The limestone cave in Guayanilla–Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, which houses Allora & Calzadilla's Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015.

Artist duo Allora & Calzadilla’s latest project, Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), 2015, is the Dia Art Foundation’s first commission outside the continental United States since 1982. Here, the artists speak about the work, which incorporates one of Dan Flavin’s multicolored light sculptures and sets it in a prehistoric limestone cave located between the municipalities of Guayanilla and Peñuelas in Puerto Rico. The piece will be on view starting September 23, 2015.

THIS PROJECT BEGAN years ago when we first encountered Dan Flavin’s Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake) from 1965 in an art history book. We became interested in the conditions and possibilities of Flavin’s work; how the light fixtures need to be plugged into the wall of the space where they are on display, and how by doing so, they involve a larger network of power and electricity—an infrastructural grid that supports the place where the work is shown. For us, these conditions immediately opened up questions about the autonomy of the work versus its dependency on other material factors.

In order to get to Puerto Rican Light (Cueva Vientos), one has to drive along the southwest coast of the island and pass a large petrochemical complex that has been abandoned since the 1970s. It now stands as a modern ruin—polluting and haunting the landscape. Cueva Vientos, a few miles down the road, is part of a natural protected area conserving multiple species of endemic flora and fauna. The mouth of the cave where we installed Flavin’s work is nearly two hundred feet tall, and the domed vault where the work is installed is about 250 feet at its highest point. The eight-foot-tall vertical shafts of fluorescent light, however, are not diminished by the grandeur of the space; rather, they charge the immense volume with their magnificent glow. At the top of the dome are two openings. At noon, the sunlight comes through them and hits the ground close to the Flavin sculpture, slowly moving like a sundial around the floor and the walls in a play of light. Sunlight—the primary material of our work, which we collect through solar panels outside the cave and use to power the Flavin sculpture—dances around the glowing fluorescent lamps. Then, around 3:00 PM, the sun seeps in from the entrance of the cave. Shadows come in long over the floor. Variations of natural light, in contrast with the fluorescent lamps, alternately reveal different aspects of the cave’s stalactites, the walls, and its bats—making the space and its inhabitants comprehensible.

We’re using the original work by Flavin and showing it in a new context, as opposed to making a copy or replica of it. This is a historic object that we’re consciously presenting and protecting in a new context. We’re not appropriating it. Rather, in effect, we’re aligning the histories of the work and the site. During the period when the Flavin piece was made, Puerto Rico was being heavily industrialized as a result of a US government economic development initiative called Operation Bootstrap. Apart from bringing US corporations to Puerto Rico to enjoy lucrative tax benefits, the program also promoted the emigration of island residents stateside. By the mid-1960s, nearly a million people had left the island, and a great majority of them settled in New York City. The title of Flavin’s work, Puerto Rican Light (to Jeanie Blake), was actually inspired by a comment from Blake, who worked as an assistant at Flavin’s New York gallery at the time, after she’d attended a Puerto Rican Day parade—which was a fairly new expression of island cultural identity in the city. This colorful event seems to have left an impression and somehow Flavin’s three colored fluorescent lights triggered Blake’s chain of associations. For us, a larger set of relationships—related to the social, cultural, and political transformations that were happening in that period and are ongoing today—can enter that train of thought.

Our work ultimately is about trying to render physical the words Puerto Rican Light. For instance, the current Puerto Rican debt crisis mainly stems from the country’s largest electric company. There are energy transfers that occur within the photovoltaic cells of the solar panels and within the fluorescent lamps as well as within the ecosystem of the cave itself. Flavin’s piece is traditionally perceived as dependent on the institutional setting or white cube. Here, we are opening that gap between object and setting, examining their reciprocal influence, and exploring the overlapping of the prehistoric and the contemporary.

— As told to Frank Expósito