Arrange Whatever Pieces Come Your Way [1]

Go home there is nothing to see. Sounds like a late-night suburban annunciation,[2] something a mugger would say if caught in the act by an unsuspecting passer-by. No. Sounds like something a disgruntled gallery-goer would say after being faced with yet another piece of classic modernist furniture. Go home there is nothing to see, non mi interessa la vita reale.[3] No. Sounds like social commentary scrawled across a homeless man’s placard. Go home there is nothing to see; the more I see, the less I believe.[4] In Martin Boyce’s sculpture Now I’ve Got Worry (storage unit), it is all three.

The phrase is reminiscent of Boyce’s fascination with borrowed aphorisms, titles, and soundbites — of New Order, Virginia Woolf, Michael Ondaatje, John Donne, Ezra Pound, James Thomson, and Joan Didion — but it also encapsulates another of Boyce’s obsessions: the bleak and dangerous spirit that pervades the manufactured materials of urban architecture. Who saw those dark eyes[5] peering through the cyclofence enclosure? In Now I’ve Got Worry, the imperative, marked onto wood and placed into a storage unit bearing a Mondrianian grid, is a graffito’s ironic take on modernist kitsch — a reanimation of an obsolete form, by subjecting it to the stocks. It is affixed to a Ray and Charles Eames storage and display unit — a paragon of the lived-in, materialist interiors of the 1950s — yet in this instance, the shelves are empty. In this empty space we will not have, we will not give.[6]

Go home there is nothing to see is Martin Boyce in three themes: the manufactured and the natural; the populated and the deserted; the outdated and the reborn.

i. The Manufactured and the Natural
It would be remiss to write about Martin Boyce’s work after 2005 without first mentioning its historical genus. In 1925, Joël and Jan Martel designed and built four concrete trees, for the Robert Mallet-Stevens garden, exhibited at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industrials in Paris. Captivated by a photograph he saw of these neo-cubist sculptures, Boyce decided to designate his new found orchid[7] a position of prominence in much of his future work — the motif appearing variously in silhouette, tessellated, and three-dimensional forms. The Martel tree is an Yggdrasil of sorts, connecting seemingly unrelated works of Boyce in material or form. The tree has entered my hands, the sap has ascended my arms, the tree has grown in my breast — downward, the branches grow out of me, like arms.[8]

Concrete Autumn (Phantom Tree) (2005), shows the ghost of a Martel-like tree, projected against a black background. Perhaps it is the undead apparition of the uprooted, or a victim of seasonal entropy; it has ridden itself of leaves, cast off by the Earth, to reside in chthonic pastures new. The Martel sculptures stripped the tree of its organicity, Boyce’s mediation strips the inorganic tree of its materiality — it is far more difficult to murder a phantom than a reality.[9]

The two-dimensional rendering of the Martel tree, when simplified into geometric forms and tessellated, begets a filigree grid which Boyce has used in many variations on beds, partitions, fence panels and gates. We Are Still and Reflective (2007), at Skulptur Projekte Münster, is Boyce’s paving design derived from the tree grid, featuring the sentence ‘we are still and reflective’ hidden within the brass outlines of the concrete slabs. Trust me, this will take time but there is order in here, very faint, very human.[10] The title suggests the piece is passive, allowing patterns and readings to be transmitted onto it from the mind of the visitor. But it is also an illustration of Boyce’s commitment to his primary influence — the concrete tree — and his adeptness at abstracting it beyond recognition, eventually laying the invisible foundations to fully realise avenues all lined with trees.[11] We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.[12] Months later, the clean-cut brass divisions were overrun with moss and weeds, softening the angles and corners, and completing the design’s circular trajectory to return it to earth. The negligence of nature wide and wild, where, undisguised by mimic art, she spreads. Unbounded beauty to the the roving eye.[13]

In the installation Do Words Have Voices, (2011), based on his showing in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2009, delicate, geometrically formed fallen leaves, shaped with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches[14] from which they fell, are blown around the gallery by a breeze from grills hidden within the walls. Autumn needs not the foreign aid of ornament,[15] yet her leaves seem only to decorate the tree’s looming demise. The leaves are weightless such that they might be sucked behind you — the manufactured symbols of ensuing winter, pulled into the path of an unsuspecting visitor. A mortal harbinger. Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him.[16] In another room of Boyce’s Venice show, the fallen leaves surround flat, quadrilateral, concrete blocks, divided across many levels, but all at about shin-ankle height. Reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway, or a thousand islands in the sea[17] — the result of an ancient volcanic eruption — the plates seem to be moving apart, allowing the magma-coloured leaves to smoulder between them. No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.[18] What we are left with is a mental picture of what might have preceded this destruction: the tectonic plates before the Great Fracture, 600 million years ago, or luscious green leaves with satiated and plump chloroplasts, basking in a canopy up high.

The idea of the phantom, the trace of what once was, is a common trope in Boyce’s work. It is the transitional state between existence and oblivion. The Eames leg splint designed in 1942 signified such a transitional state, and Boyce made the connection between a soon to be removed leg and a phantom limb, (or, sensations from an absent appendage). In Now I’ve Got Real Worry (1998–9), and Phantom Limbs and Broken Dreams (2001), Boyce creates beautiful, fragile faces[19] from the splints by fashioning them into ‘tribal’ masks, making incisions to suggest eyes, cheeks and chins. In an inanimate object, this urge to convey the relation of eyelid and cheekbone,[20] to sight and a smile, compels us to imbue the splints with a flicker of life and make it last for a while.[21] This is a face, at least while I look at it. Memory conforms to what we think we remember.[22] Eschewing the splint, Staring Into the Surface of Things (2007), Dark Unit and Mask (2003), Broken Branches and Blossoms (2008), and See Through Soul (2007), each feature comparable masks, though simplified and streamlined. See Through Soul is comprised of three angular quadrilaterals, with circular eyeholes cut from two. Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame,[23] and shot right through with a bolt of blue,[24] from the perforated metal shapes there is a suggestion of something staring back at you. It has the same endearing quality of being that which we are, that which we have made, that in which we live, instead of being something, however august, alien to ourselves and beheld from the outside.[25]

ii. The Populated and the Deserted
The phantom as a residue of matter suggests something simultaneously neither present nor absent. In Now You Are Spring, and We Are Sun-Kissed and Snow-Blind (2005), Boyce drapes clothing from a sculpted tree and the skeleton of a sun lounger. If ever I come across abandoned shoes, tees, and sweaters, I just can’t help thinking[26] they are traded for a speedy and terrible getaway. They suggest a distinctly human presence since passed, and unlike a phantom, are symbols of desertion, not tragic attachment. Thus, there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of armour breast,[27] but we tend to project a host within them, even when the drapery is beheld on its own. Clothing scandalises or corrupts an object, as its removal exposes — excites or humiliates — a human being.

In The After and the Before (2008), Boyce tangles a freestanding geometric fence (based on his grid design) and a deck chair on its front. He also uses this idea of twisted seating in his No Reflections exhibition of 2009, in which he blows a ripple through a park bench and leaves it on its side, undulating as if caught in a glitch or a shockwave. When the protuberant bottom is removed from the marriage of itself and the recess of a seat, the seat exists, solitary and hollow and yearning. When the seat is upended, as we see so often in footage of natural disasters, plane crashes, and explosions, it is useless — once a place of temporary rest, it now signifies eternal rest. Mankind decays so soon, we are scarce our fathers’ shadows cast at noon.[28] The transition from population to desertion is a decay that Boyce chooses to illustrate through the structures and forms of urban architecture: Concrete Leaves (2006), bears a resemblance to the public jungle gym, featuring bold primary colours and shapes signifying ladders and windows. Unable in the supervening blankness[29] to pick out the sound of mischievous laughter, the palindromic squeak of the swing, the shudder and thump of the see-saw timber, the jungle gym is another scene of apocalyptic abandon. But on the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points,[30] on one of Boyce’s park benches, thumbs-up or thumbs-down — mercy or cruelty.

Aside from Boyce’s metaphorical explorations of the transition between population and desertion, his choice of form literally establishes the concept. A fence encloses, collectivises, nationalises. But it also identifies, excludes, ostracises. Refugees approach a fence seeking sanctuary[31] — Heaven, a gateway, a hope[32] — all those possible worlds![33] But from behind the fence, things might be quite different, for many a day and many a dreadful night,[34] I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse perhaps, to be locked in.[35] The gate is the membrane between the outside and the inside, and it is this form in We Pass Through This (2006); Gate (we don’t meet here, we are always together first) (2004); and We Are Resistant, We Dry Out in the Sun (this place opens and unfolds us) (2004), that Boyce uses to encapsulate the transitory state between liberty, or freedom of movement, and security, afforded by the authorities within. Sometimes we enter art to hide within it. It is where we can go to save ourselves, where a third-person voice protects us.[36] Ironically, the Martel concrete trees bear an uncanny resemblance to the towering megaphone structures one might see at a fascist rally, or totem poles of CCTV cameras — the exaggerated form of the protective voice. The gate, then, is a symbol of aggre-gated freedom: the two-way civilisation. To enjoy freedom, we have to control ourselves[37] — be thine own palace, or the world’s thy jail.[38] St. Peter’s gate is the checkpoint of no return, where admission promises not only untold ambrosia, but the avoidance of eternal torment — most probably compounded by actually seeing the white tablecloth through the gaps in the gate of Heaven, before falling, forever, into fear, fetters, and flame.

In his A Lost Cat and Alleyways, Back Gardens, Pools and Parkways exhibition in Geneva, 2007, Boyce builds a concrete ping-pong table. Unlike its more decadent counterpart the billiards table, these can be found screwed into the floor in areas of communal leisure. The area of transition with which Boyce seems to be fascinated, the boundary that demarcates the here, and there, is manifest in ping pong with the existence of the net. The net, much like the fence, ensures fairness and equality, but it also necessitates competition and opposition. The imposition of the net, is the imposition of the dual, of the duel. Boyce folds over one half of his perforated steel net, synchronising the abolition of a boundary, with the exposure to infinite open horizons. You built a wall of love and tore it right down.[39]

That which transcends the fence even without the fence’s destruction, language and communication, is brought to the fore in Boyce’s 2006 exhibition Electric Trees and Telephone Booth Conversations. Unlike the phantom which is neither here nor there, but somewhere between, or the absent inhabitants of forsaken architecture, who are somewhere, but not here, the disembodied voice of the telephone conversation is both here and there: at the source and the terminus. By definition, Boyce’s telephone booth sculpture requires another to complete the circuit — the telephone receiver predicated on the existence of a transmitter. The receiver is sprayed with black paint, maybe an act of defiance, vandalism, or censorship. The telephone, which interrupts the most serious conversations and cuts short the most weighty observations, has a romance of its own:[40] it cares not for mitigation, patience or timing. It is a blind, immediate invitation. Despite its being defaced, we can assume the telephone works still, unsilenced, a connection to the outside, whose signal can travel where the corporeal can’t. Yet, its existence reminds us of those who deserted us to a different place,[41] leaving us here, in the autumn of this decaying civilisation.

iii. The Outdated and the Reborn
It was summer now it’s autumn,[42] and the flowers bend over with heavy heads. They bend in vain,[43] for their heads will fall off.

The transient vibrance of autumn precedes the inevitable austerity of winter. It flashes in all sorts of colours like a threatened creature of the deep, and then it dies. Boyce uses the season of autumn as a metaphor for obsolescence, but just as spring reappears despite the brutal frigidity of winter, Boyce resurrects modernist design icons from the frozen soils of obscurity. No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.[44] In It Was Summer, Now It’s Autumn (2003), Mobile (For 276 Silent Falls) (2001), and Suspended Fall, (2005), Boyce suspends fractured Arne Jacobsen chairs from a mobile, all in pieces, all coherence gone.[45] That they are suspended, as if in formaldehyde, or frozen cryogenically, is perhaps not the point; more that they are mobile, rotating, spiralling away and then spiralling back. Unlike Boyce’s pieces referencing the Martel concrete trees wherein the reference is unrecognisable, in this piece the identifiable forms of modernist furniture are inextricably linked to the success of the piece. Of course you can rewrite, but the original strokes are still there in the texture of the thing.[46] It is a barren and exhausted age. We repeat.[47] But in repetition, the dead finds new life. Make it new.[48] And then make it newer.

Boyce’s points of origin are not so sedulously selected as to belong to one designer, but rather of high modernism in general. While he pays homage to Ray and Charles Eames’ storage unit, Arne Jacobsen’s chairs, Jean Prouvé’s table, and Charlotte Perriand’s shelving unit, the most fundamental influence must be the Martel concrete trees. In his Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours exhibition in Glasgow (2003), Boyce constructed three-dimensional trees of his own. This new shape, repeated many times in the gallery space, is like a snapshot of a lightning storm, with higher, grappling arms coalescing into a singular, devastating point, suspended only two-and-a-half centimetres from the ground. The Martel trapezoids have been replaced with straight lines, and the fractured outline is intensified by the harsh fluorescent bar lights he uses to make out the branches.

A far cry from the more picturesque Robert Mallet-Stevens garden at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industrials in Paris, Boyce situated his trees in a desolate park setting, with dimmed lights in the gallery space, and the exposed dark wooden floor mirroring the lifelessness of the leafless white branches. The whole arena of green would have been eradicated leaving only the skeleton of coarse brightness.[49] Piercingly vivid and pristine, Boyce’s trees, reborn like an infant star from the scattered dust of its parents, seem colder and more detached than the Martels’ trees — and the Martel trees are made from concrete. Seen through the spaces of a tall, black cyclofence, the obscured trees appear to move, or maybe I get this feeling I’m in motion,[50] but it’s that kind of motion that alarms you when walking through an empty park at night, when there’s no movement, no colours, just silence, silence[51] illuminated like snow blindness — a little too dazzling to make out what you have just seen.

Surrounded by seatless Jean Prouvé benches, and several empty rhomboid waste bins of Boyce’s design, the fragile light trees belong more to winter than to autumn. And yet they are young, lean, and electrified, amidst a scene of expiration.

In Petrified Songs (2009), Boyce recasts the Martel trees as a flat jesmonite wall panel overlaid with his grid. Picking out letterforms from the angles, Boyce spells Petrified Songs in laser-cut steel, and the words are pulled down in the wastes of the mire,[52] arrested in the concrete as they fall. Boyce here uses the process of ‘shuttering concrete’ to give the material a grain (another example of manufactured nature), but with the words cast eternally in the shape their meaning suggests, Boyce is revivifying concrete poetry. A simple movement or rhyme,[53] and one from another time, frozen in the present, changed.

  1. Virginia Woolf, Diary Vol III, (1925-1930)
  2. Michael Ondaatje, To a Sad Daughter, Secular Love, 1984
  3. New Order, Tutti Frutti, (I do not care about real life), Music Complete, 2015
  4. New Order, Restless, Music Complete, 2015
  5. New Order, Ultraviolence, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983
  6. New Order, The Game, Music Complete, 2015
  7. Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1920
  8. Ezra Pound, A Girl
  9. Virginia Woolf, Professions for Women, speech Virginia Woolf delivered before a branch of the National Society for Women’s Service on January 21, 1931
  10. Michael Ondaatje, Palace of Purification, Book 2, In the Shin of a Lion
  11. New Order, Ceremony, New Order 511, 2002
  12. Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero, McClelland and Stewart, 2007
  13. James Thomson, Spring, 1728
  14. Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth, 2001
  15. James Thomson, Autumn, 1730
  16. John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris, 1624
  17. New Order, Leave Me Alone, Power, Corruptions & Lies, 1983
  18. John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris, 1624
  19. Ezra Pound, Piccadilly, The New Poetry, 1917
  20. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925
  21. New Order and Iggy Pop, Stray Dog, 2015
  22. Joan Didion, Blue Nights, Alfred A. Kompf, 2011
  23. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 1925
  24. New Order, Bizarre Love Triangle, Brotherhood, 1986
  25. Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1923
  26. New Order, Ultraviolence, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983
  27. Virginia Woolf, Orlando, Hogarth Press, 1923
  28. John Donne, The First Anniversary, The Poems of John Donne, 1896
  29. Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, 1920
  30. Virginia Woolf, The Waves, Hogarth Press, 1931
  31. New Order, 60 Miles An Hour, Get Ready, 2001
  32. New Order, Temptation, 1982
  33. Michael Ondaatje, To a Sad Daughter, 1984
  34. James Thomson, Summer, 1727
  35. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929
  36. Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero, 2007
  37. Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader Vol 2, 1832
  38. John Donne, To Sir Henry Wotton, The Poems of John Donne Vol 2, 1896
  39. New Order, Round & Round, Technique, 1989
  40. Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1923
  41. New Order, Superheated, Music Complete, 2015
  42. New Order, Crystal, Get Ready, 2001
  43. Ezra Pound, Ione, Dead the Long Year
  44. John Donne, Elegy IX: The Autumnal, The Poems of John Donne, 1896
  45. John Donne, The First Anniversary, The Poems of John Donne, 1896
  46. Joan Didion, The Art of Non-Fiction, Volume 1, Interview, 2006
  47. Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1923
  48. Ezra Pound, Make It New, 1934
  49. Michael Ondaatje, Notes for the Legend of Salad Woman, Selected Poems, 1997
  50. New Order, True Faith, Substance, 1987
  51. New Order, Your Silent Face, Power, Corruption & Lies, 1983
  52. New Order and Iggy Pop, Stray Dog, Music Complete, 2015
  53. New Order, Dreams Never End, Movement, 1981

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Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer living and working in London. Graduating Central Saint Martins with a BA (hons) degree in Graphic Design, he travelled to India to work for a publishers Tara Books, writing press, engaging in art direction, curation, and design work, and learning about sustainable and ethical publishing practices. He writes with humour, mixing pop culture with art and design, in the contexts of criticism and metafiction. His interests are literature and comedy (harbouring a secret obsession with space). He is from the North of England. His dissertation was named A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines — and charted moments in literary texts, cinema, recent history, and art and design, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile. The text touches on the Surrealist attachment to the mannequin, the ethics of artificial intelligence, sex robots, and commercial space travel.

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