Martin Boyce in conversation with Sophie Crichton Stuart

26th June 2019

Martin Boyce in conversation with Sophie Crichton Stuart

An Inn For Phantoms Of The Outside And In – Martin Boyce in conversation with Sophie Crichton Stuart, 26 May 2019

SCS Martin, you’ve been coming to Bute now for a number of years and we’ve talked about the project for a while, since around 2015. What is it about the island and Mount Stuart that made it an engaging proposition?

MB I think we started coming primarily to see Anya Gallaccio’s exhibition Silver Seed or Nathan Coley’s There Will Be No Miracles Here - I can’t remember which came first - so that was my first introduction to Mount Stuart and to Bute. There’s something about the journey, crossing that body of water and that little time on the ferry that just takes you somewhere else. And of course, the magical landscape of Mount Stuart and the gardens - and each time you come you see something new and it feels like it grows and develops and you notice new details. It’s nice to come just for the fun of it but to then come with the idea of a project in mind just transforms the whole place again so it’s been a treat to engage in that way.

SCS So much of your work relates to memory, personal and collective, and at the outset of the project we began to talk about a tennis court that was erected in the gardens at Mount Stuart during the 1970s and subsequently dismantled during the 1990s. This was a memory that I related to you in a pretty oblique way so in many ways it was semi-fictional. I wonder if you can talk about your process in relation to reimagining this memory as the work An Inn For Phantoms Of The Outside And In and how this process is familiar to your work.

MB People work in such different ways and the context here is overwhelming in a sense. There’s so much history that you could engage with, for example thinking back to Mount Stuart Trust’s project last year, to The Power Of Twelve, Christine Borland engaged with context and history in such an incredibly sophisticated way.

My background, the department I studied in, was Environmental Art which was really about thinking about context, thinking about public art, thinking about site specific art, how important context could be to the development of work; it’s something I’ve really been brought up with but it’s also something I have a slightly uneasy way of approaching. Rather than delve into the existing history I am really interested in bringing something from somewhere else, bringing something from a collapse of memory and fiction and the imaginary into a situation. It somehow feels like it’s somewhere between an apparition and a memory that belonged here at some point. That kernel, the seed that was planted through the idea of the tennis court, fed into the idea of landscape which I’m interested in and immediately when we talked about the work and all the materials it conjures up - the enclosure of chain link fence, the idea of exterior lighting and how that space slots into another kind of landscape - felt like something I could really play with. It also related back to previous projects like the Tramway exhibition Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (2002), which was a fragmented or abstracted urban park landscape. That was really the first piece I made that used a gallery space as landscape and explored how an arrangement of objects or sculptures could generate the idea of place.

SCS I can’t help thinking of that installation in connection with this current work in terms of the scale. In this installation you’ve created a landscape within a landscape which you’ve described as “one place shipwrecked within another” and it crossed my mind that perhaps this is the first time you’ve situated an installation of this scale within a pastoral setting rather than a gallery or a museum space or in an urban location. Could you talk to the experience of that and the comparative considerations?

MB Last week I did an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist about the Kaldor projects. John Kaldor is from Australia, based in Sydney - he was the person who co-ordinated Christo and John-Claude’s work Wrapped Coastline and he’s been making these public art projects since the 1970’s - and he invited me to make a project in Melbourne and that piece was called We Are Shipwrecked And Landlocked (2008) and was one of the first projects where I had this idea of one place shipwrecked within another. The site was part of RMIT University but originally part of a jailhouse courtyard and I introduced these really tall geometric palm tree sculptures and a huge screen and some different elements. That was in a very urban situation but that piece really introduced that idea. So thinking about where we could locate the piece in Mount Stuart, which is of course a very different setting, with this idea of a controlled landscape. There are elements of the gardens that have a feeling of the wild but you begin to appreciate that it’s quite composed. You have this interesting balance of intention and composition and the idea of the wild. The process of finding the site started with just setting off on a walk. I knew there was an approximate scale I needed in order to introduce the idea of a tennis court and we wanted to find somewhere close enough to a path so that the work was not completely lost but that when you were there you couldn’t quite see the house and you couldn’t quite locate yourself in the garden, so eventually we found this really nice spot which brilliantly has this lone tree growing out of the middle of it.

SCS Yes, that was very serendipitous. You’re right, the landscape here is controlled and it’s very designed but we chose an end of the garden that has a slightly wilder feel to it. Is the relationship with the natural environment a current preoccupation?

MB This is such a unique situation – the location really affected how the work took shape - but because the situation I was introducing to the landscape could almost be anywhere the material language of it is quite consistent. You have some form of ground surface that separates it from the natural land, you have the chain link fence, you may have a net, you have these posts with lighting and so in a way the work could almost be plucked from an urban location and dropped here. I just love that interplay between the two and I think it really relates to my interest in architecture and the landscape. I was really interested in the transparency of the chain link and with the introduction of the fireplace and the lamp you begin to have this play with interior and exterior space and the idea of transparent architecture. I think about the Mies van der Rohe Farnsworth House and the Philip Johnson Glass House and how they’re located in relation to the landscape.

SCS Mount Stuart is extravagant and ornate. It’s a house that architectural classicists struggle with. Your work is minimalist and deals closely with modernist form. How does that dichotomy of context present itself to you?

MB The house contains ornament and history and a collection of different styles and layers that get added and subtracted; the idea that a tennis court could have, and has existed at some point and has disappeared, that new things can be introduced to the landscape and then removed interests me. But also the idea of an apparition; that it doesn’t need to have that same visual language, that it can have that disconnect, is quite important I think. I’m really interested in decoration and the history of that in relation to architecture. Objects like the fireplace and the lanterns have a much more reduced and simple language; they’re drawn from different elements of architectural history.

SCS I notice that both Mount Stuart and the installation An Inn for Phantoms of the Outside and In, display a great deal of symbolism. I’d like to talk to the symbolism in your work. There are leaps in imagination, transcendent steps in each detail. For instance, the symbol of the threshold is everywhere, in the fireplace, the gates, the curtains and the very perimeters of the work and its reach. Could you speak to the various components that make up the landscape of your work and how you see this, and I quote, “constellation of ideas” as a whole working together?

MB Around 2005 I was offered a fellowship in Berlin where I spent a year and a half and in that time I began to develop a body of work. The starting point was a book on French modernist gardens with an image of four abstract concrete trees that were made in 1925 by the sculptor brothers Jan and Joel Martel and I became really fascinated by these trees and began to make small models to try and understand the formal logic of them and the structure. They’re somewhere between constructivist or cubist, really incredible objects, and they were made for a garden designed by Robert Mallet-Stevens for the Exhibition of the Decorative Arts in Paris.

In the process of making these models I had these component elements on my desk and there are three main shapes that go to make up the tree and those three shapes have reoccurred in my sculptural work. If I need to make a sculptural equivalent of some object in the real world, like a telephone booth or a tree or a lantern, I’ll go to these shapes and start to play around with them and see if they can be useful and they’ve miraculously produced all sorts of other objects. So for example, in the original tree there are these diagonal planes. In the lantern that same shape repeats and creates the form; you have different sizes of lanterns inside each other and they then have this geometric almost flower like form so when they are hanging from the brackets from the top of these eight metre telegraph posts they become like these huge snowdrop flowers. That relationship with the geometric and nature is there in the imagined lighting, these hollowed out lanterns.

Many of the large scale installation pieces and the outdoor pieces I’ve made are about generating a sense of place and landscape through a selection and arrangement of very particular objects and some of them make sense to be where we find them and some of them seem more out of place.

The idea of threshold is something I’ve been really interested in. I’ve made a number of sculptures that take the form of screens usually with a pattern that’s also developed from the Martel trees. This idea of a sculpture defined by its thinness - almost a two-dimensional object - but because it cuts through space it creates this divide. Simultaneously you have something that divides the space but creates a threshold so you’re either on one side or the other side. This is also the attraction with the material of the chain link fencing; there’s something about viewing a landscape through that filter, that scrim of chain link, and it almost creates a kind of mist. With this installation, you’re either inside and you very much have a sense of being enclosed, or you’re on the other side of it looking in. it’s a simple thing but the actual physical sensation of it is quite powerful.

We’ve got the fireplace – in 2015 I was making these fireplace sculptures for a show in Zurich. Often in the way I work there’s usually a number of reference points plucked from architecture or the landscape; I’m a huge hoarder and collector of images from books, magazines, the Internet. For each project there are usually a number of images that become very significant whether it’s an image of an interior or a landscape or a specific object. For those particular fireplace sculptures I had come across an image of a Carlo Mollino apartment in Turin – I don’t think he even lived there, I think it’s where he took women to photograph so the whole place was like a stage set. But on one of the walls there’s this miniaturised fireplace, raised off the ground, and inside the fireback was this little strange figurative sculpture and I became really fascinated with this idea of the fireplace and the interior and what that could hold. I began to make these small fireplace sculptures that I inserted into the wall and that space where the fire would be became these little stage sets. The very first one was a simple, dark interior space with a little rectangular hole which became like a doorway and then placed this little yellow, rusted perforated steel disc, very simply hung from a piece of wire which became like a sun. This little interior became a strange landscape or theatre set, which is an idea I keep coming back to.

Whereas in the sculptures you have interiors inside a fireplace, in this work here you have a fireplace, which is inside an interior that is bigger than it, a landscape. But also the fireplace becomes like a theatre arch. The arch of the theatre set is smaller than the set itself so the set has outgrown the containment of the arch and you have this play with scale as well. And the fireplace becomes another threshold, there’s no fireback, there’s nothing to contain the fire so you can pass through it which also introduces the idea of vents, of perforations, of being able to visually pass through an object or, in an imaginary sense, sort of pass through something. This fireplace behind us in the drawing room: at some point the lady of the house didn’t like it as it was unfashionable and didn’t fit with her vision of the room so it was removed and became a frame for the gate to the Wee Garden. There’s amazing photographs of it with these gates built into it and then it had that period of its life and did its job and eventually it got brought back in. It’s not something that consciously felt like a really important footnote; it’s just a piece of history that emerged and seemed more coincidental than a very conscious decision that informed the work.

SCS We found out about this after the fireplace in your work was made, so it was a sort of unconscious mirroring because in fact it was located just along there at the Wee Garden which is almost equidistant from the house as your work. There’s been a lot of serendipity in that way.

SCS I am of course tempted to see the dominant tabletop as a symbol of the Self. In Jungian thought it expresses the totality of the psyche and all its aspects including the relationship between man and nature. There are those heavy forms of symbolism but there’s a humour investing the symbolism within a domestic object and there’s humour in your work as well.

MB There’s a bit of playfulness; I’m really interested in creating atmospheres. In a gallery situation you can really control it because one of the great things to play with is lighting. In the landscape and outdoors, in this situation, because we didn’t have power running down there – I could introduce the idea of light but I couldn’t really play with the light so there’s trying to find different ways through the material palette and the colour palette to introduce a specific kind of atmosphere.

With the disc - you have these table legs and the big disc that is hanging from the cable was made to be the tabletop but always knowing it would end up elsewhere. It’s the idea that the tabletop somehow gets strung up from a wire and becomes this moon or sun. In fact it was the fireplace piece for the exhibition, Stellar Remnants (2014), at Johnen Galerie Berlin that was the first time I used the disc to create an image of the moon or the sun. It really was two days before the fireplace piece was about to be shipped and I’d all these different ideas about what to place inside and I’d made this sculpture of a little house and it didn’t work – trying all these things hoping the work was going to come alive – and in the corner of the studio there was this little painted perforated steel disc that I’d made for a lantern sculpture and I hung it up and it instantly played with landscape and place and the idea of some strange theatre set housed within this fireplace. You put these things aside in the process of making the work and in developing a piece you’re always hoping. In the working process you have to relax and the right idea will come along and if you go searching for it too much it’s quite difficult to find. So with this Mount Stuart work certain things, the fireplace and the lamps, were all coming together. We’d made a really beautiful model so I could play around with the position of the telegraph (lighting) posts and decide whether there would be a net or not. So I’m playing around with the fireplace and this idea of a broken table. It’s a table from the outside (like a garden table it’s painted steel) and not really an interior object. As soon as I started to think of this circular table it dawned on me that I could just hang it up and that was the thing that added another layer, which takes it from a scenario that could belong in reality where everything has a logic to something strange or surreal.

SCS We’ve talked about the work as a landscape but it could also be seen as a house – we’ve got this house here and the Martin Boyce house down there – two presences.

There is a dreamlike quality to the work, which has been commented on by so many viewers, a luminosity and ethereality, a sense of the in-between state between sleep and waking. I experience the work as a dream landscape in many ways. I think this is connected to your choice and treatment of the respective materials. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this

MB At the beginning of a work the options are endless in terms of the available palette of materials but I find that as the process goes on it becomes more and more reduced. Rather than every object having to be a different material, limiting the palette focuses the eye and focuses the atmosphere of the place. So you have galvanised steel, painted steel and cast concrete and that’s almost it. It’s a very reduced palette but all those materials take different forms.

The idea of it being a house, referring to these glass pavilions which are very well known within architectural history and how their relationship to landscape works: Jeff Wall wrote an incredible essay about Dan Graham’s mirrored and glass pavilions and Philip Johnson’s Glass House and he talks about this idea of transparency and how you can be in an interior space but you can view the landscape that you own: the idea of property and surveillance. But by night with the exterior in darkness and the interior illuminated, the glass windows become mirrors and throw back the occupants’ reflections. He describes it as a crypt – it becomes a crypt – which is really interesting given the other part of the exhibition here, but that idea of transparency and architecture in the landscape is something that I like and that informed the inclusion of the these big net curtains. The material is debris netting, a sort of woven plastic, so it’s used for scaffolding and again I’d been looking at this constellation of reference images. I began collecting images of these big net curtains in relation to huge glass windows and it plays with the idea of theatre again. I think we’ve got enough netting to enclose the entire place but in the end we used it in a couple of spots. That was one of the last things we introduced and it gave the work another quality and again another kind of transparency. When the sun hits it through the trees you get these beautiful shadows but also from a distance when you see these curtains it plays with the idea of a pavilion, a piece of architecture.

SCS Your installation work has often suggested a stage set to me personally, for instance your work Sleeping Chimneys Dead Stars (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery 2017). When I saw that work I experienced a strong sense of a stage set, so it was particularly interesting that in conversation with writer Rhona Warwick Paterson you established that tennis courts were used as theatres during the seventeenth century.

If we are to think about a modern equivalent which influences your thinking we have the example of the mimed tennis performance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up (1966), which was staged at Maryon Park, London. I know you enjoy writing and in many ways I see your work as parallel to the writing process in the way in which it invests drama into its form. Does this resonate with you?

MB That was an amazing discovery Rhona made during the development of the piece. I had become more and more interested with theatre sets and it’s funny because after the Tramway exhibition in 2002 I made a companion piece in Vancouver in 2003 which consisted of these three abstract, spindly trees made of florescent strip lights and there were two day beds in the space and it was the first time I’d used these ventilation grill pieces. The artist Stan Douglas who came to the opening is really interested in Samuel Beckett and has written about him and told me about the relationship between Beckett and the theatrical and I recoiled from the theatrical and thought that’s not what I’m going for at all. The way research happens for me is serendipitous, an accidental stumbling on things. So I went off and did some research into Beckett and realised this was not the theatre that was foisted upon me as a young student. You mentioned Antonioni - in the first show I did in Cologne, Fear View, (Johnen and Schottle 2000) the gallery owner talked about my work in relation to Antonioni and his use of architecture and strange desolate landscapes. These things are introduced and then stay with you.

I was talking to Rhona about tennis courts because I wanted to find images or passages from literature that included the tennis court as a landscape, as a place where something happens, but then it quite quickly went in all sorts of directions. One of the things she uncovered was that they doubled as performance, theatre spaces because of the seating that was arranged in relation to them.

Another thing, which I’ve only really been looking at closely in the last couple of weeks, is Robert Rauschenberg’s 1966 piece for 9 Evenings, the performance Open Score, at the Armory Park Avenue New York. It was a technological collaboration and the tennis rackets were mic’d up so every time the ball hit the strings you had these huge loud sounds and at the same time one of the 48 lights illuminating this huge space went out. It’s an absolutely incredible piece so again all these things I come across and start to look at, continue to reflect outwards which will hopefully go on to inform other works or ideas.

SCS The giclee photographic works A Partial Eclipse II (2017) are exhibited in the Crypt here at Mount Stuart. This series is the second in a body of work that came about through your ongoing library of images that feed into your sculptural work. Through working with you, we’re familiar with the myriad images you collect. This series formalises your collection through a long editing process of thousands of images. Could you talk about the process of editing and the consistent themes that emerged? And the strong sense of shadow you created through the process as if they were literally captured during a partial eclipse?

MB I take photos just as I’m travelling and it’s usually a strange corner of a room or a little detail. I love these moments as you’re wandering around a city and of course travelling to make exhibitions – the best way to get to know a city is go on a walk and get yourself lost. There are those photographs I take and images torn from magazines etc.

I was in a group show curated by Thomas Demand in Monaco and the show was built around some Magritte works and some photographs by Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri. I’d never heard of Ghirri’s work before and I was really blown away by his beautiful photographs; he was really interested in landscape. And there was something about the modest size of them and the informal snapshot quality - but they are much more than that – that made me go back to my own photographs and scroll through them. I started to arrange and edit them down and it became clear – they record where my eye goes – there were a number of things that seemed to reoccur, staircases, apertures and ellipses. The way I would photograph with a lot of foreground and tiles and floors and different spaces that created a sense of distance between the photographer and the thing you’re photographing, this idea of space. Then it was quite an intuitive decision – there’s a series of photographs that Fischli & Weiss made that are very dark images – and I was trying to figure out how to bind my work together, how to create something to hold these images together. It might partly be my lack of confidence to present photographs that I felt I needed to do something to sort of make them disappear but I started to darken them down, steal the light from them. How dark can you go where everything’s still visible in the photograph? I haven’t created complete darkness but you really need to look in a different kind of way. The first series also included four almost identical photos of the circular windows in the Maritime hotel in New York and every time I stay there I always take a photo of the windows. The first time the curtain was half drawn over this big circular window giving this idea of an eclipse or a partial eclipse and I liked the poetry of that and the idea of darkness and daylight happening simultaneously. You know it’s not night. It’s something else that happening in daytime, the light being drawn out of a situation which gives a conceptual purpose to the idea of darkening down the images. The second series was a very similar process in terms of editing and finding connections between the images. One of the photos is the pavement outside the Guggenheim which has these big brass circles in the cast concrete pavement and then there’s another from a beach parasol with these two wooden discs that act as a table for your Pina Colada but in the photo the top one is beginning to eclipse the bottom one.

AUDIENCE It’s rather wonderful that since yesterday the fireplace is now covered in bird shit and leaves and the edge is starting to disintegrate and I can’t help thinking it’s going to look even more wonderful by the end of the summer and beyond. Does that appeal to you - the idea that it could exist another five or ten years and it’s completely overgrown and adopted by its landscape?

MB The plan was that the basic structure, the ground surface and the fencing would have been in before Christmas in order for it to really bed in. It didn’t quite happen, but somehow it doesn’t take long and this is the really interesting thing in making outdoor work because in most cases you don’t want the work to change. You make a sculptural piece for outdoors and the whole problem is what material you can use than can withstand the elements over time and be maintained to not change. In this case it’s quite the opposite, the pieces didn’t start their life completely brand new and then start to deteriorate; we’d already artificially helped that along the way. So the table legs and the tabletop are artificially stained to give that look as if they’ve been hanging around outside for years but the idea of it continuing is super exciting.

MB When I talked to Morven Gregor about creating a document for maintenance I said “do nothing, don’t pick up fallen branches or leaves, I don’t want anything swept up”. We can monitor it and see what happens if there’s anything that doesn’t feel right but I really want to engage with that. I’m really looking forward to seeing it in different seasons and different kinds of weather conditions. I’ve started teaching in Hamburg, and I brought my students here a couple of months ago and we were talking about that – it feels like a nice gesture, we’re not going to do anything, we’re just going to engage with nature and let it happen – and one of them said what if someone leaves a Fanta can or a crisp packet. That’s a slightly different question and we haven’t quite figured out what will happen with that but we’ll take it as it happens. I quite like that different way of looking at it.

AUDIENCE I love what you said about taking bits of geometries and reference images and letting them talk to each other. The show has such an evocative title and I was wondering about the role of language in this specific installation?

MB One of the things about titling works is once you start you can’t really stop, you can’t go on to Untitled 3 or 4 or 5 because everyone thinks you just got lazy and my studio manager Scarlett Williams has got a list of works that are still to be titled. You have to sit reading poetry and listening to music hoping something will happen. The title of this work comes from a quote by Gaston Bachalard in his text The Poetics of Reverie (1960) about sleep: Sleep opens within us an inn for phantoms. In the morning we must sweep out the shadows. The idea of this interior or enclosure being an inn for phantoms or ghosts seems interesting – in a way memories are like phantoms – thinking of it like a dream catcher. I remember doing this train journey from Bard College in upstate New York to Manhattan and before I got on the train someone said you must sit on the right hand side of the train because you go through these lakes and mountains and it is really beautiful. Of course I got on the train and its completely full on the right hand side so I was on the other side but the view I got for this huge long stretch - I’d love to make a film of it - was this long, long strip of chain link fence and behind that there was this slope and all the detritus and debris has fallen down the slope and gathered. I began to think of it almost like a stationary trawling net the world passes through catching all this detritus and debris. Simple every day material like chain link can become related to the idea of the dream catcher. Of course when I hit on the play with the inn and the outside and in I thought yes that’s really clever! It’s a pretty basic idea but it still fascinates me enough and it still retains a complexity that hasn’t been worn out and you then trust other people will find the nuances of these simple ideas interesting.

AUDIENCE You use letters in your work and one of the gates looks like it contains an R…?

MB One of the things I did when I was developing the works from the Martel concrete trees, as I had elements of these little models on my desk, I began to place them and thought these could interconnect and start to create a repeat pattern. I started playing around with the lines and geometries of these forms so I created a repeat pattern that could be endless and as I was doing that because the motif that I was repeating was a tree – I was creating a graphic forest. Then in the lines of the repeat I began to see letters of the alphabet – one of the first was an R then there was an S and I would go looking for letters and I’d found a really good representation of every letter of the alphabet and there’d been no intention, no idea that this would happen - so on a poetic level emerged this idea of language being whispered through the trees. So I began writing phrases: concrete leaves and electric trees were the first phrases I wrote. Electric trees - thinking of these posts from felled trees with the lanterns on them. When I was looking for the letters within this pattern some of the letters were oriented the right way up but the R was upside down, the M was on its side. So my reaction was to reorient the letters and write in a linear way but then I though why don’t I keep the letters where they’re found in the pattern so as I would write a phrase or a word the letters would have a sense of language tumbling through space because the R is upside down, almost like they’re falling, which opened up so many possibilities. So actually for the gate when I wanted to introduce a simple pattern, something that was not your usual off-the-shelf gate, I went to the pattern and we took elements of it and one of the areas of the pattern we took is where the R is found – I knew it would happen, it was bound to happen because there are so many letters in the pattern but it doesn’t hold any great significance.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.