On display through July 19
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
When we’re young, the threat of mortality escapes our effervescent minds. The older we get, the more we notice how fleeting time becomes. We begin to search for ways to make a mark on the world.
Some seek fame and fortune while others pursue knowledge and enlightenment. Most explore more mundane ways of recording their lives. Post-Pleistocene, Jeff Whetstone’s photography exhibit at the Gibbes Museum of Art, provides a glimpse into our culture’s search for immortality.
Whetstone, the winner of the 2008 Factor Prize, awarded every year by the Gibbes to an outstanding Southern artist, is a cultural explorer. These large chromogenic prints of cave graffiti document a network of caverns in Tennessee and Alabama. Miners looking for saltpeter, the main ingredient of gunpowder, discovered the caves during the Civil War. Whetstone grew up near one of them, and he wasn’t the first to explore it as a teenager: There are 160 years’ worth of graffiti scrawled onto the cave walls.
The marks of generations of visitors overlap one another atop layers of rock formations, creating a rippling effect that’s dizzying. There are wide-open rooms and narrow black holes. It is an ocean of stone.
The caves have served as a refuge. One could hide there as if in a private sanctuary. Maybe this is why so many have chosen to leave their stamp in a place so far from where anyone but fellow lovers of solitude can see it.
In “Johnny,” a wall is filled with names and dates. The name “Johnny” rises above all the others and hangs in a surprisingly open space. “Wall Pendant with Tally Marks,” pictures scratched tally marks made by slaves. Charcoal names of earlier cave dwellers are overlapped by neon-colored spray paint, saying things like “Tattoo Jim Rocks,” and “Star from Myspace.” It is stunning to see where our culture has been and what it has become.
In another photograph, “Bangor Bacteria,” bacteria has started to creep over names on the cave wall, proving that nature always has the last word.
Whether good or bad, we’ve made our mark on the world. Our culture will continue to evolve. Whetstone has enabled us to see our evolution intertwined with that of the earth.
We made a home for ourselves on this wild planet, fooled ourselves into believing we tamed it, and for now, at least, we are here to stay.
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