Footprints on the sands of time

Spanish authorities have revived plans to construct the late artist Eduardo Chillida’s vast, artificial cave inside a Canary Island mountain, despite concerns over potential damage to ancient engravings on the mountain’s summit.

Tindaya is a mountain near the Spanish town of La Oliva, on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. It is of special archaeological interest because of the number of rock carvings found there. Tindaya was a sacred place for the aboriginal people of Fuerteventura, who made more than 200 carvings, including “podomorphs” or sacred etchings resembling footprints. They were created by the Guanche people, also known as the “Majos”, who are thought to have migrated from North Africa. Intended to ward off evil spirits, the carvings may date to as early as the first century BCE.

Eduardo Chillida (1924-2002) was a Basque sculptor noted for his monumental abstract works. Chillida’s earliest sculptures concentrated on the human form, the later ones tending to be more massive and more abstract (although Chillida rejected the label “abstract”, preferring to call himself a “realist sculptor”).

The Tindaya project was born when Chillida came up with the idea of giving concrete form to a concept he had already explored in his alabaster sculpture “Moñtana vacía” (empty mountain): finding a real mountain which he could empty out to create a mystic space inside. Chillida planned to carve out a cube measuring about 50 metres in each direction, extracting 125,000 cubic metres of stone in the process. The space would be lit by two openings that allowed light to filter in with highly evocative effects and, at certain times of the year, provide unusual glimpses of the sun and the moon.

As Chillida wrote in a letter to the press in 1996, “The idea was to create a sculpture that would protect the sacred mountain. The large space created in the heart of the mountain is invisible from the outside, but those who dare to venture within will see the sun and the moon from a hollow with no horizon.”

The project was never carried out, but recently, to the dismay of cultural, environmental and archaeological campaigners, it has again been given the go ahead following a meeting between Chillida’s family and the President of the Canary Islands, Paulino Rivero, and his environment minister Domingo Berriel. Chillida’s widow, Pilar Belzunce, has signed over the intellectual rights to her late husband’s plans so that a foundation can be established to manage and instigate the excavations.

People opposing the project argue it is likely to damage the ancient rock carvings, located just 70 metres from the proposed site. Margarita Díaz-Andreu, an archaeologist from Durham University who specialises in prehistory, says: “It was by marking the mountain that the indigenous inhabitants endowed Tindaya with meaning. Cultural landscapes such as this have a universal value and should be protected, particularly in areas like the Canary Islands which have already experienced a high degree of destruction due to the tourist industry.”

It’s likely that, with due care and attention, there is room for both. What we shall never know is what the Guanche people would have made of men moving mountains.

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