Cork-born artist George Bolster is based in New York City, with a studio just south of the historic Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Establishing a formidable career since the days of art school in his native city in the 1990s, Bolster’s resume speaks as much to how artists now function professionally as to his particular gifts. His profile is transnational with regular exhibitions in Europe as well as the US; when we spoke, he had just opened a solo at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre. Bolster’s work has become increasingly interdisciplinary and collaborative, and he is resolutely involved in theories and ideas – a concern with research that has come to underwrite much contemporary art. The artist has also has completed a number of important residencies and a major monograph of his practice, When Will We Recognize Us, will be published by Hirmer Verlag this year. Our paths first crossed at art school back in the day. I am interested to know how Bolster became the artist he now is, and what he thinks about the influences that shaped him.
Brian Curtin: What was your experience of art education in the 1990s – for example, the emergence of the influence of theoretical writings and a shift towards research-based practice?
George Bolster: I studied painting at Crawford and Chelsea colleges, and it is telling that I didn’t do any painting at the latter. In Cork the teaching was formalist and there seemed to be a fear of talking about art. But in London there was much more interest in art discourse. When I began at Chelsea, I was defensive because of my earlier experience, to the point that tutors took me aside and told me they were there to help me! I relaxed and taught myself to be supportive and constructive not dismissive. I was nicknamed Tristram Shandy, a figure of eccentricity.
I initially encountered theory through reading publications by Zone Books and this led me to conceptual art. But, with conceptualism, I felt there was a flattening of the poetic with a dry language and execution. Ideas of research-based practice became more appealing and a lot of my work has consequently been collaborative, whether working with musicians or scientists. With conceptualism, I felt restricted, though that may just be me!
BC: What was the London art scene like when you graduated?
GB: It was the time of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who had come from Goldsmiths as I was finishing my MA at Central Saint Martin’s. Goldsmiths’ graduates got most of the attention, with art dealers at their graduation shows, but I did exhibit at smaller, alternative venues including screenings at Chisenhale Gallery.
I never felt like a British artist, which was the brand, and had a problem with the term being celebrated due to colonial history. I didn’t try to fit in.
BC: A longer interview could unpack that. But at what point did you shift from ‘recent graduate’ to professional?
GB: I curated an international group exhibition ‘Multiplicity’ at Fota House in Cork in 2004 with Arts Council funding. This project continued for over a year because the final venue was Derry’s Context Gallery. Through this experience, I developed practical skills in all aspects of art administration, including pre-emptive problem-solving. ‘Multiplicity’ gave me a sense of being proactive and building community – something I had always yearned for, as being an artist can be lonely.
BC: How did your move to the US in 2008 play out in this respect?
GB: I initially moved to San Diego and responded to the sharp change by curating TULCA Festival of Visual Arts in Galway, which I titled ‘i-Podism: Cultural Promiscuity in the Age of Consumption.’ I worked with artists whose work had impacted me during my move, with the iPod as a metaphor for a personal digital library of important sights. It was also an auto-critique of the figure of the curator by removing any implicit sense of objectivity and embracing subjectivity – again, being proactive while pushing against expectations of who or what we are. Moving to the US was also important because I began the shift away from the deconstruction of Christian imagery in my early work.
BC: Was there a catalyst for that?
GB: I completed the Robert Rauschenberg Residency and then a residency at the SETI Institute – an organisation that investigates extraterrestrial life. I discovered Rauschenberg’s environmental activism in the 1960s and how, alongside Warhol and others, he created the ‘Moon Museum’ which was attached to Apollo 12 in 1969. I then visited NASA to research a project that digitises pre-Apollo mappings of the moon and began to further wonder about the conservation of artworks for the future. This project was housed in an old McDonald’s building because the ventilation system was perfect for archival storage. Essentially, I became interested in the need for us to evolve less damaging forms of technology for our cultural longevity in the universe.
BC: The installations you recently showed at Uillin: West Cork Arts Centre use large Jacquard tapestries with epic landscape imagery.
GB: I began with Jacquard in 2014 but the early experiments failed, and I returned to the medium in 2017. Back to your question about research, during the time of the residences, I met a scientist who spoke about the importance of failure in experiments. The concept of failure as a requirement for discovery gave me a more profound insight into, say, da Vinci than any study of art history ever could.
The Jacquard machine was the basis of computational language, a process of programming resulting in something akin to an analogue/digital image. I am interested in making a virtue of glitches, staging a sort of dysfunctional relationship between myself and the machine which is analogous of human relationships to the environment.
BC: Finally, how have your evolving interests affected you personally? During your introductory talk with Seán Kissane at Uillinn, you looped back to religion.
GB: I grew up in an atheist household. Religion depoliticises how you interact with the environment. If you think you’ll go to heaven, why care about the planet now? Belief, or unquestioned knowledge, causes us to stagnate, to exist in stasis. And, let’s face it, humans are a lot older than their gods.
George Bolster’s solo exhibition ‘Communication: We Are Not The Only Ones Talking…’ ran at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre from 7 January to 11 February.
Brian Curtin is an Irish-born art critic based in Bangkok. He is the author of Essential Desires: Contemporary Art in Thailand (Reaktion Books, 2021).