We gather in darkness outside Creswell Crags Museum & Visitor Centre. A huddle of people in outdoor clothing, told to equip ourselves with hard hats. We’ll shortly be handed torches, then make our way through the trees to a cave.
This is not, however, a caving expedition. This is art. Specifically, this is Entirely Hollow Aside From the Dark by AlanJames Burns, installed at Creswell Crags near Worksop in north Notts until Saturday 7 September.
First, we’re briefed on why this place is special. It might come as a surprise to a lot of Nottingham folk to know that in the caves of Creswell Crags is the oldest art in Britain – Ice Age rock art engravings of abstract shapes and animals. Hippos, hyenas and Woolly Mammoths all lived in this limestone gorge, as did nomadic Ice Age hunters – making the Crags the most northerly site with evidence of habitation during the Ice Age. Fast forward into the 16th and 17th centuries and local people were still making their mark in these caves, though now they were carving ‘Witch Marks’ – protective marks to keep away evil spirits. Robin Hood Cave, the focus of Entirely Hollow Aside From the Dark, has over a thousand of these marks scratched into its walls; the highest concentration of protective marks in one place in the whole country.
Having established that the place we’re in in special, with a hint of centuries-old pagan magic about it, it’s time to experience Entirely Hollow. AlanJames Burns has created this ‘psychoacoustic’ art work especially for Creswell Crags, having delivered an acclaimed earlier version in Ireland. The Crags is hosting the first UK performances. Burns is a visual artist, but Entirely Hollow is all about sound. It is a ‘completely immersive 30-minute multi-channel sound installation’ in the artist’s own words. Burns hasn’t worked alone: his team includes award winning writer Sue Rainsford and music psychology researcher Claire Howlin.
Part of me is convinced that, in a cave full of protective marks and Ice Age etchings, I really did hear Mother Earth’s inner voice
Immersive is right. Once we’ve made our way into the main chamber of the cave, we are told to turn off our torches. The darkness is absolute, the kind of blackness where you must check if your eyes are open or closed. And the cave is breathing. We can hear it all around us. As we settle, senses alert, the sound become a clear, feminine voice. Mother Earth is speaking to us, as we stand inside her. Or is she inside us? As her words continue, with a soundscape of other atmospheric sounds, Mother Earth’s thoughts become our thoughts, everything amplified by the darkness. I am not sure if everyone in the cave felt the same – darkness can cause some discomfort and there were one or two nervous giggles – but I felt a profound connection with the Earth, as she told us of the abuses she’s suffered, the damage humans have done, the ways her body has been abused. As the voices changed and shifted, I could feel her mental health destabilise, a descent into despair and darkness, as she cried out for a chance to sleep and recover from what has been done to her. When we heard her breathing, at the very end, I found my breathing had synchronised with hers.
This is a short but intense performance. The artist has stated that, “Entirely Hollow Aside From the Dark aims to encourage environmental awareness, and sustainability through engagement with people on that personal level. By voicing imagined words of Mother Earth, inside Mother Earth, we hope to inspire empathic relation.” I’d say this is achieved, and then some. The main message of this artwork is that we should be kinder to our ravaged planet, and I have rarely felt so emotionally connected to that message. It is also a fascinating exploration of mental health, and the way in which we think.
I left Creswell Crags for the short drive back down the M1 to Nottingham still pondering, still emotional. And, even though I know it was a sound installation created by an artist, part of me is convinced that, in a cave full of protective marks and Ice Age etchings, I really did hear Mother Earth’s inner voice.
Tickets for Entirely Hollow Aside From the Dark are £8 and can be bought through Eventbrite. Performances are on 4 & 5 September at 8.45pm and on 6 & 7 September at 8.45pm and 10pm.
For more information, including travel directions, visit the Creswell Crags website