In the Bois is a three-part wall-mounted sculpture comprising three similar rectangular vitrines hung in a row, end to end, 8cm apart. Each vitrine is a five-sided MDF box with a Perspex front fixed either slightly below the top of the box or slightly above it, leaving a narrow opening at the bottom or top. The boxes are painted internally and each is illuminated by a small coil of neon light in a different colour. Viewing the work from left to right, the first box is pale pink and lit by an acid pink light; the second box is painted cream appearing violet in the light of a purple neon; and the third box is cool pale green, glowing warm in the centre around an orange coil. The second and third coils of light are not actually visible; they lie behind rectangular white polystyrene blocks that are positioned centrally in the vitrines, contributing significantly to the work’s visual structure. Other elements of this, placed either inside the vitrines or on top of them, include two small polystyrene spheres, off-cuts of wood – sawn variously from sections of plank, baton and from a branch – twigs, lumps of clay crudely modelled into abstract forms, and several of the artist’s signature little fluffy pompoms. Nails that appear to be pinning the Perspex sheets to the MDF boxes protrude visibly outwards, adding to the range of linear components already constituted by the black electric cables of the neon lights and the lengths of twig. At the extreme left of the sculpture, a roughly cut length of wooden baton is propped between the base of the first vitrine and the floor, appearing to support the box. This is balanced compositionally by a sawn-off stub of branch placed on the top right of the third vitrine. Streaks of yellow, silver and gold paint adorn the polystyrene balls and some of the clay lumps, while the red and violet pompoms sit at visually strategic points – nestling between bulges on a piece of clay or sitting on top of a polystyrene block.
Like most of Warren’s vitrine works, In The Bois presents an abstract composition in form, line and colour that plays on our desire to read meaning in what we see. At a first glance the vitrines appear to contrast strongly with the floor-based sculptures made of NewClay for which Warren first became known, such as Come, Helga and Versailles (both 2006, T12258 and T12259). The hand-modelled expressive clay sculptures reference sexual politics and a slippage between representation and formlessness or abstraction; the vitrine works’ opaque pared-down language – that deliberately resists reading at the same time as appearing to present it – is in fact another version of this. Warren has explained that her vitrines,
began as a counter to the idea of figuration ... For a museum, a vitrine is about preservation, airlessness, information and study, and your encounter happens from the outside. I realised that by trying to create an imperfectly sealed environment where the objects often also appear on the outside of the case, it would break that language of museum display. And so like the clay works around it in the room, the vitrine could be about that leakage, things shifting from one state to another, boundaries being pushed and broken. So, although initially I saw the vitrines as contrary to the clay works, I now see that they have similar properties.
Within the vitrines, I’m attempting to create these other spaces. They abstract an aspect of a room in which art is arranged – and simultaneously, of course, they function independently as art. So that the energies of placing, inclusion, proximity, similarity and difference do push here and there, interacting within the vitrines and into the room – like a show within a show.
(Quoted in Rebecca Warren, p.68.)
The title In The Bois suggests a landscape, its use of a French term ‘bois’ meaning wood, perhaps evoking the Parisian Bois de Boulogne, traditionally a place for illicit sexual activity. In the light of this, it is tempting to read upright segments of wood in the first and third vitrines as phalluses and to see a pair of buttocks in the lump of NewClay that cradles a red pompom in the first vitrine. However there are no further clues to reinforce this reading. In structure, Warren’s vitrine works recall the set of thirteen untitled vitrines created by German artist Joseph Beuys (1921–86) between 1949 and 1983, including T03825 and T03826. The objects that Beuys assembled in his vitrines are redolent with personal and spiritual significance, exploring the themes of his life and work in sculpture and performance. While a significant early antecedent to Warren’s vitrine works, Every Aspect of Bitch Magic 1996 – an assemblage of small recognisable objects, including two pairs of underpants, a bee in a glass jar, a shard of glass, a shell and a safety pin – appears to present an elusive system of symbolism and meaning personal to the (female) artist, her subsequent series of vitrine works have developed a focus on more formal visual concerns.
Rebecca Warren, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2009.
Rebecca Warren: Dark Passage, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Zürich 2004.
Turner Prize 2006, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain 2006, [pp.12–13] and [p.15].