For a small sect that has never had a global membership higher than a few thousand souls, the Shakers have had an outsize cultural impact. With their dedication to beautifully modest and minimal design, their aesthetic influence has echoed down the centuries, from Modernist cereal-box architecture, to wood-n-whitewash worshipping magazines like Kinfolk.
Shakerism influences the work of Carlos Bunga, a Portuguese-born, US-based artist. He’s taken inspiration not just in Shaker aesthetics in this one-room show, currently on at Whitechapel Gallery. (The show notes also cite the Shakers' dedication to racial and gender equality, which was very radical in the 18th century when the sect was founded, and pretty radical today too.)
Bunga specialises in these kind of architectural interventions, with work that responds to the room in which it’s placed. This one’s part of a former school, which Whitechapel Gallery swallowed in its latest expansion. It’s a light and airy space, with high windows and two lines of supporting pillars, painted white.
The intervention comes in a floor-to-ceiling cardboard shell: the outside is painted with zinc-rusted green on one side, white on the other, giving the appearance of weathered clap-board, like an old Shaker house. But the inside is unadorned cardboard, showing that outer appearances aren’t what they seem - and that what looks old and strong might just be fragile and temporary.
Around the perimeter of the room is a wooden rail, on which hang beautifully simple tools: scissors, shoe horns and so on. (And so Kinfolk, that magazine’s now deeply clichéd look garbles Bunga’s message a bit.) The irresistible prettiness of the scene means the observer catches the details: the wooden ladder leaning against the rail, with its bedded in screws and engrained spider webs, or the stippling of woodworm on the ladder-back chair, hanging upside down from the rail.
Shakers believed in a sort of moral improvement through the creation and use of beautiful, functional objects. Necessary and useful. The objects around the perimeter of this room are built to last. Throughout the exhibition though, Bunga will progressively cut up the central cardboard shell, until it’s destroyed, then packed away, at the show’s close. Leaving us to wonder about the point of it all.
Carlos Bunga: Something Necessary and Useful is at Whitechapel Gallery (London). January 21 - September 06 2020