Martin Boyce – No Reflections

January 2010

Publication: The Times

Martin Boyce’s show at Dundee Contemporary Arts has come directly from the 53rd Venice Biennale, albeit in a distinctly altered form.  Boyce’s angular sculpture occupies, instead of the ornate magnificence of the Renaissance Palazzo Pisani,  the distinctly 21st century space of Richard Murphy’s DCA.  ‘No Reflections’ has been curated by Scotland and Venice, one of the organisations created in 2003 when the constituent parts of the UK took to mounting their own presence in Venice.


Given the avowedly ‘site-specific’ nature of ‘No Reflections’ the transition from one highly contrasting venue to another begs a number of questions, not least of which is: ‘does the move work?’ But perhaps that question should in turn be predicated on the success or otherwise of the show in its original Venice venue.


Walking around the DCA galleries one is confronted by a series of large-scale metal and concrete objects, silkscreen prints as well as hundreds of tree-like motifs fashioned from paraffin-coated crepe paper, which litter the floor in the same way as leaves might fill an abandoned garden (collectively these are titled 'Evaporated Pools'). Installation shots taken inside Palazzo Pisani reveal the same series of objects although each occupies its own room, so that the organisation of the show is dictated by the internal layout of the building. In the Dundee venue, each of the sculptures is found in closer proximity to its companions, setting up a different set of visual and spatial relationships and, one must assume, ‘meanings’.


Some of Boyce’s sculpture, such as ‘A Raft in the Roof’ are reminiscent of everyday objects (in this case a metal bed-frame). Similarly, the prosaically titled ‘Two Benches’ consists of two conjoined items of municipal furniture up-ended to reveal a somewhat predictable form. Other objects are more challenging and enigmatic, as if the artist is deliberately and provocatively teasing – for example, ‘There are Places’ and ‘Crimson Blossom’ are reminiscent of skewed municipal litter bins, fashioned from wire mesh and angle iron.


Whereas the tone of Boyce’s titles is frequently pastoral or elegiac, conjuring notions of a now faded belle époque(‘A River in the Trees’, ‘The Garden’, ‘No Brilliantly Coloured Birds’) this is distinctly at odds with the utilitarian, quasi-industrial form and substance of the works themselves. Such a tension, one imagines, worked well in the setting of Renaissance palace but because the materials of Boyce’s work so closely match the architecture of the DCA building itself, the visual dialectic, and hence the meaning, all but disappears.


‘A River in the Trees,’ for example, is a series of irregularly-sized concrete blocks placed on the floor and around which are scattered the ‘Evaporated Pools’. The shape of these is in fact derived from a photograph of four concrete ‘trees’ created by Joël and Jan Martel for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris which Boyce feels represents a 'perfect collapse of architecture and nature'. The     jagged planar shapes are perhaps the inevitable consequence of structural freedoms made possible by reinforced concrete.


However, it is difficult to find a coherent argument and logic in Boyce's overall vision and quite where it leads us is equally difficult to fathom. Boyce has used the idea of an abandoned garden as a framework for the show but in place of  haunted horticultural and architectural abandonment and beauty his work appears more as a confused mish-mash of jagged and incoherent motifs which, one imagines, will make little sense to the average viewer without the aid of considerable textual intervention.