Martin Boyce interview

Originally published October 2011, Creative Times

Martin Boyce has work to do. The late September sun may be streaming through the large, south-facing windows of his immaculate third floor studio in Glasgow’s East End, but he’s not about to be tempted outside. He’s got two important exhibitions coming up and there are new pieces to complete for both of them. First it’s the Frieze art fair in London, and then there’s the small matter of the Turner Prize show at BALTIC, Gateshead.

Boyce is probably the best-known artist on this year’s Turner Prize shortlist. Born in 1967, he’s been creating large-scale sculptural installations and moodily atmospheric environments for nearly two decades. In 2009 he represented Scotland at the 53rd Venice Biennale, taking over the 2nd floor of a 15th century palazzo for an exhibition that included concrete stepping stones, brass typography and large, sculptural chandeliers.

That said, he is happy to acknowledge that the Turner Prize represents a shift, not in his work but in how he is perceived. “From now on I’ll always be ‘Turner Prize nominated Martin Boyce’,” he smiles. “You become part of this lineage, part of a group of other artists, and that’s kind of nice, it’s kind of interesting.”

Boyce knows some of that ‘group of artists’ well – 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright has a studio in the same building. He’s part of a generation of artists that, in the last 10-15 years, have helped make Glasgow the UK’s second city for contemporary art. “I think the fact that people like Richard Wright are living and working in the city, it makes a difference,” he says.

Originally from Hamilton, Boyce graduated from Glasgow School of Art’s Environmental Art course in 1990 (other notable alumni include Lambie, Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley and Christine Borland). He completed his MFA, also at GSA, in 1997.

Boyce’s art draws on and obliquely references the moods and forms of modernism. Not, he insists, that he’s in thrall to any particular visual style. “It’s almost like people use the term ‘modernism’ as a description of an aesthetic, which isn’t how I’m interested in it at all,” he says. “Part of the initial interest was that I could identify with it in relation to an ethos, an ideology. The look and presence of these things also had a relationship to politics and economics, and so that felt very complete. There was lot to wrestle with and think about.”

That process of wrestling with ideas and thinking things through is part of what makes Boyce’s work so seductive. There’s a clarity of delivery in his work that reflects the very deliberate way he operates. Often working with fabricators (the same Glasgow-based firm for some 15 years), he remains close to the production process, overseeing and steering it.

Boyce’s ongoing referencing of four modernist concrete trees, designed by Joel and Jan Martel for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, neatly embodies this thoughtful approach. Such is his interest in the trees, which he describes as “a really strange collapse of materials and ideas”, that he refers to them as a kind of visual language, a lexicon.

“The image [of the trees] had been hanging about the studio for ages,” he explains. “But it wasn’t until 2005, when I was living in Berlin, that I started to use it. There was the best part of six months when I didn’t have any solo shows to do and I could just work in the studio, and I decided to take this tree and started making models, exploring the pattern. I didn’t really know where it was going to lead but it ended up being incredibly fruitful.”

It was during this period that Boyce created a complete alphabet of letters from shapes found within the trees’ structure. “Of course my first reaction was to arrange the letters so that they were the correct way up,” he explains. “But they didn’t quite look right. So I started to put them back where they were found within the pattern, so you have this idea of tumbling letters, some upside down, some on their side – it seemed to make it all the more interesting.”

Those tumbling letters and other shapes derived from the trees featured heavily in the exhibition that earnt Boyce his Turner Prize nomination – A Library of Leaves (2010) at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich. For his show at BALTIC, he’s presenting a combination of existing pieces and new work. “There’s no pressure to produce anything new – quite the opposite – but that’s just the way I work,” he says. “For me, it’s very much about considering the space and responding to it, trying to create a certain kind of atmosphere.”

The BALTIC show sees the nominated artists – Boyce plus George Shaw, Karla Black and Hilary Lloyd – sharing one floor of the vast former flour mill, requiring the creation of four separate spaces. “The conversation [about spaces] was a bit like a full-size game of Tetris or something, trying to fit everyone in,” says Boyce. “Some of the rooms have pillars which can be covered up, but I decided to expose them. It gives me something to play off and react to, which in turn made me want to make a ceiling piece.”

Boyce is happy to dig out examples of the work he’s talking about, at one point tracing out shapes with a black felt-tip pen to reveal how he created his tumbling letters. He shows me a drawing for the piece that will hover above the BALTIC space – it consists of over 500 aluminium fins that will hang from a purpose-built structure. Again, the shape of the fins is derived from those long-since demolished concrete trees.

“The choices I make with the sculptural works and exhibitions, they’re always quite conscious and deliberate – for example, the idea of using a library table [in A Library of Leaves] in relation to typography and language, it makes sense. But equally, just the physical presence of the object, how it’s placed in the room, what it does to the room, all that’s really important.”

For Frieze, Boyce has created a piece consisting of smaller versions of the delicate, perforated steel lanterns featured in a recent show at The Modern Institute, the Glasgow gallery he’s represented by. A few of the lanterns are dotted about his studio; one hangs to the right of his desk. “The pressures of the market aren’t as great in Glasgow, you’re not swimming around in it all the time,” he says in reference Frieze and art fairs generally. “In London and New York you’re very much reacting to it or against it.”

It’s hard to imagine Boyce being swayed too much by the concerns of the art market wherever he was based, such is the single-mindedness of his art. Or, for that matter, by the attention afforded him from being ‘Turner Prize-nominated Martin Boyce’. And winning?

“Once I’d made the decision to accept the nomination, I just wanted to focus on and enjoy the celebratory aspect of it, both for me and contemporary art generally,” he says. “And then concentrate on trying to put on as good a show as I can.”

Manchester on my mind

Originally published in issue 3 of Belle Vue magazine, 2010

It’s April 1995 and Shaun Ryder, previously of Happy Mondays and now of Black Grape, is holding court in a London recording studio. Recently relocated to the capital and – am I imagining this? – living with Donovan’s daughter, he has a can of Guinness in one hand, a spliff in the other and, despite the odds, is talking a lot of sense. I ask him about Manchester: “Manchester? It’s like I’ve got a big fucking elastic band around my neck that keeps pulling me back to the place.”

Fifteen years on, I think I finally understand what he meant. Let me explain. I lived in Manchester for 16 years. It’s a familiar story: moved to the city as a student, decided to stay. It was 1989 when I graduated and I wanted to write about music. There wasn’t a better place to be.

So I wrote about music and doors started to open. I got on the Haçienda guest list and met my heroes (New Order, Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson, Les Dawson); became editor of City Life magazine and four years later was marched out of the MEN building after accepting a job on a rival paper; had a blast in a ‘mine’s bigger than your’s’ newspaper war. Manchester was good to me and I like to think I returned the love.

I live in Glasgow now, another great city (I grew up near Wolverhampton; next stop Reykjavik). I left Manchester in 2003, and although friends and work continued to take me back frequently, the city started to feel like a memory, my past rather than present. When Tony Wilson died in 2007 it was as if a door had been closed.

But I didn’t figure on that elastic band.

Recently it’s been pulling me back. I’m self-employed now and working with some great Manchester characters again. I’m in the city most weeks and when I am I keep bumping into people that I haven’t seen for years, reacquainting myself with old friends and colleagues. What was it that Tony said about Manchester being a village?

So much has changed in Manchester since I left yet so much has stayed the same; that’s what cities do, isn’t it? It’s as if I’m getting to know the place I used to call home all over again, and it’s a good feeling.

I get a knot of excitement in my stomach every time the train from Glasgow reaches Salford Crescent and I glimpse Ian Simpson’s ridiculously audacious skyscraper and think about the who, what and why of living in one of those apartments above the Hilton; when I pass Castlefield basin and take in the historical mash-up of old and new and spot the back windows of the flat I used to live in; when I step out of Oxford Road Station and turn round to view the 1960s splendour of a building that always makes me think of a particularly chic ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, even though I’ve never been to such a place.

I don’t feel like a tourist, but I do find myself acting like one; I’m taking in the sites. Britons Protection; the Deaf Institute; John Rylands Library; Rochdale Canal; the CIS Building; the mess that is Piccadilly Gardens (how I groan at every bit of rotten wood, muddy grass and badly weathered concrete); that lovely curved passageway between the Town Hall extension and Central Library; the top end of King Street; the Civil Justice Centre at Spinningfield; Piccadilly Hotel, which like the new courts, still looks to me as if it’s descended from the set of Battlestar Galactica (an entirely good thing, I think).

This rekindling of my Manchester gene has made me think about my new home too. These tough, history-drenched cities have a lot in common, from the banal (yes, it rains even more in Glasgow) to the more edifying (a rich seam of creative talent and an eye on the future).

But it’s what’s different about each city that most excites; there’s not much joy to be had in sameness. I love the sheer muscular physicality of Glasgow city centre’s grid system of main streets and service alleys – Manchester feels rather laissez-faire in comparison; I get a kick out of the undulating landscape, the way buildings cling to the sides of steep hills and the feeling of openness this gives – Glasgow is a city with a view, whereas Manchester can feel closed off, hemmed in.

And then there’s the bridges. The Clyde’s added a couple since I’ve been in Glasgow (and why not? You can never have too many in my view). Pedestrian, rail, road, they go from the thoughtfully ornate to the brutally functional. They do more than just span the Clyde; they’re a constant reminder of the river’s role in shaping the city.

Of course it’s people that make cities not bricks and steel and glass (or rivers, for that matter). But buildings record and recount people’s stories in both their presence and absence. They’re like those time capsules that get buried every so often for future generations to find, except of course they’re not at all because, above ground, nothing gets preserved, time doesn’t stop.

So, here I am with Manchester on my mind again, attempting to decipher its many signposts to the past and future. That’s what I get from the city every time I’m pulled back here. The elastic band may get stretched over time, but I don’t believe it will ever be broken.