Martin Boyce won the Turner Prize with the installation Do Words Have Voices (2011), which was featured in this Basel exhibition, his first solo museum show. Comprising ventilation grills, a tablelike structure from which mobiles hang, scattered wax-paper leaves, a trashcan and a ceiling canopy made of aluminum fin shapes, the work is typical Boyce, in that it borrows elements of modernist design and art. Boyce takes modernist forms and, as Daniel Pies writes in the exhibition catalogue, “reshuffles” them, reanimating symbols whose impact has been deadened by their absorption into the canon. In rearranging familiar elements, Boyce conjures unexpected sculptural environments.
The works in the show were made between 2000 and 2014. Though the wall works and installations take numerous guises, several strategies feature repeatedly: the aforementioned borrowing of forms; translating from one material to another; and transitioning between exterior and interior. Though these methods might sound dry, the results are far from schematic. Boyce’s prize-winning installation is lyrical, with soft light filtering through the fins on the ceiling. Their shapes, like many elements in his works, are based on Joël and Jan Martel’s concrete Cubist tree design, created for the 1925 world’s fair in Paris. The names of previous Boyce works are carved into the table’s surface, evoking marks on a school desk from a bygone age. The forms of the carved letters are distilled from the Martel tree as well. Though visitors were inside the museum, the dappled light and drifting paper leaves suggested a pastoral scene, and the artist’s air vents, with their stylish covers, established a sense of circulation between inside and outside.
Another installation, A River in the Trees (2009), consists of quadrilateral stepping stones of different heights that lead from one gallery to the next, more scattered leaves and, at one end, a geometric metal chandelier. The Martel tree comes into play once again, informing both the light fixture, which is a miniature tree form turned upside down, and the angled shapes of the cast-concrete stones. Despite the hard, cold materials and the white-cube context, the viewer felt transported to an imagined space, of water, flora and play.
Throughout the exhibition, Boyce riffed like this on themes borrowed from creative ancestors. In his work, he returns to the origins of the designs that inform our interiors, architecture and street environments and then redirects them. We take new notice of the everyday objects around us when they appear in his realms. Through this process of review and rediscovery, Boyce reinscribes the original designs with ideological and aesthetic charge—and he works hard to sustain this dynamic state. No More Skies, the pessimistic title of the most recent piece on view, a wall work composed of concentric plaster shapes along with painted and stained wooden panels, hints at the tensions present throughout the show. The more we build, the more nature is obscured. Boyce endeavors to keep concrete, metal and wood light, to bring life and lightheartedness into the museum and maintain the humanity of our built spaces.
On a hot day in Berlin, the lights were dimmed inside Johnen Galerie, as though Martin Boyce’s art were too delicate to withstand the heat. Boyce’s reliance on webs of abstruse references places him squarely within a generation of artists who emerged around the turn of the millennium, ironically but appropriately, in time to leave behind the century on which their art relies.
An artwork that references another artwork can be a complacent acknowledgment of shared knowledge, as well as a fortification against vulnerable subjectivity. A memory, however, is an altogether more slippery proposition. With Boyce, the distinction is crucial. He has founded much of his work on a single reference—to Joël and Jan Martel’s concrete Cubist trees (1925). There is something heroically myopic about his long-term mining of this minor work of modernist design. Stylized steel letters, loosely arranged across a wall-hung rectangular slab of what looks like concrete, spell FALL (Fall, 2012), but you have to look twice for the forms to connect into legibility: their font is designed to follow the contours of the angular leaves of the Martels’ trees.
At best, the rigor of Boyce’s referencing is a filter for a more fluid and personal access to the past, like the painted steel mesh of the lamps suspended from chains throughout the gallery, filtering watery light (Years and Stars and Storms, 2012). Fall evokes Camus’s The Fall as much as the Northern English post-punk band The Fall, as Boyce’s sampling recalls Peter Saville’s modernist-inspired designs for New Order’s 1980s Manchester label, Factory Records. Boyce has previously alluded to New Order’s lyrics in his titles, and New Order’s earlier incarnation, Joy Division, was influenced by existentialist novelists such as Camus. It is through such circuitous routes that Boyce operates.
The lamps are dour, unglamorized British derivatives of Jorge Pardo’s “design art,” but Fall effects a subliminal link between early international modernism and the Brutalist concrete 1960s architecture of British housing estates and high-rises. High modernism is of course even further in the past than the British state’s travesty of it, so there’s an element of gratuitous obscurantism in Boyce’s chain-of-association methodology, as though he were unable to claim his own past until he has rooted it in the formal language of a movement that long preceded him.
Still To Be Said (2012) is the exhibition’s emotional center, allowing memory to press most urgently against its referential vehicle. Lamps rise from a varnished wooden tabletop. They resemble plant forms and the undersides of their shades are densely petaled with brass scalpel blades through which light yellows and refracts. The table is both functional furniture and a precisely calibrated memory of a British schoolboy’s desk, which would have been etched with scatological exclamations or hopeless endearments, rather than with these Martel-inspired decorative forms that refuse to connect into meaning. The inset blades intimate the psychic threat of involuntary memory even as their geometrically referential shapes suggest that they are mere cultural signposts beyond which that memory must remain tantalizingly inaccessible