The flotsam and jetsam of Carol Bove’s sculpture belies a maddening attention to detail the Victorians would have understood
THIS month the art world is mostly breaking in new flat sandals. At the end of May, during the Venice Biennale preview days, thousands of people will traipse across the city’s parks and gardens, its deconsecrated churches, fading yet splendid palazzos and the daunting Arsenale, the vast naval dockyards that constitute one of Europe’s earliest and largest pre-industrial production sites.
But if curatorial and critical feet need to avoid blisters, then spare a thought for the artworks. The Brooklyn-based artist Carol Bove, whose new exhibition has just opened at Glasgow’s Common Guild, gave a stimulating and self-deprecating talk at the Glasgow Film Theatre the other week, when she described the process of creating The Foamy Saliva Of A Horse, her marvellous Venice installation of 2011.
Her work would need to withstand daily visitors for five months, a footfall in the tens of thousands. The Corderie, or old ropeworks, where she was working is nothing if not handsome. But in reality it’s just a splendid Renaissance version of somewhere like Bove’s own studio on an industrial shore of the Hudson at Red Hook, Brooklyn. The first question she asked herself was not one of philosophy or aesthetics, but of sheer practicality: “Are cats going to start living in the installation?”
In Venice, Bove’s answer was to build a vast, wide plinth to shoulder height and install her works upon it like a tabletop sculpture on a massive scale. In Glasgow, the domestic scale of the Common Guild sees the artwork remade as an intimate series of tableaux.
Bove is a scavenger, a collector as well as a studio creator. Amongst the individual objects, found and crafted, that make up The Foamy Saliva Of A Horse are industrial chain-link fencing, driftwood, chunks of polystyrene or industrial foam and a hulk of shrunken metal gilded with rust, that the gallery installation team think is an old fridge door. But for every piece of large-scale flotsam or jetsam there is a tiny delicate object: a handful of pristine exotic shells, a net that on close examination is carefully crimped from silver chain, and above all, hundreds of trimmed peacock feathers laid carefully to form ever-changing, iridescent carpet.
Some of the work is almost comically calibrated. A flaking oil drum sits on a floor in its own rust, a conceit that can’t be faked by artful arrangement. The shells sit on or near welded armatures like miniature trees that bear strange marine fruit. The driftwood is suspended on slender gold chains and housed in brass frames or boxes. The scale is confusing. Is this a cabinet of curiosities, spilled out across a whole house, or an abandoned cityscape condensed into a single home?
The peacock feather is an ancient spiritual symbol, associated with a starry sky, its eye motif allying it naturally with 1960s psychedelia. The Foamy Saliva Of A Horse conjures up more than it contains. It is nicely anachronistic to think of John Ruskin, the awkward, sanctimonious, Victorian Englishman, when looking at Bove’s art. Ruskin had a minor obsession with peacock feathers. He would break off his correspondence, claiming that the need to draw them was of overwhelming urgency. The peacock feather was beautiful, enigmatic and utterly useless. That uselessness was for Ruskin the very thing of art.
But the peacock was almost unbearably challenging for the emerging science of evolution. Darwin once wrote: “The sight of a peacock’s feather makes me sick.” Recent research seems to have confirmed Darwin’s worst fears. Peahens don’t seem to fancy tail feathers either. Questions of the classification of objects and the problems of utility abound. Useless stuff, found on Bove’s local beach, or in her home or family collections, is made useful again by being useless.
At the heart of Bove’s work, then, is a basic question about objects. This is something that has occupied many recent sculptors: can objects both stand for something else and be simply what they are? Can they be “normal”, obstinate and obdurate at the same time as symbolic, metaphorical or transcendental? Can they be both meaningless and deeply meaningful?
It’s no coincidence that the Swiss-born Bove grew up in Berkeley, California. There is more than a whiff of the 1960s and 70s, of esoteric knowledge, of spiritual possibilities and alchemy. But educationally she is a child of the 1980s and 90s, and the work contains a kind of dynamic of playful spiritual suggestion and robust rebuff.
If all of this hovers somewhere in the room – Bove lightheartedly used the word plasma to describe the unidentified space between objects that holds this kind of installation together – it also goes beyond it.
In the whorl of her seashells and the shifting colour and pattern of the peacock, there are suggestions of infinity. In the dumb reality of chains and nets and fences is the language of closure but also of linkage. The link the artist makes, in her evocative title, is the story of the ancient artist Apelles struggling to paint a horse’s mouth. In a moment of frustration he threw a sponge at this painting and discovered that the accidental spill had created the effect he needed. Classical sources tell us that in doing so the artist reached the state known as ataraxia, a “lucid state of robust tranquillity”.
Ataraxia was only one aspect of Epicurean philosophy. The most desirable state was one in which anxiety and pain would be entirely absent. This month, as well as old shoes, I’ll be packing plasters. «
• Carol Bove, The Foamy Saliva Of A Horse is at the Common Guild, Glasgow until 29 June. www.thecommonguild.org.uk