In Carol Bove’s studio, there are many rooms. From the windows of the first, one can look out onto the street: garages; asphalt lots; roofs of other buildings much like this one. There is little to draw focus but the Red Hook waterfront is nearby, and many stories about the artist begin with the piece of driftwood or sea foam she picked up on her way here. The natural material comes later though. This first room is the book room.
Piled from edge to edge on a large, rectangular table at the room’s center are Bove’s books: mimeographed poetry magazines, copies of In Orbit by Wright Morris (“In the space of one day, Jubal E. Gainer, high school dropout and draft dodger, manages to rack up an impressive array of crimes…”), C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and A Power Set Apart by Joseph McHugh, given to Bove by her friend’s father. There are issues of VIEW magazine, the 1940s publication by artist Charles Henri Ford and critic Parker Tyler, one of which contains a black and white collage by Marcel Duchamp.
Bove does not like books that are especially valuable. Many on the table have been selected for her, or at least brought to her attention, by her friend Phillip, a book dealer. “He had never heard of Sol LeWitt,” she tells me, and it is clear that this is a good thing. Phillip’s interest is in poetry and literature. He knows Vito Acconci instead.
“We live with information in a different way from fifteen years ago,” says Bove. “It has become increasingly important to devise a system to place limits on what types and how much information we consume. But it’s a puzzle to design a semi-permeable membrane that allows a variety of different types of information in and isn’t completely predetermined by one’s current expectations. It should allow surprises to enter.”
Books have a place in Bove’s sculptures as both reference and component. She groups them in twos and threes with spines facing out and props them open to image centerfolds on mid-century modern wooden shelves beside other found objects like metronomes or peacock feathers. One such work, The Dyadic Cyclone (2006), is titled after a 1976 book of the same name by neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher and inventor of the isolation tank, John Cunningham Lilly, and his wife, Antonietta. The book is autobiographical and explores the Lillys’ concern with merging centers — their own, figuratively, and those of two counter-spinning cyclones.
Bove’s Cyclone is a three-tiered shelf bearing several stacked books with one propped open to a double-page picture, taken from the ground beneath two stone high-rise buildings. Pinned to the wall above the shelves is an image of a sphere containing forms in a state of merging. A piece of driftwood on the uppermost shelf sits touching a stack of three books, liberated from the sea but still belonging to the depths — similar in essence to Lilly’s inquiries, which never quite belonged to the conscious mind.
“With artists and authors, I don’t want to colonize their work,” Bove says. “I want to present their work as autonomous statements which remain completely intact. I’m mostly working on the framing and display of things. Of course, by suggesting a context and a possible vector of approach I’m interfering with their meaning and reception so I also want to acknowledge the existence of forced collaboration with these artists.”
“I also want to make space for the viewer. I’m not sure if I can explain it. It has something to do with making things that are extremely obvious — so obvious that I feel that they existed before. When I make something that seems like the articulation of the obvious I feel like I’ve come the closest to making something that doesn’t have anything to do with my individual personality.”
Much has been made of Bove’s interest in the late 60s and early 70s, although “interest” is an understatement: her research into the period is intrepid and ongoing. It has informed much of her work in some way since she graduated from New York University in the late 90s. Bove’s shelf installations challenge a linear hierarchy of meaning: the books and objects are not of this moment but they are still here, being witnessed, and thus have present energy. At the same time, Bove avoids, even criticizes, deification of objects as mascots of history. She questions their status as artifacts, insofar as “artifact” suggests that an object’s truest meaning has expired.
It takes a particular grace to deal with subject matter so recent and yet somehow so overexposed. In Below Your Mind (2004), published in conjunction with Bove’s first international solo exhibition at the Kunstverein in Hamburg, Gregory Williams calls Bove’s research an “excavation” — and it is precisely this. Bove invokes insights and ideas from the 60s and 70s that are assumed to have lapsed or lost traction, revealing them as the basis for much of what we claim as “modern.” Her approach is consistent, regardless of whether an idea or action has come to be thought of as wrong or right, a success or a failure.
“I think it’s an inherently interesting time but my continuing interest is probably a result of my own biography, which begins there [in 1971],” says Bove. “The work I made in school was not really related to the work I am making now but… it has had continuity. When I got out of school, thirty years had passed since the late 60s. My belief is that thirty years constitutes a full fashion-cycle. Thirty-year-old stuff looks great and vibrates with relevance and so there was that irresistible draw. Twelve years later, I continue to think of 1969/70 as the aperture where I can enter history but I allow myself much more freedom to move around.”
Where perhaps the first room in Bove’s studio is in service of accumulation — of information, of objects — the second is for distillation. On a tall set of industrial shelves toward the back of the room, dozens of elaborate shells are arranged in an unknowable order. They are from the Philippines and were given to Bove en masse. Their forms are perfect and they have retained their pink, which would not be exceptional but for the fact that these shells are from the 1940s. To one side, lesser specimens are heaped in a wheelbarrow.
Bove approaches nature with a “conservator’s ethic.” When elements from the natural world are utilized in a work, nothing is glued in a way where it cannot be unglued. It is important to Bove that an object appropriated from nature has the right to reassert its autonomy once a sculpture is disassembled. “When the sculpture is not on display the elements are removed,” she says. “Its energetic state is more relaxed when it is off duty. The sculpture is performing with the greatest tension and effort when it is being publicly exhibited.”
The steel structure that elevates the organic matter in Bove’s shell sculptures, for example, elevates each shell as a star if only for a short time. The steel affords potential and the idea of movement, belying its true function — to hold the shells temporarily in place. It is as though, once off-duty as subjects in Bove’s work, the shells have someplace else to be.
One such steel and shell configuration exists in The Foamy Saliva of a Horse, Bove’s installation for the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. Components appeared on a large plinth that spanned the room, somewhere between actors in the wings and models in a presentation, awaiting reception. The plinth also held a flat net hung from a beam and rendered cylindrical by optical illusion; a piece of driftwood suspended from a rectangular brass frame; an outsized piece of rusted metal scrunched like a rejected draft and a log with fixtures attached, stood on its end.
“I’ve been using natural materials in the same way as authored human-made objects since 2005 with increasing regularity,” Bove says. “I think the nature in my work is always nature being observed by a cultured human subject. On the other hand, when we look at art we think what we’re doing is discerning and reading but maybe all of the mental processing to the side of intellect takes up the greater portion of the activity. And it remains unacknowledged, since that part of our experience can’t speak for itself.”
“I’ve been trying to find ways of frustrating ‘the reader’, i.e. the part of the viewer that interprets artworks, while at the same time encouraging reading in an effort to reach a kind of suspended thinking where binaries dissolve, and mutually exclusive positions coexist. I’ve also been thinking about the types of art experience that seem consciously uninteresting or even disgusting that are actually satisfying unconscious needs.”
At the time of my visit, Bove was completing her contribution to Documenta 13, the 100-day art festival that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. She made four works, collectively titled Flora’s Garden: a large white tubular “glyph,” a low-lying bronze platform, a sculpture consisting of many prefinished brass hexahedrons screwed together to form an asymmetric matrix and a plinth with a piece of petrified wood attached. These pieces are still on exhibition in the gardens of the Orangerie, a former conservatory. The spatial logic of the garden, which is 300 feet long and 30 feet wide, necessitates what Bove terms “a linear encounter” with the work.
Bove has often observed the level of indifference shown to rusted wire or stray organic matter while collecting such material at the waterfront. It is similar, she says, to the level of indifference directed at “generic outdoor sculpture.” The piece of petrified wood in Flora’s Garden is a manifestation of this visible/invisible paradox: it is the perfect cast of a log, the nearest one could get to a piece of “invisible wood,” as Bove describes it: “it’s closer to an image or solid illusion than what it actually is, but it is an illusion making no effort to be an illusion.”
At the end of the hall is one last room. It is the closest thing Bove’s studio has to a control room; it contains Bove’s office, her assistant’s desk and many files. Each work of Bove’s that can be deconstructed, and will therefore necessitate reconstruction, comes with a manual. These manuals are several pages long with instructions and pictures detailing every step of the assembly process. Bove recalls the time when a shelf work was photographed for a catalogue in Germany with a book opened to the wrong page. “The placement is not arbitrary,” she says. “It’s not just ‘ish.’”
“Since people are looking at artwork on the Internet, most people who know my work know it from reproduction,” she says. “The official photo [of a work] takes one moment from its life and confers on it a special status. The official photo makes the assemblages appear to be stable objects, which is not how I think about them. I want to counteract the stabilizing tendency of repeat exposure to these images; the manuals do that.”
“In official photos, the assemblages are reduced to two dimensions and from this one point of view they ‘work’ compositionally. The more successful the documentary images are as photos the more distracting they are, that is, the more they obscure the shifting quality of the three-dimensional sculpture. In real life there are many positions from which the sculptures don’t work. Encountering them in real life you have to search for views. As you move around the sculpture, they keep coming together and falling apart.”
The manuals are made using the default settings of Microsoft Word. They are aesthetically un-arresting, save for the presence of a hand — often Bove’s own hand — that holds parts of a work aloft for pictures. The hand harks back to children’s craft books or instructive art textbooks from the 1970s. The hand proves the sculpture’s dimensionality and immediacy; the work can be held and moved, just like other “normal stuff,” according to Bove.
“The fact of the manual points to the need to take the sculpture apart and reassemble it,” she says. “It also suggests that the sculpture is not attached to one particular form or to one particular moment. Someday, the manuals will develop the air of mystery from an irretrievable time but for now they have none; they are as familiar and unglamorous as .pdf attachments. As a result, the objects they depict are closer to us, in this world and not the romantic world of photography that you can’t have or touch.”
“I think of the sculptures as tactile more than visual. You learn about them through your eyes, but when you see them you think about what it would be like to touch them. The visual aspect provides important clues about how they feel and what they are. The surface of a thing is not simply the most superficial aspect; it proceeds from its interior. The textures have their own intelligences and histories.
This building, like most in Red Hook, is old. Someone occupied it before Bove was making art, even before Bove was born. In the studio’s last room, there is a walk-in safe full of belongings left by a previous tenant over 30 years ago. There are papers and boxes and personal effects, including a fur coat. Bove has not removed these possessions nor has she investigated them especially thoroughly. Somehow, this completes a picture of Bove’s incredible restraint — of her innate understanding of what belongs to when, and which belongs to whom, and at what moments it is necessary to play with these attributions.
“You asked me to tell you about the people I encountered in my research. I can’t remember what I already told you. I spoke with a lot of botanical librarians, also people who worked within the institutions that maintain the records of naming, and some hybridizers and growers, too. Did I tell you about the librarian who had a fresh flower in her gray hair held in place by a paper clip? I doubt I’m conveying to you how magic this all seems to me — that people create flowers and organize them and keep track of their history, their part in civilization.”
This is Janine Lariviere, artist, writing to Bove in a letter titled ‘Garden Flowers’ and dated ‘Spring 2003’. The correspondence is reprinted in Below Your Mind. Pay attention to a single sentence in this text: “I doubt I’m conveying to you how magic this all seems to me.” Consider what it means to discover, and what it means to share. Consider what it means to act with intention, to look at what many have laid eyes on and see something untapped. It is the work of an explorer; a maker; a guardian. It is the work of Carol Bove.