Michael Brawne’s seminal 1965 book, The New Museum, opens with a case study of Carlo Scarpa’s exhibition designs for the Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona, a medieval castle that the Italian architect began renovating in 1959. Brawne notes that these designs, vitrines and easels, aimed to ‘sharpen the encounter between object and observer’, emphasizing each individual’s experience of the art object. It’s an observation that makes Scarpa’s pairing with Carol Bove compelling. Curated by the Henry Moore Institute’s (HMI) Pavel Pyś, this touring exhibition – which opened at Museion in Bolzano last year and will travel to Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle in October – is the first time Scarpa’s exhibition furniture has been shown in a contemporary art context. Bove’s own sculptural practice – concurrently on show in a solo exhibition titled ‘The Plastic Unit’ at David Zwirner, London – is concerned with strategies of display and the framing of objects.
Opening the show at HMI was a juxtaposition that highlighted the porous boundaries between ‘artist’, ‘architect’ and ‘designer’, which were probed throughout the exhibition. Scarpa occasionally made sculpture and a number of pieces were presented within his installation ‘Ambiente’ (Environment) at the 1968 Venice Biennale. Here, installation shots of ‘Ambiente’ surrounded Bove’s Hysteron Proteron (2014), a sculpture of concrete and brass in which a structure resembling modernist architecture emerges from its concrete plinth.
The first room presented two vitrines and an easel designed by Scarpa, normally displayed in Museo di Castelvecchio. They look different in that context – as foils for designated art objects – but, stripped of these, the simple beauty of their design is foregrounded. Scarpa’s aesthetic emphasizes the qualities of each material used, often prioritizing the visual over the structural, and is characterized by a soothing balance of scale and form. (An accompanying talk at the gallery was titled ‘Design as Meditation: Mondrian’s Heritage in Carlo Scarpa’s Work’.) Bove’s works feature natural objects fused to bespoke display mechanisms, skirting the boundary between art object and exhibition furniture. A large piece of driftwood raised above a horizontal metal base by three thin, extended arms, Untitled (Driftwood Bench) (2004), presents detritus as art, despite the utilitarian suggestions of its title. Aged wood occurs frequently in Bove’s work, both in the pieces that were displayed here and at David Zwirner, reflecting the artists keen interest in the past lives of all her materials. Nearby was a floriated piece of coral resting on a block of wood connected to a brass and concrete plinth (Coral Sculpture, 2008), the polished material interacting with Scarpa’s gleaming cases. This combination of soft, natural and hard-edged materials also dominated in ‘The Plastic Unit’ in works like Circles (2015) – white painted-steel pipes puncturing a glorious chunk of redwood.
In an adjacent room, Bove had designed a new setting for ‘Ambiente’ – placing the works on a large central plinth alongside her steel and petrified wood construction Cretaceous (2014) in a way that recalled her own work for the 54th Venice Biennale, The Foamy Saliva of a Horse (2011), which was installed in the Arsenale. The steel is mirrored in girders supporting the plinth, perhaps a nod to the exposed girders beneath the ground-floor ceilings in Scarpa’s Castelvecchio restoration. Bove designed individual plinths for Scarpa’s sculptures, themselves fusing materials. Scarpa’s largest work, Asta (1968), is a thin steel length that complemented its original location in the biennale – a tall, narrow atrium in which the work was suspended between the ground and first floors, drawing a line in space between them. A small bronze sphere attached to one end of the steel floated in the upper space. Bove’s For Asta (2011) replaces the Venetian architecture with a steel folding-wall framework to which Asta is attached at an angle. The bronze sphere remains high, reflecting the gallery as visitors come and go. While elsewhere Bove’s exhibition furniture seems subservient to Scarpa’s sculptures, For Asta is more ambiguous, reading – like Scarpa’s vitrines – as an autonomous work. The whole installation is pleasingly slippery to define: it’s hard to distinguish between what belongs to Bove and what to Scarpa, let alone between the artworks and the exhibition furniture.
A final room brought the dialogue between the two into the world of everyday things. Alongside another vitrine from the Museo di Castelvecchio – this time displaying Scarpa’s experimental prototypes (Twenty Tests for the Brion Tomb, 1969–78) – was Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (2003). The earliest work by Bove included in the show, it comprises three shelves holding second-hand books and found objects. The domestic set-up prompts consideration of how we interact with objects in a quotidian setting and the various reasons we select certain items for display in our homes while discarding others. Bove mines charity shops for these items, seeing them as archeological sites that reveal cultural moments through the objects left behind.
Bove’s shelf pieces have been much discussed in terms of their evocation of cultural periods, and time was a spectre that haunted the whole show. Just as Scarpa considered the ways in which the redisplay of objects could offer them new life, Bove prods the temporal nature of material things, their pasts and transformations, their innumerable future possibilities. One of her most striking works, Heraclitus (2014), is an assemblage of organic and industrial elements suggesting a frozen moment in the state of flux its namesake philosophized. It is fitting that, like the bronze sphere capturing its shifting surroundings, both Bove and Scarpa focus on the present, suggesting that, in a world of change, nothing is more precious than the perception of now.
First published in Issue 172