From Caves to Bunkers: On Gaetano Pesce’s Subterranean Dwellings
In AD 3072, an archeological team discovers the remnants, human and architectural, of a subterranean city buried in a cave deep underneath the Earth. According to the accompanying report, the archeologists situated the subterranean dwelling in the year 2000, when the Earth’s surface supposedly became unlivable and led humanity to hide underground. This is the bizarre premise of Italian architect and designer Gaetano Pesce’s full-scale plastic bunker, The Period of Great Contaminations (1971–1972). Far from the dreamy artificial environments of atomic shelters—the “family vaults” that proliferated in the same period,1—Pesce’s work devises a mysterious atmosphere. It is filled with fossilized human remains, suggesting the prehistoric past of caves; only this cave is in plastic. If the prehistoric cave is associated with the natural subterranean, the absolute figure of terrestrial voids and subsoils, then that of the Pescian underground is not natural at all; it rather embodies a future ruin, a total failure of the techno-industry.
By drawing a parallel between cave and bunker, this paper focuses on the paradoxical temporal duality of such a symbiosis. Both spaces conceal and protect the human as they signal a time of extreme danger outside. Yet, they denote a radically different sense of time. While the cave suggests the deep past, the bunker reaches out to the far future initiated by the atomic age. Together they create an absurd preposterous history, a fictional prehistory of future architecture.2 Our analysis focuses on this, military shelter—in order to raise questions regarding the status of the human subject inhabiting it. Where is the subject situated in that historically imprecise environment? The image of the endangered human subject, characteristic of the atomic age, persists in Pesce’s grotto-like environment, albeit in a dissimilar mode. Rather than a farewell to the human world above the surface, we argue that The Period of Great Contaminations ultimately suggests the subterranean realm as crucial for understanding contemporary underground political ecologies.3
Keywords: Gaetano Pesce, underground, cave, deep past/future
1 Beatriz Colomina, Domesticity at War, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 138–140.
2 Spyros Papapetros, “Pre/post/erous Histories (or, histories and theories of the prearchitectonic condition)”, E-flux architecture, November 19, 2018, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/historytheory/ 225184/pre-post-erous-histories/.
3Matthew Kearnes and Lauren Rickards, “Earthly graves for environmental futures: Techno-burial practices,” Futures 92, (2017): 53.
KYVELI MAVROKORDOPOULOU is an art historian and critic, currently finishing a PhD at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, on the subterranean imaginary in contemporary art, especially concerning nuclear spaces. She co-edited the special issue of Kunstlicht Nuclear Aesthetics (with Ruby de Vos). In 2018 she was a visiting researcher at the Climate Commons Working Group, Carleton University, Canada and in 2019 an affiliated researcher at the Environmental Humanities Center, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. She currently teaches at the École Supérieure d’Art du Nord-Pas de Calais/Dunkerque and is an ARTWORKS curatorial fellow of the SNF Artist Fellowship Program (2020/21).