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Martin Boyce

Martin Boyce is an artist working in Glasgow. He makes work that draws on Modernist design history to create sculptural pieces evoking whole worlds of their own. We talked to him as he installed Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours, a new piece for Tramway.

Could you maybe talk me through what is going to be in the gallery? It’s new work - is it a departure from what you’ve done in the past?

It’s a new installation, but it naturally relates to previous work. I have been wanting to introduce a new tone to the work, it’s not a departure, that would be wrong, but it maybe has… well, a lot of the previous work is quite dark, or creating this idea of another landscape, or an imaginary location that’s been quite noir, quite cinematic, using objects to be triggers for these places. The idea with this was to create something more poetic, more romantic. Although it’ll probably end up being a bit dark. The lights will be quite low. I want it to have a more open, more poetic quality to it. A lot of the work in the past has deployed some specific elements from modernist design history, and they’re all archetypes of that period, that notion of how to put objects together. And alongside modernism, you have this ethos of modernism - democratic, mass-produced, that edged toward a sort of utopian vision. I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of utopias, and the way we can create them for ourselves, the way you create a space for yourself, whether that’s a physical space, a psychological space or an emotional space that you could describe as a utopia. A teenagers bedroom could be described as a utopia. I wanted to have that same feeling, of a space you might have occupied as a teenager, that place you find for yourself. Exterior spaces liek a park at night. The kind of urban park, that gap between the city and the suburbs, or gaps inside the city. So the show will have black chain-link fencing, I’ve designed benches, and there’s sculptures that take the form of rubbish bins and abstracted tree shapes. The height of the space will be quite dark, the lighting will be quite low, so i’m really thinking of the exhibition as a landscape that you can really walk through and occupy. You can sit on the benches, and spend time there like you would in a park, but it’s a fragmented park, with elements from an imaginary location, so the fences are quite sculptural, I might not position the benches in a traditional way, they might find themselves in odd locations or upside down. I don’t know, you start to play with these things once you get in the space. There’s also an animated projection, which will project onto the full height of the wall. I’ve been making these wall paintings for years, using a diagonal grid as the template, and by filling in the squares you can make text. In the animation, these squares are going to fill in slowly to make a text. I don’t want it to be written anywhere before people see the exhibition, but the text will hint that the landscape is dreaming itself into existence. It will all sort of hover between being a real place and an imaginary place.

Is that something of a departure, in that you’re dealing with the outside, rather than interiors.

Yeah, it’s maybe not a huge leap. All my work has dealt with the city, in terms of the built environment. This is the same, but in the past I’ve dealt with buildings that are occupied. It’s been about this idea of domestic spaces, and the objects have alluded to those sorts of environment. I just did a show which is still currently on at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, and that’s based on a lobby space, a sort of imaginary classic glass tower corporate building. It’s about that kind of space, with lobby chairs and table frames and ashtrays. In a sense, this show is using the same format to describe a different landscape, so you have the benches, the trees and bins working in a similar way to describe a very different landscape. The idea really is that a landscape or a building and the narrative that surrounds those places can be described through detail. If you have an ashtray, it requires a surface to support it: a table. And a table requires a room, and so on. By the specific look and design of these objects I can hopefully encourage and suggest the type of space they might occupy. You start to build outwards from them.

So you’re leaving clues for people to generate spaces and ideas from?

Yeah, that’s just one of the possibilities. That’s what I’m thinking about when I make the work, but what the viewer will think when they’re in these spaces is difficult to work out. I like the idea that these objects are not for here as such, there for a future location, or from a former location, so it becomes about the time surrounding the object as much as the object itself, as if the object has had a life, or will have a life. That’s what interests me, the narrative that might surround things.

So you’re sparking off possible histories as much as possible spaces.

Definitely, that idea of time and histories is really important.

Right. When it comes to the way you use aspects of design history, and what you do is in some way designing, as opposed to other traditional art practices… I was just wondering about how you see that process, the role of deigning in what you do…

That was something i used to think about a lot more than i do now. There was a period when I thought, ‘I’m really interested in design, maybe I should be a designer.’ I think art is about the desire to be an artist, ultimately it;s about freedom to do what you want to do. Sorry, that sounds like the lyrics to an awful song, but it is about that. It’s not an attempt to be radical, what i do follows the lineage of art history quite comfortably, but if the object is a bust or a figurative sculpture or a chair, I’ve ceased to see the difference, they’re all forms and shapes that encourage ideas and contain ideas. It’s more than context - it’s not that designing a chair and putting it in a gallery makes it art. It’s maybe quite subtle distinctions. The chair i designed for the show in Frankfurt was originally part of a different project - to design a chair. The problem that posed was that i didn’t know why we needed another chair, there’s plenty of wonderful chairs out there, why would i want to add to that? So that made me think about what this chair could be for, and I invented this imaginary location. I gave myself a brief if you like. The chair is called ‘Chair for the foyer of 1959 Capital Avenue’ so just by giving the chair that title, you already start wondering about this place - you’re not in it, where is it? If you choose the word designed it does stress a certain way of looking, but ultimately, on an equestrian stature the armature would have to be designed, say, and the process is not that different, but the histories of art and design are different.

Yeah, it just occurred to me that when you look at your work… I mean, I wasn’t sure if you designed objects and assembled them to make a work, or if the design process was just exactly the same as any artistic practice…

I think it is. It’s difficult to pinpoint what’s going on. My activity, my way of designing, although it is similar to what a designer would do, but if a designer looked at my work, they would say, ‘This could never be mass produced’ or something. BY making it an artwork you are free to make what you want to make, but then the way my mind works these things do have an economy to them, and also because i want them to feel part of this lineage of an imaginary modernist history, so they do reference things, there is an economy of materials… My activity and the activity of a designer are quite different: I don’t have a client, I don’t have a brief, and that changes things massively.

So you are using the language of design to make your art?

It’s a collapse of the two, and there’s lots of other artists whose works look like design, and when you get down to that microcosm of the art world, I actually don’t do what other artists do, I feel very different to other artists who use design.

One thing about doing a show at Tramway is the whopping great gallery you have to work in, is that a big part of what you’re doing? Did that scale suggest the idea of the park, the outside?

Very much so. I used to work on the installation crew here for years, and so I know the space very well, although in a weird way every time you go into that space it’s shrunk or expanded. Also, there’s making a show for your home city, and those kind of pressures, having a sense of the makeup of your audience… One of the big things behind this show was a show here in ‘93 or so, called Sugar Hiccup. It was Richard Wright and Elizabeth Bally. Elizabeth Bally had salt on the floor as part of her installation, and I remember the way people behaved on the opening night. People were lying in the salt, making snow angels, so it felt like being outside, it really transformed the space. NOt that I’m trying to trigger the same kind of responses, but that triggered the idea of the space here as an exterior landscape, or a fragment of exterior landscape. With the scale of it, you can get close to that in a way that’s very different to normal interior space. Another idea, the first idea, was about the modernist house. The classic glass rectangle, and I’d been reading this really nice essay by Jeff Wall about how by day the glass in these houses is clear, you can view your property, but at night it gets dark outside and light inside, and the glass turns to mirror you’re own reflection. So i had this idea of building a glass pavilion in the space, so that when you were inside it, you couldn’t see out, but when you were outside you could see in, to create this sort of little paranoia about that. I don’t even know what triggered it, but the final idea just came while i was lying in bed, and i just saw this sort of dark chain-link fence, maybe a park or a five-a-side pitch, just a weird collapse of the materials you find in those places, and I literally got up and opened my computer and made a series of notes - that’s where the whole thing came from, and obviously has this idea of exterior space around it. I might even have see some of this stuff around that time. [opens folder of s] Most of the magazines I have lying around are fashion magazines and interiors magazines. (shows photos of urban parks, tennis courts, etc.) This sort of thing I just find really interesting, this kind of landscape. These spacial qualities.

The way everything is sort of semi-enclosed?

Yeah, you’re outside, but there are defined spaces. There’s also something romantic about them, a sort of mythical teenage thing going on. The title of the show is Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours. I had the idea to call it that, but didn’t know if i could pluck up the courage. It’s quite odd. The source is this New Order song, so I wanted this romantic quality, coupled with the hardness of New Order, coupled with the hardness of the materials used in the show. Yeah, that’s what it all came out of.

This quite a focussed set of ideas, a sort of definite set of ideas - well, maybe that’s the wrong word…

I know…

What I was wondering was if this was the usual way of working for you?

There are some works that have very specific ideas attached, all wrapped up so that you feel good about it - that feels enclosed, that feels liek you could write a neat little essay about it. Then there are things that don’t work like that, that are open ended. This show is a bit like that. I have rough s, ideas, a tone or an atmosphere, and making the show is about finding the right music to listen to when I’m in the studio. This is going to sound really pretentious… It’s not quite like method acting, but there is a kind of method of finding the character of the exhibition, so this time I’ve been listening to a lot of New Order and Joy Division. Somebody pointed out a sort of resemblance to the Hacienda and Factory Records design, which I hadn’t thought of. Specifically, Peter Saville was probably the first designer for me, and his art was the first I was completely compelled by. One of my few moments of crime was when I was at school and we used to go to Woolworths and flick through the records, and I became obsessed with the album sleeve of Unknown Pleasures. I had no idea what the music sounded like, and I stole it - just the sleeve, because the albums were kept behind the counter - and had it on the wall in my room. And having this album sleeve without the record was sort of mocking me slightly, so I trimmed it down, so I just had the little of the soundscape from the cover. Peter Saville was just amazing, I still think he is one of the best designers.

And that all ties back in to teenage nights hanging around in parks…

Yeah, yeah, I mean there’s something there… I’m not sure what it is yet…

Is it revealing stuff to you as you’re setting it up in the gallery?

Not yet. I think the make or break thing will be the light. Once the lighting falls into place, it should all really work. You get nervous about these things - I hate the idea of being ‘theatrical,’ maybe I have an aversion to that term. Also, with the Tramway there’s always this question of how to fill the space. I’ve got twenty trees, I’ve got all these benches, and I think maybe it should be three trees, and leave it really spatial. I want it to be all about this new space that I’m describing.

So you have to balance what you’ve constructed with what works in the space?

Yeah, it’s difficult to know until you have all the elements there. You can make drawings or models of the space, but at the end of the day, it’s about you being there with the stuff.

I was wondering about whether this work, and the work in Frankfurt is a change, a departure…

I think it’s difficult to know. Work in the past has been part of that lineage of modernist design, and you can sense that about certain objects. Say if i made a daybed frame, it wasn’t a MIles Van Der Rohe daybed exactly, it was some sort of hybrid of those associations. That feel is still there, things that carry that, but making things like a bench don’t have those associations as much, they are more about the way we design parks. That kind of landscape lies outside the history my other work has drawn on, there’s an economy there, almost a poverty, a super-simplistic form… These things aren’t like Eames or Jakobsen, where piece quickly became understood as having qualities associated with taste, these sort of objects were existing in parallel to that history.

You mean a park bench or whatever shares characteristics with modernist design, but more out of necessity?

Yeah, but with things like that there’s less opportunities for that transformation where a school chair can for whatever reason can be transformed into a sculptural object that can go for thousands of pounds at auction.

(unintelligible question)

It’s not something I’ve thought about too much. When I started looking at works by Charles and Ray Eames, it was very much about how those objects came into the world, the ethos and the politics they entered the world with, and what’s happened to that ethos as it’s travelled through time. That was what i was interested in, and there was an element of critique in that. That’s lessened, and now I’ve become more interested in ideas about these parallel landscapes.

You know, I guess that’s it - unless you think there’s anything important we haven’t covered?

One thing I think worth mentioning is a show I’m doing in Canada, which will bleed out of this show, but will be in a much more conventional gallery space, so I’ll have to look at collapsing this interior and exterior thing a bit more. I’m going to make these daybed frames, but use fencing mesh as the mattress support, so there’ll be elements of the inside and outside contained in them. I’m also making these ventilation grilles for the walls, in the same classic grid I’ve been using, and again with texts. These exhibitions are going to be similar, and there’s going to be a joint catalogue with the Tramway and the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. I’ve approached Douglas Copeland to write an essay, or some sort of text for it. I approached him when he was last in Glasgow, and we’ve been having an ongoing correspondence, exchanging materials. This writing is probably going to take the form of a correspondence.

Posted at 3am on 12/01/03 by Jack Mottram to the art, art and culture, interviews category.
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