Jim Lambie: 20 Years of Zobop

The floor-forward works, which seeks to de-beige the art world, are celebrating a major anniversary.

by Calum Gordon
Mar 14 2019, 4:33pm

It started with an empty space, a nondescript floor and a bag of colored vinyl tape. Zobop, the artwork by Scottish artist Jim Lambie, was conceived for his first solo show in 1999, has since gone on to grace the floors of MoMA, the Royal Academy of Arts in London and, currently, the UK’s Tate Liverpool gallery. It also made a strong (but unofficial) appearance in Raf Simons’ SS11 menswear collection for Jil Sander, shown in Florence – and, more recently, has come to be a recurring, zany backdrop in the Instagram posts of Pieter Mulier, the recently-departed creative director at Calvin Klein and longtime right-hand to Simons.

It was, in fact, Mulier’s brightly colored apartment floors which first gave me cause to Google Lambie’s Zobop artwork, which is due to celebrate its 20th birthday this year – a landmark that had even crept up on Lambie prior to our conversation. But even two decades on, it remains visually punchy, filling and emptying a space at once, with layers of brightly colored tape that spill down staircases and sprawl across gallery floors. Despite being nominated for The Turner Prize in 2005 for a series of sensory sculptural works, it is arguably his floors which have best defined Lambie’s career to date.

When we speak over telephone, it seems the only natural question to ask, is if he feels like an wearied rock star having to play the same hit track night on night to rapturous crowds, while slowly growing to hate his own creation? For Lambie, that question might be particularly apt – much of his work is imbued with a pop-culture sensibility and romantic notions ‘60s and ‘70s rock and psychedelica. “It’s a fair point,” he laughs. But, fortunately, it’s one that is not too close to home. “It’s surprisingly fresh to me every time I do it, because no two spaces are the same, and no sequence is the same.”

“At the time I felt like the art world was looking a bit beige,” he says of the Zobop first presented at Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery. “I decided to go polar-opposite of that, and I thought I could do something that was very colorful and also brought emotion into the work.” It was also cheap. Lambie could buy up bundles of vinyl tape for next to nothing which, for a nascent artist, is extremely helpful.

“The rhythm” – built up through sequences of color – is what defines each iteration of Zobop, according to Lambie. The title itself was coined by the artist in reference to ‘Bebop’, the style of Jazz which emerged during the 1940s and characterized by its sudden and unpredictable chord progressions and key changes.

Music is a recurring theme not only in Lambie’s work, but also how he talks about it. (A 2005 installation at The Modern Institute in Glasgow, saw him present a series of ceramic birds dripping in neon paint, titled Byrds, in reference to how the ‘60s and ‘70s Californian rock band. They were presented with their backs to the viewer, in reference to how The Velvet Underground would perform). His father, he says, owned the first mobile discotheque in Scotland, while “mum did a bit of go-go dancing,” and his early musical diet consisted of the likes of English glam-rock outfit T. Rex and David Bowie. Lambie himself was a member of the Glaswegian band The Boy Hairdressers, which went on to become Teenage Fanclub. He had, however, exited by the time they went on to tour with Nirvana.

“For Zobop, once you start making it, you start to understand that what you’re doing is making a rhythm – a beat through the space. That happened quite intuitively,” says Lambie. “I guess I understood Zobop as almost like grooves in a record.

“It’s just part of that kind of soup that I live in – records and music, fashion, pop culture,” he adds. “That’s sort of a surface element. But most of the work, if not all, always has conceptual anchors on them. It’s not just me dragging things into focus randomly. There has to be a solid base line.”

When asked about Zobop’s pop culture cameos, Lambie demurs. The Jil Sander collection “wasn’t a collaboration. It just happened and someone pointed it out to me.” Raf – a fan, judging by the 2011 Wall Street Journal feature on his Antwerp home, which included Lambie’s Sonic Reducer concrete record box – did, however, send some pieces for Lambie’s archive. While Mulier’s apartment floors are presumably an old New York apartment they previously installed. “But it’s great to hear that people are actually living with it in a real space,” he says.

To stand on a Zobop floor feels almost dizzying. We are used to looking down at our shoes and being met with the sight of unremarkable wood or concrete – surfaces that suggest stability. In Zobop, that paradigm is upended. As noted by art critic Jonathan Jones, it is a work designed, like much of 20th century art, to “disrupt perceptions, [and] destroy preconceptions”, with the psychedelic influences that make it a little more vivid.

However, Lambie refuses to attach any meaning to the piece, preferring it to be left open to interpretation. “If it’s really only about being conceptual, that can be alienating. You need to be in control of the work to a certain point, but after that it’s important to let it go, and invite dialogue,” he says. There’s a democratic imperative to this thinking. Not simply is it an artwork you can literally stand on, but it can also be taken at face-value aesthetically, if you wish. (Or as a striking Instagram backdrop). Part of that may be Lambie’s upbringing in Glasgow – a working class city with a rich cultural and musical history, but also where even the faintest hint of pretentiousness will be roundly mocked.

That sense of accessibility for the audience courses through nearly all of Lambie’s work. When we speak, he is busy working on a new series of door sculptures, but the one thing he is most proud of, you sense, is his Glasgow venue The Poetry Club, opened in 2012. A nook of a space that exists with little else around it, and “far from a money-spinner,” it has allowed Lambie to hang out with his heroes, playing host to the likes of Patti Smith, John Giorno, and Richard Hell. The rest of the time, it exists to host local club nights and art shows. He refers to it as “a sort of living, breathing sculpture. The idea was that everything would be documented, photographed, recorded, filmed, as much as possible,” he says. “In my work I like that open-dialogue with an audience. I guess The Poetry Club is an extension of that as well.”

As for Zobop; will he still be laying floors of brightly hued tape in two decades time? “If I’m here in 20 years time, then possibly. But if not, I’m sure somebody else will.” Like the art world’s answer to a cover track, presumably.

jim lambie