Nacho Carbonell: weirdly wonderful art

Nacho Carbonell: weirdly wonderful art

Nacho Carbonell is a conceptual artist and designer whose work can leave you scratching your head when you first see it. But there is method in the madness and Carbonell's oeuvre is as much for the mind as the eye.

By Abby Trow
Fleeting Clocks by Nacho Carbonell, shown this year at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan

Nacho Carbonell's Fleeting Clocks, a time machine he made using soap and a mechanical arm fashioned from waste metal components, shown this year at the Rossana Orlandi Gallery in Milan. The soap is washed each day by the arm, so it slowly disappears. The artist and designer, who's based in The Netherlands, says he's acutely aware of change and how materials can become something else.

Nacho Carbonell's work isn't, it's probably fair to say, conventionally pretty or classically beautiful. You don't turn to him for pieces of art to complement your colour scheme or look nice on your console table in the hall. 
His work is invariably strange, surreal, fantastic – indeed weird is the adjective people tend to fall on to describe it. You certainly do need to understand what the artist is getting at...and when you do, it becomes fascinating.
'My work is an exploration of how we conceive design,' says Carbonell. 'And I like to see objects as living organisms, things that can come alive and surprise you with their behaviour. My pieces are conceptual, not practical, they are tactile and I like them to tell a story that makes a point about an aspect of life.' 
He cites his 2009 Tree Chair to explain what he's getting at. Starting with a simple wooden chair, which he sees as a girl, the chair looks around at trees which have provided the material she's made from. She would like to grow taller and merge with the trees from which she's come. So more tree waste is used to add to the chair, which in turn grows to resemble a tree.
Tree Chair and Tree Bench, 2009. The chair grows into a tree and becomes part of the material it's made from
Communication Line 2012 explored how we communicate
Blue Chandelier is made from discarded plastic tube filled with silicon and LEDs
Tree Chair in its earliest form
Nacho Carbonell says he likes to make his pieces using waste material, from leaves to broken glass
Communication Line. Carbonell's likes to give chairs an extraordinary presence and personality
'I'm looking at the circle of life,' says Carbonell. 'The tree is chopped down and it's used to become a chair. We use the tree waste – the dried leaves as well as the wood – to make the chair grow as it would in the natural environment. So the piece is about objects mutating, using one thing to become another, incorporating the waste of a material into a new object, and it's about going back to where we came from but in a new form.
'I am very aware of how we are constantly mutating. Our lives change so fast - particularly with technology at the moment,' he says, 'and that makes us more aware of the passing of time.'
He's not entirely comfortable with the description of his work as surreal, but acknowledges  he is taking you into the world of the imagination. 'My designs take you into different states of mind,' he says. 'We all do need to imagine if we're to explore a genre or a theme or an idea...'
His work is made by hand in his workshop/studio and Carbonell – who's recently become a father - works with teams of artists/designers that at times are just five strong but can grow to be 15-strong. 'It depends on the projects we're commissioned for. At the moment we're developing our ideas for a major commission for the Groninger Museum and those pieces have to be ready by November.' 
Thinking Chair. A chair with real thought bubbles, representing the cares and anxieties we carry in our heads
Soft LED lightbulb by Nacho Carbonell for Booo Company. Filled with rubber and LEDs, you can mould it and touch it without getting your fingers burned
It's an open and therefore daunting brief: 'We have to fill four rooms in the museum. We're still thinking about what we want to do, but I can say that one installation will definitely be a large scale piece.'
Carbonell trained as an industrial designer in Valencia before studying at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. He planned to stay for a year but has remained in Eindhoven.  Northern Europe is, he says, completely different to the south and he finds a liberation in being something of an outsider. 'I'm still an outsider in The Netherlands because I live in a Spanish bubble and to the Spanish rhythm (no supper before 11pm...) and I feel an outsider in Spain because I don't live there any more. But I like this because I'm not constricted by either society.'
Material man
In terms of his working methods, Carbonell says his studio is a place for expression, spontaneity and experimentation with materials, particularly waste materials. 'I do have to get my head around the brief if we're commissioned to make a piece, or I have to settle on the basic concept of what I want to communicate to people before I can make something myself.
'Then we take it from there. Regarding materials, we use everything from bronze to paper and then everything in between. I like to use natural and sustainable materials and I'm very keen to  make use of waste –  broken glass, or metal components for example. But I don't reject plastics and synthetic materials, and while we prefer not to have to wear masks to work with potentially hazardous materials, we will use the material that best suits what we're making.'
Artists need patrons
Carbonell's work is funded by a combination of commissions from public organisations such as museums and by private collectors who buy his pieces. He says he has huge respect for collectors because the art world depends on them. 'So no, I don't feel uncomfortable that some of my work goes into homes of wealthy people. I am very grateful for their patronage and that they appreciate what I do.
Trial Vases, 2011, made from plaster and fabric

'The great thing about art is you don't have to own it '

'But you know, the great thing about art is that you don't have to own it to be immersed in it and to be touched by it. All you have to do is go along to a museum or a gallery and maybe it'll cost you a little money to get in, that's all.'
Carbonell is disturbed by consumerism and the buying of stuff for the sake of it and says this is why he strives to make works that have an anthropomorphic quality. 'I like to make pieces that have a character, a soul, an inner beauty, so you don't see them as inanimate objects, rather they connect with you and you feel you would want to care for them.
'For me, I think it's important to stick with the things you have in your life that mean something to you. Don't throw them out and buy new. Having a sentimental attachment to a few things, pieces of furniture, clothes, for example, is a good thing.'