s 2,000-year-old limestone walls, resulting in an exhibition that seamlessly intertwines the old with the new.

“I wanted to install ‘Human Forms’ … in order to establish a temporary home for the work within a historic and archaeological, historical and archaic context,” Bisignano tells the Jerusalem Post’s Sharon Feiereisen. “In this case, the ‘museum’ is the site itself.”

View of digital animation projected onto the Southern Cave's walls (Shai Epstein)

Speaking with the Observer’s Karen Chernick, the artist says it made sense to showcase his growing collection of monumental wood art and drawings inside one of the system’s bell-shaped caverns, as “caves were the first place art was created in.” (The oldest cave paintings in the world date back approximately 40,000 years and are found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.)

Bisignano admits that it took some convincing to get the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority to allow him to pursue the project. But as he tells the Observer, he managed to convince officials that the cave would actually serve as a “visual extension” of his art, which mimics the muted tones and curvature of the chamber’s natural rock formations.

Over the years, the caves have served as a breeding site for doves and stable horses, a burial ground, and even a marble quarry. The national park is located on the same site as Tel Maresha, a once-thriving city from the biblical Iron Age that historians say was destroyed sometime around 112 B.C.

The show features seven large-scale, abstract wooden sculptures. (Shai Epstein)

Initially, the parks authority identified an underground space known as the Bell Cave for the exhibition. But after a section of its 80-foot ceiling caved in, officials had to come up with an alternative plan. Eventually, they landed on the Southern Cave, a grotto that last welcomed visitors in the 1990s. Deemed structurally sound by a team of geologists and engineers, the Southern Cave turned out to be an even better venue for “Human Forms.”

“If the other cave was like a church, this was like a cathedral,” Bisignano says to the Observer. “It’s [120 feet] high and double the space.”

Then Covid-19 hit, nearly scrapping the exhibition. But the artist continued working on his wooden sculptures in quarantine, optimistic that the show would go on. He maintains that the sheer vastness of the Southern Cave makes it the ideal site for hosting his work, enabling him to breathe new life into a space that has long sat empty while ensuring visitors stay safely socially distanced.

“In this moment it’s not just only a cave,” Bisignano tells the Observer. “It’s a new space because there is life inside, so it becomes something else.”

Human Forms” is on view at Israel’s Bet Guvrin National Park through November 2020.

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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