Installation view of “Before Behind Between Above Below,” Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2024. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich/Vienna; Esther Schipper, Berlin/Paris/Seoul; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

Archetypal Things: A Conversation with Martin Boyce

Scottish artist Martin Boyce draws on the imagery of everyday urban living to create sculptural and wall-based works that conflate and confuse notions of exterior and interior, natural and manufactured. Made of industrial materials such as concrete, corrugated plastic, and steel mesh, his evocative installations reference Modernist history and ideology while acting as phantom-like bridges to half-remembered experience.

Since 2005, Boyce has used a palette of shapes derived from a 1925 photograph of four Cubist, cast concrete trees created by the twin sculptors Jan and Joël Martel for the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in Paris. By deconstructing the trees, Boyce has developed a geometric sculptural language that also forms the basis of a unique typeface, which has featured in a variety of works and installations, including his Scottish Pavilion presentation for the 2009 Venice Biennale, his 2011 Turner Prize-winning exhibition at Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, and a permanent paved terrace at Tate Britain, Remembered Skies (2017).

Distant Waves, 2021. Steel, acrylic on aluminum, painted silicone-molded vacuum-cast resin, and coiled telephone cable, 167 x 121 x 15 cm. Photo: Keith Hunter, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

Chris Sharratt: “Before Behind Between Above Below,” your current show at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket, includes work from 1992 up to the present day. It takes its name from a 2003 piece consisting of five room ventilation grills. Can you tell me about that work and its significance in relation to the exhibition?
Martin Boyce: The first vents I ever made were for that piece, which is titled Ventilation Grills (for an Apartment Building). It’s the idea that the vents are thresholds into the guts of a building, the places we don’t see; in an apartment building, a tenement, there are stories happening between others, and below and above you. I came across the text on the grills in a Philip Roth book in 1996, when I was in Los Angeles. One of the characters is writing a paper titled “Before Behind Between Above Below, After the John Donne poem.” I went and found the poem—this was pre-Internet, so had an anthology of Donne’s poems. The full line, from “To His Mistress Going to Bed,” is: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go, / Before, behind, between, above, below.” It’s very intimate, and I really liked that.

I felt that there was something about the text that would work well for this show, but the title is also about proximity, about other people’s relationship to you and your relationship to other people and other things and other places. Also, in a broader sense (as an exhibition title), it describes a relationship to sculpture and architecture and these objects in the built environment, like vents and fireplaces and doors and lamps—things that are like markers.

CS: These are very everyday, unremarkable things.
MB: Yes, and it’s strange because in some ways, although I’m the author of the sculptures, of course, I’m not the author of these things, so I have a funny relationship to the work, which I quite like. I like the sense that these objects just exist and I’m discovering them in the same way as the viewer. They’re archetypal things—they’re all things drawn from the world.

Installation view of “Before Behind Between Above Below,” with Ventilation Grills (for an Apartment Building), 2003; and Somewhere there are Trees, 2022. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich/Vienna; Esther Schipper, Berlin/Paris/Seoul; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

CS: The exhibition features three very distinct elements in three different spaces. How did you approach the show, in particular the idea of creating a conversation between works made across a period of more than 30 years?
MB: When I decided it was going to be a gathering of work from a broad period of time, it was about using the works as sculptural elements to play with, to create new constellations and new configurations. I wanted to have fun with it and to keep the work alive. It’s not really a retrospective—it’s doing something else. In the main downstairs gallery, it’s largely wall-based work, which I wanted to show because although I’m best known for my sculptural works, I’ve been making wall pieces for a long time. I’ve also created screens for the space and added lanterns, so it’s also about making a scenography of an exhibition.

In the downstairs Warehouse space, I’ve done something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time—playing with the language of storage, memory, and archive and somehow analyzing the elements. I’ve used debris netting—an industrial but also quite elegant material—to create “rooms” within the space, but you can see through it, so again it plays with the idea of memory, of seeing something but not quite. It’s quite dreamlike. In the upstairs gallery, where the vents are the starting point, there is a suspended ceiling work (Future Blossom (for Yokeno Residence), 2022) that I’d worked on for a show in Toronto. It was made for a room with great big concrete pillars, so what were the chances that the Fruitmarket’s pillars would correspond to the holes in the ceiling piece? But we managed to make it work.

CS: The context in which you put these forms, whether a gallery or somewhere else, is a huge part of what gives the work its meaning, its presence.
MB: Yes, it’s like when you walk into the room with the ceiling piece—the wall molding and the fireplaces are from the language of interiors, but you also get the feeling of a canopy of cherry blossoms. So, you have a kind of fusion of interior and exterior, but they’re not either—they refer to those things.

Installation view of “Before Behind Between Above Below,” with (above) Future Blossom (for Yokeno Residence), 2022. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich/Vienna; Esther Schipper, Berlin/Paris/Seoul; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

CS: It’s intriguing how our senses respond to these not-quite-real things, like the paper leaves on the floor of the upstairs gallery (Somewhere there are Trees, 2022). You know they’re not leaves, that you’re inside not outside, that they’re manufactured rather than natural, yet you find yourself going along with the tension between these possibilities.
The leaves really do that; your eye reads them as autumn leaves, and it softens the edge of the room. But that tension is also between a kind of poetic, romantic feel that’s in some of the work and the industrial, hard, urban materials—the painted steel, the cast concrete—which somehow allows the poetic feel to seep in. I like trying to find that balance; I like that tension.

CS: There’s a small archive area off the main downstairs gallery with a vitrine featuring objects and materials relating to Jan and Joël Martel’s concrete Cubist “trees” from 1925. The trees have been hugely important in your work, and you’ve extracted shapes, patterns, and even a typeface from their forms. Given how central they’ve become, is there a sense, for you, of “before and after the trees” in terms of your practice?
MB: I don’t really think about that to be honest. Early on in your practice, you think that each work isn’t connected to the next—you’re searching for your own language, and you only build that by making more work. I would make a work and then make another work, and slowly one starts to merge into the other, or one informs the other. Sometimes you’re leading the work, sometimes the work’s telling you what you should do next, what you’re going to explore.

Remembered Skies, 2017. Pre-cast concrete/stone, translucent natural acrylic stone, and LED lighting strips, view of installation at Tate Britain. Photo: © Tate (Joe Humphrys), Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

CS: Does having the “language” of the forms from the Martel trees change the starting point of your work? Does it influence what you actually make?
MB: No. I thought I’d just get a couple of years out of the trees and then find something else, but quite a lot developed from those initial years. What happened was that if I wanted to make, say, telephone booths or something that referred to the urban landscape, rather than thinking about what it was going to look like or taking something that already exists and making a version of it, I would have those three shapes, those three components from the trees that I could arrange. It was just a matter of, “Is that going to be interesting, is that going to help me make this?” I quite like working within constraints; not having a multitude of options is an interesting way to work. Those components gave me a lexicon of shapes that I can go to. But also—and this wasn’t deliberate—it became clear that it was a language that connected all the works together because of the repetition of forms and shapes. I’ve started to introduce a more curved motif now, so it’s slowly becoming something else—I’m much less rigid with it.

CS: So, the object out in the world is always the starting point?
MB: Quite often it’s not even an actual object, but something I see in an image. I’m a real image junkie. I have a huge database of images of interiors and landscapes, a lot of things pulled from the Internet, books, and magazines. It used to be big folders with pages ripped out of magazines, now it’s just constantly dragging images into folders and ordering them. I have a “landscape” file, an “interiors” file, and for every exhibition, I create a new file. It’s become a reference point. You’re constantly pulling in all sorts of things that might help. As much as the work itself, I’m interested in creating a place for the work to occupy, a backdrop, so I refer to the images if I’m thinking about what I should do with a space—it’s just a natural way for me to work. It also comes from other artists, like Robert Gober, for example, who would treat the room as a complete thing rather than a series of isolated, autonomous objects. I really encourage the idea that the objects are talking to each other, talking to the room, and creating a scene within the room, so the room becomes a place rather than a gallery space.

Installation view of “Before Behind Between Above Below,” Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2024. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich/Vienna; Esther Schipper, Berlin/Paris/Seoul; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

CS: The room dedicated to the Martel trees highlights the thoroughness and thought that goes into your works. There are little maquettes, and everything shows the sense of precision and detail. Is your approach still the same?
MB: It’s pretty similar. More things are done on the computer now. I work with someone in the studio who can build rooms and model things digitally. The telephones in the Fruitmarket exhibition, like the one featured in Long Distance Sleep Talking (2022), for example, were all designed on the computer.

CS: And yet there’s still a cardboard model of one of the phones in the Martel room.
Because the computer can tell you certain things and how something might go together, but ultimately it’s only once you make it on a one-to-one scale that you really get a sense of what needs to happen to it. Sometimes, of course, you just start working with the piece itself and you don’t need a model or maquette, you know what you want to do with it—the thinking just happens through the making.

Installation view of “Before Behind Between Above Below,” with Long Distance Sleep Talking, 2022. Photo: Stefan Altenburger, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow; Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich/Vienna; Esther Schipper, Berlin/Paris/Seoul; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles

CS: Working with fabricators is also very important to what you do. What’s that like?
MB: When you talk about an artist working with fabricators, it can sound like you give them a little maquette or drawing of the work and they just magically make it. But I’m very present. When the fabricators are working on something for me, their workshop is like an extension of my studio—I’m there all the time, controlling decisions, asking them to do something, to weld something or cast something. I might change it halfway through, so it’s a very active process—there are a lot of conversations involved. Then, when the piece comes to my own studio, I play with it; I might alter the surface or paint it. I’ve been working with the same fabricators since 2002, and they’re all people who went through art school and really understand what I’m trying to get at. Having that relationship with people is very important.

CS: You’ve worked on a number of permanent works over the years, such as the 2017 Tate Britain commission, your 2014 glass installation in the Glasgow School of Art’s Reid Building, and your outdoor work for the 2007 Skulptur Projekte Münster. For me, though, one of the most intriguing is All the Gravity, All the Air (2013–17), for the lobby of the Swiss Re building in Zurich. Did that involve a quite different way of working?
MB: That was a very unusual project, and there were two different aspects to it. The first was to look at doing something with a space that included public areas on the ground floor—the waiting room, the reception hall, and the meeting room. So, I designed a floor that had a pattern on it and concrete pillars from the floor to the ceiling, then ventilation grills—that was part one, and it was very much a familiar language for me, like an installation in the space. And then they said, “We’re also going to need furniture, and it feels strange to put other people’s furniture into your landscape.” So, then I got to work on meeting tables and benches for the waiting room and a reception desk in marble. They’re all practical, useable things—and I usually try to avoid that.

Early on, when my work borrowed from the language of furniture design and architecture, people would ask: “Could you design this furniture?” and I’d be like, “But I’m not a furniture designer.” I thought that if I did that it would dilute the sculpture and confuse the furniture. But with the Swiss Re, I felt that I’d got to the point where I was established enough and could enjoy doing those things. For me, it was always important that what I was doing was art, was sculpture. I know some things might sail very close, but with the context they’re shown in, the context they exist in, they’re sculptures. I like that discomfort as well, that people are challenged by that, suspicious of it, or confused by it. That’s all part of the process.

We Are Still and Reflective (Like Stars and Broken Glass), 2007. Concrete and brass, 1500 x 3500 cm. Photo: Roman Mensing, Courtesy the artist and The Modern Institute/ Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow

CS: Since 2018 you’ve been a professor of sculpture at HFBK Hamburg. Do you enjoy teaching?
MB: I go to Hamburg every third week for four or five days, and that has been working well. There is of course some research and preparation and following up with student conversations in between visits, but this way allows me to manage both the studio practice and the teaching. I find myself tapping into my own experiences as a student in the environmental art department. In my class in Hamburg we talk a lot about acknowledging or creating a context for the work. It can be intense, but it’s incredibly rewarding and the students are wonderful. I really like it.

CS: It sounds like it’s inspiring, reinvigorating. Does it feed back into your work as an artist?
MB: Yes. As a young artist, your world is very outward-looking, and you’re really part of a community. Your peers are all working and you’re meeting them and you’re out in the pub with them and talking and having exhibitions together. But then before you really know it, your world becomes very focused on just you in the studio working, and somehow all that conversation and chat has slipped away. This was a way to get that back a bit. So it’s really nice. It’s amazing.

“Before Behind Between Above Below” is on view at Fruitmarket in Edinburgh through June 9, 2024.