Alternative Worlds – The renowned sculptor Martin Boyce discusses reinterpreting reality and finding beauty in the abject

WHEN Martin Boyce won the career-changing Turner Prize in 2011, it was with a seamless, two-decade body of work in tow, defined by what the artist has described as “landscapes”. The work that spurred Boyce’s receipt of one of the art world’s most covetable awards was a presentation most characteristic of the Scottish artist, one that transformed the white cube spaces of the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead into a scene reminiscent of an autumnal urban park, complete with metallic trees and scattered paper leaves. Using everyday objects that had been ever so slightly altered, Boyce depicted a world that had somehow become skewed. The display, entitled Do Words Have Voices, was almost ghostly, and admired for its intensely poetic qualities.

Over the course of the last 20 years, Boyce, who was born in the town of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, in 1967, has become celebrated for his quietly imposing sculptural installations that elevate seemingly unremarkable settings into atmospheric, often eerie, encounters. Through his carefully constructed arrangements, the artist explores the psychological dynamics of our associations with the structures and interiors that we experience daily. As well as reinterpreting sources found in municipal backdrops, such exploration springs from the artist’s interest in 20th century design and architecture, drawing especially heavily on modernist pioneers.

In some of his most famous creations Boyce mutates waste paper baskets into acid green lopsided rectangles (Perforated and Porous (sulphur), 2010) and ventilation grills into majestically patterned, glowing brass grids (Ventilation Grills (Our Breath And This Breeze), 2007). Similarly, in Now I’ve Got Worry (Storage unit) 1,1997, the iconic 1950s storage unit conceived by the mid-century modern designers Charles and Ray Eames was refabricated, with the artist replacing the original plywood panels with roughly positioned sections of coarse board. Segments of chairs designed by the Eames, and fellow modernist Arne Jacobsen, also form the foundation of sculptures such as We Pass But We Never Touch, 2003, and Night Tulip, 2009.

Boyce, who in 2015 received a critically-lauded survey show at the illustrious RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, is represented in numerous museum collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate in London, Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

FRONT COVER Martin Boyce Installation View Winter Palms, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York 2011Martin Boyce Installation View Winter Palms, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York 2011

When do you feel it all started working out for you?
I can’t think of precise moments, but there are times when you do an exhibition and you think, is that it? Will there ever be another exhibition for me? You just don’t know. And then, of course, you don’t notice the moment when there seems to always be something on the horizon.

Would you say that you have generally wanted to keep a low profile?
I lived in Berlin for a period, around 2005 to 2007, and it felt like you were living in one of the major cities of the world, with all the history that goes with that. It was incredibly focused in terms of the art community, but in a very different way to, say, New York or London. The economic might isn’t there, but the activity is there. It was really nice to be part of that. Other artists were around all the time.

I live in Glasgow now, and there is a real absence of that atmosphere, which I think has actually been very useful in relation to how artists have developed there. There isn’t any art-collecting situation, there isn’t any money as such, but there are a lot of artists. It’s where I live and work, but it’s not the art world. That kind of atmosphere I think would allow one’s ego to reach a funny place. I’m not particularly prone to that in any case, but sometimes I forget that I have what has become quite a significant career. Sometimes it takes me by surprise. I realise that I’ve actually been making work for quite a long time now.

I have to ask about the Turner Prize.
I had a really great experience with it. I know there have been some artists who perhaps haven’t. It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but I think it makes other people more decisive. People suddenly decide that they want to work with you, and you feel that you must take advantage of the opportunities being offered. It didn’t make any difference in relation to the work itself though. I don’t know how it possibly could have done.

Martin Boyce Dead Star 2013, Steel, Blackened steel, cast aluminium and paint, 60 x 40 x 40cmMartin Boyce Dead Star 2013, Steel, Blackened steel, cast aluminium and paint, 60 x 40 x 40cm

Did you have any sense that you might win?
There are definitely artists who want to win the prize, or feel entitled to win it. There’s a public vote, which I don’t think has any impact on who actually wins, but you see on social media that there have been artists who send out messages asking people to vote for them. I find that quite disturbing. I’ve never tried to engineer things. You just have to make the work as good as you can. That should be the thing that propels you forward.

You rely heavily on sources to inform your work. What were you looking at early on, when you were just starting out?
My art historical education isn’t that great. It’s not scholarly by any means; I’m just drawn to what I’m drawn to. At Glasgow School of Art, where I studied, it was very practical – doing things, making things, working through a project. Negotiating a space was also critical. I made a lot of public art projects, so part of the work was actually trying to find a space where you wanted to make something.

You learnt how to get on the phone, or write a letter. Dealing with people becomes such a large part of being an artist. Anyway, all I knew when I was going through school was that I loved the art class. I wanted to go art school, but I didn’t actually know what happens at art school. The big part for me was the kind of people that I imagined I would meet, rather than what I would actually do. I wanted to be immersed in a world where there would be people like me.

What sort of person did you have in mind?
I suppose people with funny haircuts and badly fitting, second-hand clothes, who were into the same bands as me. I’m a great hoarder of images as I walk around, and certainly at that age you’d go to a gig to watch a band and you would just be… there would be all of these older kids who would be so much cooler. I’d be studying their shoes and how they rolled up their jeans. That world was so exciting. I wanted to create something similar within art, and lo and behold I went to art school and it felt like there were these people waiting for me.

Was there an established group of artists working in the city during that time?
The thing about Glasgow is that there wasn’t a generation of artists before us that we looked up to. There were people we reacted against, for sure. But when you’re younger you tend to easily write people off in that way anyway. So, for example, there was a group of figurative painters who we reacted against. In terms of influence, we really just had each other. Some of those people are still some of my favourite artists now.

Martin Boyce Installation view night terrace lantern chains - forgotten seas - The Modern Institute Toby Webster Ltd Glasgow 2011Martin Boyce Installation view night terrace lantern chains – forgotten seas –
The Modern Institute Toby Webster Ltd Glasgow 2011

Like who?
Douglas Gordon has made some astonishing work. Very early on he made some really brave pieces. He was the trailblazer in the sense that he was the first one out of the group who would be travelling around the world to do shows. I’ll always remember a residency programme he did, where he lived in a room upstairs and the small gallery was one floor below.

For his exhibition he took his phone off the hook – this is during the pre-mobile era – made a hole in the floor, and put the phone receiver through the hole so that it hung by itself in the gallery. I think it was called something like Dead Line in Space.

From that work I realised that it didn’t have to be this big, shiny object, or huge painting. An action could really hold a space, and had enough weight to it to keep you thinking over time. Early on I also looked at a lot of American artists. Richard Prince was important. Robert Gober is still extremely important to me. Haim Steinbach, who I really loved at art school, in fact shows with the gallery that I am now represented by in New York.

Where does craftsmanship sit within your practice? Many of your works feel as though you are deliberately trying to avoid them looking pristine, and you also are known for taking existing objects – such as the Eames cabinet or Jacobsen chairs – and reconfiguring them.
Yes, I am interested in this thing of making objects that look like they have had a bit of a life already. In the sculpture where I use the chair parts, the chair had already been used, so it had a patina of age on it. Then I cut it up and made it into a mask or another sculpture. But I think other more recent works have an artificial weathering. It’s like layering time over the object, so that it looks like it has been outside in the elements, rusting or whatever. In order for some of these things to exist, there is a design process.

So for the chandelier (A Raft in the Roof, 2009) I had to work out how those four planes would fit together to create a three-dimensional shape, but I also had to leave space for the wiring and so on. The design process was what allowed it to exist as a sculpture. In terms of making distinctions, I just see myself as an artist who is drawn to things in the built environment. The things I tend to kidnap and pull into the work have some kind of design aspect in one way or the other.

So there aren’t any distinctions to be made between the different sources you look to?
No. I don’t really see a huge distinction between a Marcel Breuer tubular steel chair and a park bench. One we know the author of, and we know the legacy it holds; the other is unauthored. But the two things ultimately come from the same sort of place. Both hold equal fascination for me because they both describe a landscape. Ultimately, I am always coming back to landscape, and I like to think that my works produce a type of scene. A part of how one looks at my work might come from imagining the site where these artefacts or objects have originated from.

Martin Boyce Ventilation Grills (Our Breath And This Breeze), 2007, Acid etched brass, 5 parts each 23 x 42 cmMartin Boyce Ventilation Grills (Our Breath And This Breeze), 2007, Acid etched brass, 5 parts each 23 x 42 cm

The recent RISD Museum exhibition, which was your debut solo show at an American museum, set up Film Noir as one of your main themes, which must add to this overall sense of landscape.
Film Noir has been important up to a certain point, probably until around 2002. There was a great article in Blueprint magazine called ‘Design Noir’ written by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They proposed this idea that certain modifications of an object would introduce us to think about them differently. So imagine a telephone combined with a lie detector, for example. That would completely change your interaction with the person you were talking to. I started to wonder, well, could you make a noir sculpture, or a noir installation? Could you somehow borrow some of that thought process from cinema and apply it to art?

How did the exhibition at the RISD Museum come about?
As an artist you’re not the one who makes the choices. You respond to invitations. Dominic Molon, the curator, carried out his first studio visit with me 15 years ago, so we’ve known each other and bumped into each other over that time. The context for the show works very well. The museum is quite incredible, as well as the art school that is attached to it.

Does it feel like the right time for you to have had what could be understood as a retrospective?
Yes, it does feel like the right time. The word retrospective sends shivers down most artists’ spines, but of course there is an element of survey. We were trying to pull things together that have relations with each other. I did another museum show last year in Basel and that was very different from the RISD Museum’s presentation. The curator was very keen to have one work per room. My instinct, of course, was to include something else, but the curator was absolutely insistent. Working with Dominic, we just started by thinking about the possibilities.

What has sustained your interest in sculpture?
It is things in a space that interests me, and making relationships between things. Technically, yes, it may be sculpture, but the arrangement of the objects is so crucial, in order to create that landscape, and to establish those relationships between things.

Are you consciously looking for certain formal qualities, and do you find yourself being drawn to the same kinds of things?
Definitely. It’s always a small pocket of the environment or certain objects that seem to be right on the cusp of something. We might be uncertain as to what their value is. You catch sight of a bit of a park or a bit of a waste ground that is now so abandoned and run-down, but that has this amazing sculptural presence. It’s the emotional presence of objects that I think I’m really interested in. How they trigger the emotions in me or the viewer, but also how the objects themselves might have some kind of emotional make-up.

I like the idea that you feel as though you have just sort of found my work. I would actually like to feel myself like I have found it. There’s a half-way house where I have to be in control of every element of it, but in some instances you’re hoping that something strange or unexpected will happen. You start a process and you see what emerges. There’s a bit of room for surprises.

 by Allie Biswas


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