In 2000, Portuguese Nobel prize writer, José Saramago, published A Caverna (The Cave).

Cipriano Algor, a 64 years old potter, finds himself in a dilemma when the only buyer of his porcelain dishes, The Center, announces that his work is no longer favored by his clients. Consequently, The Center will stop buying his work. Furthermore, Cipriano Algor must empty the Center’s warehouse within two weeks.

Reflecting upon the advances of progress – plastic versus porcelain, industry versus handmade, city versus country – Cipriano gradually enters into a deep existential crisis. Marta, his daughter and only assistant supports him through the breakdown and it is through her that they attempt one last solution. Cipriano and Marta embark on the adventure of making porcelain figurines in hopes that The Center will buy them. Taking their models from old encyclopedias, they work day and night for weeks. From being craftsmen, Cipriano and Marta become true artists, but the adventure is short lived. The Center orders three hundred figurines only to have their clients refuse them.

Cipriano faces the inevitable: he must abandon his trade, leave his house in the country, and go live with his daughter and her husband in The Center. There too, the adventure is short lived. Cipriano and his son-in-law finally discover the reason for the emptying of the Center’s warehouse: tractors are working relentlessly to unearth a cave. The cave is to be the next Center’s amusement park.

In the cave, there are people who remain seated watching shadows on the wall. “They are like us!” exclaims Cipriano. Disgusted, Cipriano quits The Center and returns home to avow his love to the widow who courted him. Marta and her husband also quit The Center and the entire crew finally decides to quit their old home, their old lives, to pack everything in the truck and embark on a journey to the unknown. But before doing so, Cipriano has a last symbolic gesture: he pulls all the remaining figurines from the kiln and destroys them.

Built upon Plato’s allegory of The Cave, Saramago extends its original meaning. In his novel, not only our judgment and opinions enslave us, it might very well be our attachment to imagination, to all of our cultural productions – art included.

I found this novel specially fitting with regards to my own work and preoccupations. I think all serious artists come to the point of questioning the powers they invoke and convoke. I, for one, would like to think that true artists try to find their way out of imagination and return to reality, but, like Cipriano and his family, how are we to escape the entrapment of self reflexivity? Can we really escape the mirror in which we endlessly contemplate ourselves, through our involvement in, and our veneration of, “culture”? Is there a way out of this human narcissism? What will Cipriano and his group encounter outside the cave of their old lives? Just another cave? Can’t we help jumping from one cave into the next? What does the world “real” mean, when everything we gaze upon is tinted by that very gaze? Where is the true painting when the painter is always in the painting? Or is it that the real is the seeing itself? What then of our quest for knowledge, our thirst for truth?

Like in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, we seem to be chained to this quest. We “have to” know what lies inside things. But in doing so, we bury ourselves in the “about-ness” of our productions – language, function, etc- all things “about” other things. Ideas about ideas. Art works about art works. We dig and dig and dig, only to find that the inside is like the outside. The light we are looking for is the same everywhere, outside as inside (Jules Verne puts a sea and a sky in the center of the earth…). What then? Must we stop digging? Can we?

And what if the cave, instead of being our prison, would be our ultimate refuge, our only temple? What if, instead of hiding away from the play of shadows on the wall, we would sit down and try to see through them?
-Guy Laramee, August 2012