PRINT January 2005


What do the following books have in common: Marcuse, Five Lectures; Celant, Arte Povera; Bachelard, The Poetics of Space; and the Kama Sutra?

For one thing, they are all components of What the Trees Said, 2004, a sculpture by Carol Bove that, like a number of her others, consists of books and other small objects arranged on shelves. As disparate as the volumes’ subject matter, dates, and even cultures of origin may be, their grouping immediately evokes that semimythic period known loosely as the ’60s, which in Bove’s reading ranges from around 1964 to 1972.

The same is true not only of her other bookshelf sculptures but also of the other works that make up her oeuvre: surpassingly pale ink-wash drawings of young women, mostly based on images from magazines of the period (and notably from Playboy, whose cultural significance was then very different from, or at least greater than, it is now); texts typed on a manual typewriter, usually extracted from the same sorts of books presented in the shelf sculptures; and wall drawings executed in thread wound in geometrical patterns around nails hammered into the wall, which simultaneously evoke the crafts boom of the period and a certain strain of its art (hint: one such work is titled Stella, 2003).

But time lines make strange bedfellows. For example, a quick look at the one I have closest to hand (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience ) informs me that in 1925 the following books were published: Montale, Ossi di Seppia; Gide, The Counterfeiters; Kafka, The Trial; Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway; Hitler, Mein Kampf. Isn’t there at least one title from this list that represents a different “moment” than the rest? In her archaeology of the ’60s—which in a short time has been presented not only at galleries in New York, Geneva, and Vienna but also in solo shows at the Hamburger Kunstverein, the Kunsthalle, Zürich, and the ICA, Boston—Bove excises a big swatch from the cultural time line and finds enough contradictions in it to enact a rich and articulately ambivalent oeuvre.

Of course, sometimes a period’s contradictions are systematic and therefore symptomatic. In the course of a research project, I once had to page quickly through vast numbers of art magazines from the ’60s. At the end I had the impression not of having seen thousands of images, but rather thousands of slightly different versions of the same two: One was an austere, essentially intellectual articulation of a white plane by means of a grid (Agnes Martin, Giulio Paolini); the other was a group of naked people involved in some orgiastic ritual (Carolee Schneemann, Hermann Nitsch). Bove’s ’60s includes both tendencies, but it is the ascetic pole that seems to triumph. After all, the Kama Sutra ends up on the bookshelf, not the Tao Te Ching in the waterbed.

Still, there is a distinct sensuality to all of Bove’s work, not just the more overtly seductive wash drawings. For one thing, the arrangements of the books, some of them held open to particular spreads and sometimes interspersed with other objects, insistently call to mind the tactile pleasures of handling books, arranging and displaying them. It is precisely “as he holds them in his hands,” Walter Benjamin writes of the book collector, that “he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past.” The fact that so much of the content of the volumes Bove displays is sexually charged, or concerns the body, only adds to this evocation of the haptic. Besides, these little libraries point in two directions: toward a fictitious person who might have had this particular selection on his or her shelf thirty years ago and, more insistently, toward the person who scoured used-book shops both real and virtual to assemble the collection in the present. It is strange that Illuminations, the first US publication of Benjamin’s writings, which appeared in 1968, has never cropped up in Bove’s work; “Every passion borders on the chaotic,” he observed in the essay “Unpacking My Library,” which opens the volume, “but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” The lucidity and asceticism of Bove’s presentation convey this underlying passion.

Conjuring a fictive reconstruction of a bygone time while insistently evoking its own presentness and the effort involved in its making, Bove’s work is theatrical but diffidently so. She is the artist-as-collector but also the artist-as-art-director. At her recent exhibition at Hotel in London, for instance, even the period fixture that illuminated the other objects—an Achille Castiglioni “Parentesi” lamp—was part of the work, as was the copy of the Princeton edition of the I Ching in its familiar gray dust jacket, lying nearby on the floor. Spare and almost self-effacing as the presentation was, it really belongs to the genre of hyperdetailed, quasi-narrative “total installations” like those of Ilya Kabakov (who coined the term), Mike Nelson, or Gregor Schneider.

But the most striking illusion was the way in which the main, quite small exhibition space of this row house–turned–gallery looked far emptier than it really was, and was all the more resonant for that. It contained a couple of Bove’s ever-so-diluted ink drawings (one of them an intensely focused portrait of a young woman who turns out to be the artist’s mother, the other depicting Jane Birkin) and two pieces of driftwood, one bulky and one minute, both mounted on iron stands as sculpture. No bookshelves. And oh yes, there, close to the bottom of one wall, too low to be used even while sitting on one of a half dozen reed mats, was a tiny peephole through which a crouching visitor could glimpse one of those aforementioned orgiastic scenes, not in the grainy gray of the art-magazine thumbnail but in glorious color: a film still from Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975)—a comparatively recent artifact by Bove’s standards. Last but not least, one heard a sound track that seemed to resonate from somewhere beneath the rug (accompanied at times by a pounding beat from the dance-music record store on the ground floor): a male voice with an oddly unplaceable but aristocratic European accent intoning a text entitled “The Future of Ecstasy,” written for Playboy by Zen popularizer Alan Watts in 1971. Pretending to look back at his own time from the perspective of the still-distant ’90s and trace the social transformations to which it would give rise, Watts comes across as more of a relic than a harbinger, slightly sinister because strangely out of touch with what he is saying.

This sense of displaced meaning is everywhere in Bove’s work, but (unlike Watts) she always seems conscious of it. Understandably, most commentators have focused on its use of materials from the ’60s as a commentary on our relation to that fabled decade, but she hardly offers anything like a diagnosis or overview. On the contrary, the more closely we look at the mass of artifacts she presents, the more difficult it becomes to arrive at a single characterization of the period. Perhaps it would be better to focus less on her material and more on the strategies by which it is deployed. The latter point not to the ’60s but rather to the ’80s—to the early work of Jeff Koons, Cady Noland, and, especially, Haim Steinbach. After all, if “shopping and shelves” pretty much sums up the work of the latter, it is a pretty good characterization of Bove’s sculpture as well.

Still, there’s an important distinction between “consumer” (as in Steinbach) and “collector” (as in Bove). Steinbach had already swerved decisively away from the original Duchampian notion of the readymade—or rather from the Duchampian notion of the artist’s relation to the object designated as a such. For Duchamp, what was at stake in the readymade was a sort of singularity, as Thierry de Duve has argued, and for this reason he exhibited extraordinarily few. Duchamp operated as a sort of connoisseur in relation to the undertaking, though of a characteristically negative sort—a connoisseur of neutrality, one might say. Steinbach, on the other hand, could produce great quantities of work, because he acted not as connoisseur but as consumer (which is not, of course, to say that he worked without a judgment of taste). Duchamp needed just one snow shovel to make his point, though that shovel could be replaced, and later editioned so that the point could be made in more than one place. Steinbach could always use many examples of any of his finds because the isolated object was never of interest, only its ability to slot into arrangements and juxtapositions. The collector, however, privileges neither the singular (like the connoisseur) nor the generic (like the consumer) but rather what Benjamin might have called their dialectical tension, which is embodied in the particular item’s history as an artifact of material culture and above all its “rebirth” upon entering the collection in which its profile shines forth. Sometimes a book’s significance emerges clearly enough from its mere spine, that is, from the name of its author and title, but elsewhere the collector may open it up to display a certain spread that brings its relation to the rest into focus.

Artists like Steinbach were said to be critics or celebrants of the commodity. In the form of the book, thinking itself—what used to be called Spirit—becomes a commodity, and one’s relation to it possessive and fetishistic. Copying (retyping a text, redrawing an image) is only the next stage of its possession: internalization, mnemonic appropriation. Bove’s exquisitely not-readymade drawings are the surest sign that, while perhaps having something to do with nostalgia for the era in which she was born, her project—fueled by what Benjamin elsewhere referred to as the “dangerous though domesticated passions” of the collector—is saturated with an ambivalence too deep for any mere souvenir to embody. In the representation of the face, a different sense of subjectivity emerges. It’s true that the drawings’ evanescence communicates the sense of a decaying past well on the way to becoming ungraspable, but there nonetheless remain traces of a period consciousness. And as much as we might be tempted to look back at it from a supposedly superior vantage, the historically specific gaze of Bove’s subjects casts us as equally enigmatic. New York Times critic Ken Johnson called Bove’s work “an exploration of how we fantasize about the past.” He was not wrong in this, but there’s also the more troubling matter of how Bove’s subjects seem to imagine us. As she herself has put it, “We’re the objects of their fantasies.” Bove’s presentation of “The Future of Ecstasy” is a reminder that utopian social thought inevitably orients itself toward a future in which its every kink and idiosyncrasy will become accepted wisdom. The strikingly ingenuous yet imperious faces that we squint to perceive in Bove’s drawings seem to be wondering why we, their future, have ended up even more fucked up than they were. This is more than the cynical observation that the future ain’t what it used to be—more like the disquieting intimation that their future is still making some kind of claim on the present, but only in the form of an unconfirmable rumor from the past.

Barry Schwabsky is a London-based critic. He is also the author of The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and Opera: Poems 1981–2002 (Meritage Press, 2003).