Carol Bove: Between Art and Design

This article was first published online by Apollo Magazine on 23 Apr 2015

Carol Bove’s work is curious in that it seems to inhabit two worlds at once. Her careful arrangements of sculptures and found objects cry out to be interpreted as conceptual art. Yet, aesthetically speaking, the objects themselves have much in common with contemporary design.

Bove uses the same components again and again – small structures of brass cubes and concrete, driftwood bolted to I-beams, peacock feathers, hanging metal nets, giant ‘noodles’ of curling steel with a polished white finish. These, along with some original additions, are all involved in her latest exhibition, ‘The Plastic Unit’, which occupies five rooms at David Zwirner in London. Each of these objects has its own minimalist, tactile charm, but displaying them together in a gallery also poses the question of how they relate to one another.

At the show’s opening, Bove herself suggested there are two ways to approach her work: a ‘gestalt’ (or formal) approach, and a ‘psychedelic’ one. The latter she describes as ‘bridging the membrane into the subjective experience’ – or put more simply, ‘you can get lost in it’.

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Carol Bove, I, quartz pyx, who fling muck beds (2015), Concrete and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

The gallery space is crafted to suggest the interaction of objects. You’re invited to look through them at other objects, or past them into another room. Bove is a ventriloquist, using her components to assume different voices from visual culture – the ornamental, the industrial, bric-a-brac, the artefact – and contrasting them with each other. Her detached, almost scientific placement of the objects rather cleverly gives them the aura of a museum display, or a show room for cars or antiques.

Bove’s work implies that it is meaningful, and moreover can be imbued with all manner of meaning, but it never goes so far as to confirm or deny anything in particular. I suspect this relaxed ambiguity is a reason why Bove’s short career has been packed with impressive solo exhibitions. While her work acts as a lightning rod for the aggressive interpretations of an art world audience, it also makes no demand of the viewer who would rather read nothing between the lines, and merely enjoy the strange buzz of these objects-turned-artefacts or commodities. In other words, the conceptual part of Bove’s work is optional.

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Carol Bove, detail from Mussel Shell (2014), Peacock feather, seashell, found steel object, concrete, and brass. © the artist, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London

This can be seen as part of Bove’s ongoing interest in context, for the obvious conclusion must be that conceptual depth stems purely from her work’s gallery setting. If Marcel Duchamp’s famous breakthrough was to show that anything placed in a gallery is art, Bove’s response is to show that contemporary art now depends on the gallery for its very existence.

What makes the dualism of Bove’s work all the more apparent is that her objects so easily slide into the category of interior design. That this is little commented on is perhaps a reflection of how deftly Bove uses the implications of the gallery space. Yet, her angular brass frames and knotted dark wood sculptures would look entirely at home in the window of Andrew Martin or the Conran Shop. This connection is made explicit by another exhibition currently taking place at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which puts Bove alongside legendary architect and designer Carlo Scarpa. The aesthetic similarities are uncanny (though according to Bove, coincidental).

The traditional boundary between art and design is functionality. Designers like Carlo Scarpa, who shared Bove’s interest in the psychic life of objects and space, test that boundary. Bove does the same from the other side: with her knack for exposing the mechanics of interpretation and display, it is not unreasonable to think of her as a designer whose function is to provide contemporary art exhibitions.

Installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London
Carol Bove, Self Talk (2015), installation view from the 2015 solo exhibition ‘Carol Bove: The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Interview: Assemble Architects

This article was first published online by Protein on 28 Oct 2015

The concrete no-man’s land that divides East London and the Olympic Village is not an attractive, fashionable, or even very accessible place for an architecture and design studio. But that makes it all the more fitting for the headquarters of Assemble, a young collective who have built their reputation on finding witty and resourceful answers to imperfect situations, often in landscapes just like this.

With their open, collaborative, project-by-project approach, Assemble have turned a lack of experience into their greatest asset, and given people a new degree of involvement in designing the spaces they will use. And now they are not only securing major commissions such as a new gallery for Goldsmiths University, but have also achieved suitably unusual recognition with a nomination for Britain’s top contemporary art award, the Turner Prize.

Assemble is composed of fourteen individuals, all still in their twenties, and incorporates members from very different backgrounds. It first came together in 2010 around a group of disillusioned architectural assistants who wanted to get out and build something. That turned out to be the Cineroleum, a makeshift cinema in the shell of a disused petrol station on Clerkenwell Road.

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Assemble’s Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung

Two of the founding members, Alice Edgerley and Matt Leung, explain how the collective was forged in this venture. “The project wasn’t an architecture project,” says Leung. “It was about running a bar, programming films and that kind of stuff.” In an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, everyone merged into the fabric of the team.

Assemble’s early work continued with the theme of using inexpensive materials to conjure surprising designs in tricky urban spaces. Many were temporary, although beside their Stratford workspace they have a monument to this methodology in the form of the Yardhouse, a simple wooden-framed structure whose façade of mottled tiles has drawn the city’s selfie-brigade en masse to this unlikely grey landscape.

With their range of skills the team soon became dizzyingly versatile, and in the last five years have worked on performance venues, workshops and town squares, as well as more artistic projects such as the Brutalist Playground they installed at the Royal Institute of British Architects earlier this year.

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Assemble has no hierarchy, but the chaos of joint decision-making is compensated for by emotional support and the quality of ideas. “It’s probably one thing that’s absent from most offices, the idea that everyone has an input,” says Edgerley. “It also means no one can fire anyone, because we’re all friends.”

Naturally, as the operation has grown, it has been a challenge for the group to maintain its spontaneous energy – especially as everyone has to make a living. “The thing that we’re trying to do now is find the way that we can all work in gainful employment in the same way that we started working together when we were doing it for fun,” explains Leung. “We don’t have loads of younger people to do all the work for us.”

Assemble’s answer to this problem is what it affectionately terms the ‘buddy system’, where each project is run by at least two members, but is opened-up to the rest of the group for ideas and criticisms at weekly ‘Pan-Assemble’ meetings. Each individual works on a freelance basis, keeping half the fee for the projects they do and putting the other half back into the collective, which pays for some members to do admin roles.

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Assemble is so determined to keep its diverse structure because this has given it its edge, especially as it has moved into public-realm projects where understanding the needs of communities is essential. Non-architect members of the team undertake months-long consultations, working with local activist groups to get the public involved in testing ideas and even in construction.

“If you have people enthusiastic and involved from the beginning, and taking some ownership of it, then it means that they’re going to be happy with it,” points out Edgerley. And happy they are, not least in Toxteth, Liverpool, where Assemble’s work with the residents of Granby Four Streets housing estate brought their unexpected Turner Prize shortlisting.

The Toxteth project illustrates how far beyond the cosmetic Assemble are willing to go. They are, for instance, in the process of setting up a business manufacturing household goods, so embedding a legacy of craft and ensuring residents receive material benefits from the Turner nomination. “We’re just one part of the project,” says Edgerley. “Even though it’s an incredibly desolate area, the community spirit there is really amazing.”

This ability to nurture a sense of self-determination in communities is the key to Assemble’s success. They are not reluctant to concede power over the design process – that is their strategy. “It’s about asking for help as well,” says Leung. “In most projects it seems like the architect or designer is not in the best position to work out what all the answers are.”

James Shaw’s Organic Future

A version of this article first appeared in the Microsoft Five to Nine newspaper, curated by Protein, on 23 JUN 2015

Lately designer James Shaw has been busy considering the advantages of cooking people. He’s working on a hot tub for an artists’ retreat in Sweden, which will be cleaned by plants rather than chemicals. “Humans are full of nutrients,” he explains. “When you’re essentially cooking yourself in a big pot you’ll be oozing nutrients, which you would normally have to balance out with things like chlorine and hydrogen peroxide.” In his hot tub, however, you’ll be feeding the plants your own human stock.

The human body is only the latest subject of Shaw’s endless optimism and curiosity. His south London workshop, hidden behind scaffolding on the second floor of a huge housing estate, is churning out a growing range of bespoke products, from furniture to experimental gastronomy equipment. Everywhere he looks, Shaw sees the potential for new objects and for new ways of making. Time and again he turns to problems solved long ago, and solves them again in a new way.

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James Shaw’s Symbiotic Hot Tub in Gotland, Sweden

While some inspiration comes from the products around him, some comes from the darkest depths of the internet and the experts who lurk there. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos available which I use all the time. There’s all these people out there who have so much knowledge and they can teach you to do anything,” he explains.

Shaw is a hands-on designer. He has tried designing for factory production, but quickly became dissatisfied. “There’s this traditional way designers work which is purely formal, where you’re detached from the making of the object, from the materiality of it, just drawing stuff on a sheet of paper or a computer,” he says. “Instead of starting with a blank piece of paper I’ll start with a bit of material and some substance, and try to squish it together and see what happens.” It’s this openness to thinking outside of the box that allows Shaw to be so creative.

He has a way with working with molten substances that he squirts from an array of guns, many of which are tools he has invented himself. The Plastic Extruding Gun, for instance, allows him to work with molten plastic without the industrial equipment usually needed. He hands me a colourful, alien-looking lump of matter, which is in fact milk-bottle plastic. Shaw is drawn to this material because he feels its potential is wasted. “It has this invisibility because it’s so ubiquitous. But you can melt it down and re-use it endlessly.”

Plastic Extruding gun in action
Plastic Extruding gun in action

One such obscure lump provided the starting point for Shaw’s breakthrough project, the Well Proven Chair, a radical new furniture design, made in collaboration with designer Marjan van Aubel, which got him nominated for the Design Museum Award, and which won the Arc Chair Design Award. In this instance, the moment of discovery was a chemical reaction between waste sawdust and soya bio resin, creating a substance that rose like bread in an oven.

Shaw immediately sensed the significance of his discovery. “I really see that chair as an image of an amazing new organic future where objects are grown rather than wasted,” he says. “It’s a much more efficient way of making stuff. We are slowly starting to get to it through biological engineering. It’s going to be the future.”

Like many designers today, Shaw is preoccupied with sustainability, which is a big motive for his various products. But the question is, having discovered a self-growing material, why did he choose to make a beautiful chair out of it? The answer, as the hot tub also shows, is that Shaw sees the desirability of a product as a useful way of opening our eyes to new ideas. “We’re all really good at looking at an object and thinking, ‘what would my life be like with this thing in it?’ I think that’s a really interesting tool to play with.”

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Well-proven chairs

It’s clear that for Shaw, sharing ideas is an important part of a designer’s job. He has recently been involved in a community scheme in Manchester called “Tearing Stuff Apart,” organised by artist Àgata Alcañiz, where a team of scientists, artists and designers teach the public about the products they use every day. In one class, they explained globalisation by taking apart a cheap hairdryer and tracing the origins of its numerous parts from around the world. “It’s about people actually experiencing stuff,” says Shaw, “finding ways to make abstract ideas direct is so important.”

But Shaw is only playing his part in the greater explosion of knowledge-sharing that is changing the shape of the design industry, and many others. “We’ve got a million Youtube videos out there, I use them all the time. There’s all these people, they have so much knowledge, and they can teach you to do anything.” This is fertile ground for would-be independent designers. Shaw’s advice to them? “I think the key to any creative endeavour is just to jump in there and get started,” he says. “How you approach unknowns is a big part of it. You need to approach them with openness and confidence.”

Of course, going it alone is tough. But for someone with Shaw’s creative energy, the appeal is obvious: “It means you can design your own life essentially. You can look at the things that are important to the way you want to live, like having a nice lunch with the people you share the studio with every day.”