Cardboard caves and tin men

At the Carnegie Museum of Art, the corner wing on the second floor is sterile, a dead end. White walls rise to an impossibly high white ceiling, which hums with the fluorescent lights so often used in Wal-Mart’s warehouse-like stores. Walking into the space, I half expected to see shopping carts standing at the ready.

Instead, there is a gaping hole in the rearmost wall, a hole just large enough for a Steelers linebacker. Adhered to the edges of the gap is a starburst of brown packaging tape, a stark contrast to the whiteness in the rest of the gallery. This hole, according to a plaque near the opening, is “Cavemanman,” a work by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn.

“Parents and teachers may wish to preview content of this artwork before entering with children,” the sign warns.

I walk in.

“Cavemanman” is a sprawling construction of cardboard and packaging tape, a dull brown series of five caves linked by rambling passageways. The dropped ceiling curves and rises as if it were shaped, like the Grand Canyon, by moving water. Bumps protrude from the chamber walls as tumors might, emerging at angles and disrupting the flatness of the space. Underfoot, the cardboard floor undulates and creaks like salt-soaked wood on a sailing ship.

In the largest room, large printouts of clocks are pasted on the wall, each reading 10:10:30. Black graffiti over the clocks identifies each city in the impossible time zone: Oran, Montevideo, Lubumbashi, Kandahar, Brisbane, Phnom Penh, Toronto, and others. The timepieces do not tick.

Instead, silence is only punctured by the rustling of tin foil statues standing guard in the rooms. When I move, the shaking characters provide an accompaniment to the moaning floors and buzzing lights. Of the 20 or so aluminum figures in the first room, some are just torsos; others are the size and shape of small children. The rooms, which form a sort of underground cave system, are large but crowded: Two other caves house several more of the foil bodies, each of which is attached by wire and sturdy red electrical tape to a stockpile of explosives. I must ignore the ancient metaphor of the caves; this exhibit is apocalyptic.

Imagine walking into an abandoned shrine or, perhaps, discovering a hoarder’s secret storage room. Pages from Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality form a horizontal line the hallways like a row of polished white teeth. Books, stacked haphazardly, lean menacingly toward me as I pass: A Testament of Hope by Martin Luther King Jr., Class Warfare by Noam Chomsky. The tones of social revolution are overwhelming.

But then there is the room where posters of Amy Winehouse, Napoleon Dynamite, The Breakfast Club, and The Goonies function as wallpaper and a cardboard bed sits surrounded by books. In this part of the cave, as in others, videos of Lascaux II, a prehistoric cave site in southern France, play like a silent station signal. Perhaps I happened upon a teenage boy’s primitive hideaway.

Piles of soda cans litter the walkways and spill out of sparkling gold containers. If “Cavemanman” were an apartment, the maid must be negligent in his or her duties. And yet there is nothing unclean about the caves. The graffiti is stylized, clearly the work of one hand. Red fire extinguishers are placed throughout the caverns, a tangible, unexpected token of reality in the echoing space.

“Cavemanman” is part of an exhibition called Life on Mars, the Carnegie Art Museum’s 55th Carnegie International. A mixture of installation art, video, sculpture, photography, and painting, the show questions the strangeness of our life on Earth: “Are we alone in the universe? Do aliens exist? Or are we, ourselves, the strangers in our own worlds?” Don’t miss “I Wish Your Wish,” a wall of ribbons printed with the wishes of people around the world. You can make a wish and take a ribbon, too.

Life on Mars runs through Jan. 11, 2009. Visit blog.cmoa.org/CI08 to learn more.