Text by

Jean-Baptiste Carobolante

About Deborah Bowmann


“Artists must not express the context/content of the age, but rather must first give context/content to the age.”
—Konrad Fiedler


Between 1964 and 1965, the neighborhood of Queens, New York was home to an international fair, introduced by the following slogan: “Peace through understanding.” At the time, the United States was in the midst of the Vietnam War and had recently borne witness to the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy. In handing the reins of conception to WED Enterprises, builder of Disneyland, the intention of the fair organizers was clear. The event served to give back hope to a country in total disarray, by presenting a solid, stable, and all-conquering America. PepsiCo, General Electric, and Ford each presented mesmerizing attractions, created to glorify Western civilization by a disguised summoning of familiar myths. Primeval World enabled the viewer to travel from the beginning of world to the first human industry, erasing the dark hours of human history in favor of a victorious step toward 1960s capitalism. It’s A Small World took the form of a slow boat ride along a river, on the banks of which little manikins sang the glory of the fraternal universal union, offering a form of exoneration for colonizing countries. With current events causing both national and international disillusionment, the New York World Fair of 1964 tried, by the means of its machinery, to recapture the specters of a triumphant America in redefining the history of humanity.

For the organizers, this was meant to ratify the social codes, aesthetics, and technologies born in the 1950s, the decade of the ‘American Dream’, leaving out all mention of counter-cultures. Through the objects and images presented during the exhibition, the desire was clear: to hold the visitor in a patriarchal, consumerist, and familial atmosphere, everything was done to consolidate the image of stability by means of merchandise. This aspect reminds us of the astounding forms the world’s first international fair: the 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London. The organizer Henry Cole wanted to create an exhibition that celebrated work and the value of use and exchange. However, shortly before the opening of the exhibition, the organizers decided to remove all labels detailing price and origin that were attached to each object and changed the spatial arrangement of the event. Thus, instead of a glorification of work, an idealization of goods as objects-without-origin was presented, revealing to the consumer simply their erotic and auratic value. One hundred years later, the arrangement of the New York World Fair was identical, presenting a universe rather than the particular: a comfortable, virtual reconciliation rather than reality.


Today, the current production of artistic objects follows similar ideological lines. The Deborah Bowmann project was born in this context in 2014 in Amsterdam, before moving to Brussels during the summer of 2015. Deborah Bowmann is composed by Amaury Daurel and Victor Delestre, who disguise themselves behind this moniker in order to produce objects, events, and a gallerist personality. Deborah Bowman is simultaneously a fictitious artistic identity, a brand, and a place for the exhibiting and selling of objects. For each exhibition, different artists are asked to contribute objects, constituting a new collection. Alternating between the grey suit of the gallerist and work overalls while they produce the works, the two accomplices render the artistic act performative, adapting it for the self-employed. Deborah Bowman constructs a mythic position that turns artistic work into product. Not long ago, we saw them in suits and on roller skates at Amsterdam Central Station, distributing flyers for their next exhibition. They play the game of flashy advertising, of the obligatory bureaucracy and economic viability of the artistic position, in order to better criticize this obligation and propose a subversive alternative. Whether it be in Amsterdam, in Brussels, or even in Paris in February 2016, when they designed displays for the fashion brand Andrea Crews, Deborah Bowmann is the opposite of an inversion of business strategy: they hide themselves behind a business front in order to propose an artistic position.


Their first exhibition-collection, “Blue curtains, black coffee,” organized in the much talked about Post-Norma, Amsterdam, in December 2014, summoned the arcade aesthetic of the 1950s as a symbolic means of proposing a subversive artistic alternative against practical and phantasmagoric usage predetermining the object of consumption. This event, a collaboration with Stéphane Barbier Bouvet, Heather and Rosetta, Jurjen Van Houte, and Clémence Seilles, was introduced as follows: “The collection ‘Blue curtains, black coffee’ showcases a selection of unique accessories and furniture pieces on the path of 50’s business class. From a ‘two-in-one bed’ to artisan ashtrays, from pajamas to tie holders, we present to you a range of items to reinvigorate and energize your quiet bedroom.”[1] This excerpt could have been issued straight from the literature of the New York World Fair of 1964, presenting the object ironically as a simple auratic object without origin, with the power to improve the personality, the sociability, and the family life of the possessor. However, there is something else that is revealed beneath this game of referents / referential game. The principal pieces of this exhibition were the imposing canopy beds, sold as objects of design but finding their raison-d’être in the necessities of Post-Norma squat life. The two artists lived within the exhibition during the entire run, such that the beds, as well as the pajamas, which were produced for the exhibition, were also for the immediate use of the artists. The artistic act starts here, in the necessity simply to survive in a consumer society. With the Deborah Bowmann project, the artist is not simply a producer of objects of market value, but instead emerges somewhere between the creator of a world and the artisan offering practical objects. In this exhibition, we also found a whole series of plate-ashtrays and madcap trinkets that would look perfectly at home on the desk of a CEO. Far from the auratic object unconnected from the real, the work of art is something that we utilize even if its intended use does not reveal itself at first glance. We can exhaust the work, by using it simultaneously as an aesthetic and a practical object. In this act of profanation, the work leaps from its glass case to fall into our hands. The exhibition also presented mural-lamps, which seemed to be mass-produced. This highlights an important fact for current artistic practices, perhaps symbolized in “Blue curtains, black coffee” by the four paintings of gentlemen smoking. The artist of the twenty-first century must take into account the mass-produced aspect of their work. Producing is selling, and selling is the necessity to reach targets. Each painting, each sculpture must be accompanied by its twin, in order that everyone may own one.


Finally, “Blue curtains, black coffee” is striking because it is representative of an ontological shift in the position of the artist that has been operative for the past few decades. In 1916, Walter Benjamin accorded an important place in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama to the artistic melancholy known as “Saturnism.” The Saturnine is the lone artist, suffering and creating in the silence of her or his garret.


Many among us still consider the artist in this light, seeing in them an eccentric person, smoking joints and painting the fruits of her or his hallucinations. While we accept the astrological reasoning suggested by Benjamin, one might dare to suggest that since the fall of the avant-gardes and the advent of Warholian art, the artist is no longer a lonely, tortured Saturnine maker, but rather a Neptunian being. Neptune, in planetary and mythological continuity is a mythological figure incarnating the deluge and the fight, two forces in which Karl Marx saw fundamental traits of capitalism.


The Neptunian artist is perhaps being evoked by J.G. Ballard in his preface to Crash!, when he writes about what distinguishes the twentieth century from the previous century: “I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly the roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”[2] Neptune could be the planet of artists, but those who are fighters rather than depressives, alcoholic party-animals rather than solitary dreamers.


With Deborah Bowmann, from their first show “Blue curtain, black coffee,” to the new collection-exhibition, “Starting over and Failing again” (at their eponymously named art space, Brussels, March 17 to May 15, 2016), the artist is no longer she or he who creates the sensitive auratic object salvaged from 1851 by capitalist consumer society, but someone who creates use value and sidesteps exchange value. It is perhaps in this sense that we might understand these words from Victor Delestre: “The main question of this research was then: What kind of subversive behaviors to adopt toward belief and government systems? How to make them impotent, how to profane, even for a second, the pseudo-destiny of things?”[3]


We must come back to a comprehension of the artistic act something that, according to Hannah Arendt, creates a world, and which allows us to find again the intensity of the real. We can understand Delestre’s statements in this light: to produce of the world in our age is to make profane, to go back to usage. Deborah Bowmann skews the destiny of objects in giving them an absurd usage and renders impotent any governance of the real. If this project-artwork really is a constant celebration, then we can agree with Delestre, that it is a response to the overflow of capitalism, the management of desire, and those images born in the 1950s that were glorified in New York in 1964. The Deborah Bowmann project, initiated with “Blue curtains, black coffee,” is an indispensable form of resistance in the current Western art world—a form of resistance that it is up to us to celebrate.


[1] See: http://www.deborahbowmann.com/?Blue%20curtains,%20Black%20coffee-copy (accessed March 4, 2016).

[2] J.G. Ballard, Crash (London: Harper Collins, 2014), v.

[3] Victor Delestre, “They call me baby but I am a lady // In vain, we will dance // Thesis Defence” (date unknown), http://www.victordelestre.com/texts.html (accessed March 9, 2016).