Martin Boyce won the Turner Prize with the installation Do Words Have Voices (2011), which was featured in this Basel exhibition, his first solo museum show. Comprising ventilation grills, a tablelike structure from which mobiles hang, scattered wax-paper leaves, a trashcan and a ceiling canopy made of aluminum fin shapes, the work is typical Boyce, in that it borrows elements of modernist design and art. Boyce takes modernist forms and, as Daniel Pies writes in the exhibition catalogue, “reshuffles” them, reanimating symbols whose impact has been deadened by their absorption into the canon. In rearranging familiar elements, Boyce conjures unexpected sculptural environments.
The works in the show were made between 2000 and 2014. Though the wall works and installations take numerous guises, several strategies feature repeatedly: the aforementioned borrowing of forms; translating from one material to another; and transitioning between exterior and interior. Though these methods might sound dry, the results are far from schematic. Boyce’s prize-winning installation is lyrical, with soft light filtering through the fins on the ceiling. Their shapes, like many elements in his works, are based on Joël and Jan Martel’s concrete Cubist tree design, created for the 1925 world’s fair in Paris. The names of previous Boyce works are carved into the table’s surface, evoking marks on a school desk from a bygone age. The forms of the carved letters are distilled from the Martel tree as well. Though visitors were inside the museum, the dappled light and drifting paper leaves suggested a pastoral scene, and the artist’s air vents, with their stylish covers, established a sense of circulation between inside and outside.
Another installation, A River in the Trees (2009), consists of quadrilateral stepping stones of different heights that lead from one gallery to the next, more scattered leaves and, at one end, a geometric metal chandelier. The Martel tree comes into play once again, informing both the light fixture, which is a miniature tree form turned upside down, and the angled shapes of the cast-concrete stones. Despite the hard, cold materials and the white-cube context, the viewer felt transported to an imagined space, of water, flora and play.
Throughout the exhibition, Boyce riffed like this on themes borrowed from creative ancestors. In his work, he returns to the origins of the designs that inform our interiors, architecture and street environments and then redirects them. We take new notice of the everyday objects around us when they appear in his realms. Through this process of review and rediscovery, Boyce reinscribes the original designs with ideological and aesthetic charge—and he works hard to sustain this dynamic state. No More Skies, the pessimistic title of the most recent piece on view, a wall work composed of concentric plaster shapes along with painted and stained wooden panels, hints at the tensions present throughout the show. The more we build, the more nature is obscured. Boyce endeavors to keep concrete, metal and wood light, to bring life and lightheartedness into the museum and maintain the humanity of our built spaces.