For some years now Simon Strong and Robert Doble have been collaborating on a unique body of work that explores not only the human body, but the extremes of their own use of materiality. Combining cutting edge photographic technologies with the time honoured use of paint in abstraction, their collaboration is truly inimitable, made all the more so by the fact they usually present their works on sturdy aluminum. The mix of materials hints at an alchemical process suggesting, despite the science fictional imagery, a timeless quest.
Forever restless, Doble & Strong have expanded their collaboration and in doing so have taken their sense of timelessness, of mixed alchemical processes, even further. Their new collaborators are somewhat unusual in the contemporary art world sense. They are a group of Tibetan weavers in Nepal.
It would, perhaps, be more accurate to say that their new collaborators are Behruz Studios, a group renowned for design and unparalleled industry knowledge and clearly, in taking on this project, a group unafraid of experimentation. In taking on this collaboration Doble & Strong have shifted materials from gloss enamels and chromogenic prints to bespoke hand woven silk and wool.
If Doble knows paint and Strong knows technology and photography, it is Behruz Aligorgi who knows silk and wool. Several times a year, Aligorgi travels to remote areas and villages in the Middle East, Asia and areas of Europe to find rare and individual carpets, rugs, kilims and textiles. He is a specialist in both antiques and contemporary rug making. Whilst his usual aesthetics run to more traditional motifs and designs, he was clearly unafraid to take on the avant garde.
The strange genesis of this even stranger project harks back to Doble & Strong’s first collaborative outing, First Born, in 2010. As part of that exhibition the two artists had produced a suite of works on paper, odd and largely abstracted ‘sketches,’ experiments in line and form. A friend of the artists, interior designer Stuart Rattle, upon perusing these works, decided a meeting with Behruz Aligorgi was in order. Fairly rapidly it became apparent that these drawings had transmogrified into working plans for a bravura suite of rugs. Packing the drawings into his luggage, Aligorgi headed for Nepal.
One can only wonder what the Tibetan women thought as Aligorgi revealed his plans. Rug making in Tibet, and slightly later in Nepal and India, has a history hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the making. Much of it remains based on designs that have passed through generations, often simple geometric motifs or gau – amulet – designs and motifs derived from Chinese imagery. Doble & Strong’s imagery is, to say the least, somewhat different.
Derived largely via a fascination with the human body, Doble & Strong ‘operate’ on the form. The weavers have caught this sense of organic flow. While keeping astoundingly loyal to the original designs, their materials have added a new texture, a softness that belies the strangeness of the forms the artists have concocted. A major contribution to this is the fact that, unlike most artworks, these have been created to touch and, in doing so, a softness enters the equation. “These work because they are from original artworks that weren’t drawn for rugs,” Robert Doble notes. That simple fact gives these works an eccentric honesty. The subjects are in essence about the human body and it is not difficult interacting with them in a physical way – these are artworks that one may even wish to make love on.
Aligorgi along with his son and design director, Amir, visited the Nepal workshop with colour scans of the artworks to introduce the collection to the community of Tibetan weavers. Inevitably, this being a conservative Buddhist community there was at least one query as to how, and indeed, why such images would come into being. It was, perhaps, a communications problem that was inevitable given the differences in cultural backgrounds at play. Aligorgi reassured them, juxtaposing Doble & Strong’s approach to the writing of music. From that point the weavers joined in enthusiastically.
There were, however, innumerable hours to be invested by the Behruz team. Transferring the initial drawings to digital plans that could be followed by the weavers was in itself a painstaking task. Amir was assigned the task of ensuring that no detail was missed in any of the artworks and that every stroke of a paint brush was captured and every globule of paint was the correct shape and dimension. In all too many cases the colours needed did not exist in traditional died wools and required specific manufacturing at the Nepal workshop. Further trips to Nepal had to be undertaken and Aligorgi admits that there were moments of total despair mixed with exhilaration. “There was an element of risk,” Behruz Aligorgi says, his eyes lighting up with infectious enthusiasm. “It has to be an adventure!” Meanwhile the balance of the Behruz team, Bridget Ryan and Anna Krongold were kept frantically busy both colour matching and proofing the computerised graphs.
For indeed, these are far from traditional rugs or carpets. They are saturated not only with a cacophony of colouration and form, but also with ideas. Doble & Strong’s fascination with the human body is regularly expressed via medical and biological referents and terminology in their titles. NEOTENY, for instance, is the retention by adults of traits seen only in the young while ENDOSPORE, which is suggestive of a spore or seed-like form is in fact a dormant object unable to reproduce. The Rorschach Test-like form of EXAPTATION references a shift in the function of a trait during evolution, something which is also reflected in INDUSTRIAL MELANISM which refers to the darkening of the skin, feathers, or fur by creatures living in an industrial region where the region is darkened by soot, a form of natural selection.
Of course the collaboration between Doble, Strong and Behruz (and, sadly posthumously, Stuart Rattle) causes something of a quandary. Are they art works or furnishings? Where can the line be drawn? Should they be hung on the wall as exquisite works of art or laid on the floor where the soles of the feet can luxuriate in silk and wool? And will they, in centuries to come, be hung in museums to be examined by anthropologists, historians and theologians, musing over their religious and cultural symbolism and the odd culture that produced them?