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Martin Boyce, installation view, The Modern Institute, 2007

Glasgow 1918–1980: What Happened? A recent seminar at the University of Glasgow hoped to answer this question.[1] Art historians and critics attempted to sketch out a temporary but workable map to describe this terra incognita. The fact that there appears to be an absence at the core of modern Scottish art, 40 or so years when most of the art world’s attention was diverted elsewhere (mainland Europe then America), was explained through the usual sociological, political and economic methods, with formalist concerns almost completely omitted, launched head-long into the abyss. So, what did happen to Scottish Modernism and how have contemporary artists registered this lacking? The work of Martin Boyce goes some way to explain this lacuna, with sculptural installations that theoretically frame this aesthetic and temporal leap from the early to the late 20th century.

His recent, critically acclaimed, exhibition in the Modern Institute, That Blows through Concrete Leaves, was a direct response to the architecture of Modernist masters, turning the gallery into the shell of a Modernist dwelling (a foyer or park), with wall lamps, heating grills, a phone booth. The exhibition spaces worked like a small art complex or concourse, with the boundary between inside and outside blurred (with the use of screen dividing the first space), and an inner sanctum next door where a more traditionally realised sculpture was shown. The sense of moving into a progressively private area continued Le Corbusier’s theory of the promenade architectural, in which the architectural form and aesthetic properties of the augmented building would slowly reveal themselves as the visitor moved from light to dark, from public spaces to private areas. This was a contemporary quotation of Modernist ideas and styles, an effortless exposition of Boyce’s passion for and immense knowledge of this field.

Boyce’s work can be seen as part of a recent trend in Scottish art for revisiting Formalist concerns from the position of a quasi-Formalist. Or maybe that should be meta-Formalist, or a ‘proper’ Formalist, where the serious work of continually deconstructing, emptying and repositioning one’s use of universal Modernist signifiers is never complete. His work is a return to Modernism (a melancholic Modernism), and demonstrates that, for some artists, the ‘modernist moment’ never really ended, or at least that it can be expanded indefinitely. This ‘second Modernism’ takes Modernism and its Postmodern pendant very seriously, creating a temporal melancholic loop that draws on the concerns of high European Modernism, bringing them back to Scotland’s galleries—a melancholic strategy that reveals the lack of high Modernist artists in Scotland.

Martin Boyce, 'Dark Unit', 2003, wood, steel, altered Arne Jacobsen Series 7 + Amt Chair 
Martin Boyce, 'Dark Unit', 2003, wood, steel, altered Arne Jacobsen Series 7 + Amt Chair

In approaching Boyce’s work, we cannot hope to find some kind of ‘truth’ in the art objects or wonder if it should be sought in the pristine social context around his work. The objects simultaneously identify with, quote and critique Modernism through a melancholic cathexis.

The fashion for artists to flirt (however ironically) with mainland Europe, specifically European Modernism itself, is not a new phenomenon, of course. And to do so is not necessarily to neglect the national, cultural and social environment that artists find themselves in. In fact, such a pose can act as a unifying trope; it can be part of the shared cultural language that a group employs—a shorthand form of avant-gardism that is essentially ‘empty’. (Artists such as Craig Mulholland, Lucy Mackenzie and Toby Paterson, to name but a few, could also be said to have created work that is part of this trend). By calling it empty, I do not mean to belittle the validity or sincerity of gesturing towards the European avant-garde; on the contrary. By utilising such mythic forms, by quoting and seemingly misappropriating them, to a certain extent, creates a dialogue with the ‘original’ work, which is now only a memory. Boyce is aware of this ontological emptiness, in creating landscapes that allow us to spend time in a moment, with half-remembered buildings and spaces that form a ‘looped perfect moment’, as he terms it.

A workable and attractive theory of ontological ‘emptiness’ is put forward by Butler, Laclau and Zizek in their book Contingency, Hegemony and Universality—Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, and helps explain Boyce’s project. The authors argue that there is a constitutive emptiness at the illusory core of the sign and the subject—the subject is an empty signifier, in other words. This emptiness means that the content or meaning of Boyce’s identification with a form, a name, a style, comes retroactively, and is not waiting in the concept/category as an ontological quality. We identify with terms that can never fully express us. If the universal is always particular, in that it always misrepresents that which it claims to represent, it is a universalism that is ‘not One’, a quasi-universalism.[2] Laclau’s theory of ‘empty signifiers’ states that, because the signifier is empty, it is not attached to any specific political aim or subject, thus allowing a hegemonic struggle to take place over the body of the signifier.

Martin Boyce, installation view, Museum fr Kunst, Frankfurt an Main, 2002
Martin Boyce, installation view, Museum für Kunst, Frankfurt an Main, 2002

Can this idea of the sign’s emptiness, its rhetorical and parodic use, be related to the way that some contemporary artists have referred back to European Modernism? Is there now a place for high Modernist art in Scotland? Was there ever? It is no wonder that European high Modernism is melancholically invoked. A ten-year assault cannot really be thought of as a comeback, but it does demonstrate our growing fascination and our melancholic refusal to mourn the loss of a Modernist tradition that we did not have. (The strongest melancholic position is to become that which we refuse to have lost as a love object). This deconstructs any naïve theory of ‘newness’, ‘originality’. The ‘new’ is a dead myth, a cobbled together invention; history is in process, and is continually being rewritten in these quotations. The ‘copy’ gives the illusion that there was an ‘original’ in a pristine historical context waiting to be plundered. If the copy creates the original then art created after Modernism exploits this temporal fold.

Melancholia, in strictly Freudian terms, is the refusal to mourn the loss of a love object, an object of identification, an ideal.[3] For Boyce then, we could say that Modernism is that ideal. This melancholic process is based on a kind of narcissism—where the subject either wants to be or have the object that is identified. But one has to identify in order to make the object available for desire, and desire in order to identify with it. If an object is lost to desire it can be identified, and visa versa. It is the loss that is desired. This would mean Boyce’s ‘secondary Modernism’ becomes the thing that he refuses to accept to have lost as an ideal—ie, Modernism, the thing that he never had. In losing it, it is now open to desire; in desiring it as an ideal, it is now open to identification and is expressed in the work, through his ‘use of style’.

In Quoting Caravaggio: Contemporary Art, Preposterous History Mieke Bal’s begins by telling us: ‘Quoting Caravaggio changes his work forever,’ [4] an observation made by TS Eliot in which he claims that the past can be altered by the present. Bal’s book is an investigation into the concept of the Baroque and its signs, and those that are ‘quoted’ by later artists. The quotation, like the performance, creates the semblance of the originality of the text or art object that it appears to be referring back to. The categories of past/present, subject/object are spliced; the binaries leak into each other, thus destroying clear distinctions and denotations.

Martin Boyce, 'Untitled', 2007, steel, plywood, paint 
Martin Boyce, 'Untitled', 2007, steel, plywood, paint

When the later manifestation is read as informing, changing the earlier appearance, then the history that is written due to this relationship appears to be inverted; all claims to ontology and truth are open to question. Bal labels this deconstructed history writing ‘preposterous’, as she tells us:

‘This reversal, which puts what came chronologically first (pre-) as an after effect behind (post-) its later recycling, is what I would like to call preposterous history… it is a way of ‘doing history’ that carries productive uncertainties and illuminating highlights…’[5]

These productive uncertainties are the connotations and contingency of meaning that Boyce utilises. In inverting the model of art historical linearity, and unfolding the zeitgeist back into itself, the progression of styles is reversed. The notion of primacy then, is constructed retroactively in a manner that parallels the illusory core of Judith Butler’s decentred subject. We can argue, therefore, that these ‘second Modernists’ deconstruct Modernism by questioning the binarised categories that produce it as a concept—Modernism is: ‘cultural attitudes and states of consciousness which encompass intellectual and aesthetic, political and scientific, assumptions and thoughts’[6]—that were once related to a specific time, and can now be thought of as an aesthetic programme. Modernism, as a sign, is deconstructed by Boyce

Martin Boyce, 'When Now is Night (web)', 1999, fluorescent lights, powder-coated steel, painted plywood, dimensions variable
Martin Boyce, 'When Now is Night (web)', 1999, fluorescent lights, powder-coated steel, painted plywood, dimensions variable

through his rhetorical positioning, in setting up relationships between objects/theories, in discerning tropes, metaphors, and Modernist points of view that can be used to fold time and philosophy. He transforms the Modern style/period into the current style/period.

Throughout the summer Boyce will continue to bring Modernism back to Europe, with exhibitions in London, Geneva and Münster. The work on show at the skulptur projeckte münster will again invoke Modernist architecture (the Münster zoo), where Boyce intends to ‘produce somewhere lost or out of time, a place that exists when no-one is looking. A misplaced place.’ He will return to the glyph of leafless, concrete trees that frequently appear in his work, a quotation from the sculptural work of Jan and Joel Martel from 1925 (whose sculptures now only exist as reproductions, photographs documenting the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels, 1925). But Boyce has managed to bring them back to petrified life, a second life (or death) after their moment has passed. Modernism will become gravestone-like concrete slabs with brass letters between the planes spelling out: ‘WE ARE STILL AND REFLEXIVE.’ And we are.

Alexander Kennedy is art editor of the List

[1] The seminar, organised by Paul Stirton, included papers by Sandy Moffat, Francis Fowle, Venda Pollock, Bruce Peter, John Morrison, Margery McCulloch, Neil Mulholland and Alexander Kennedy. Kennedy’s paper considered ‘the return to Modernism’, which could be said to describe the aesthetic concerns of a collection of contemporary Scottish artists: it demonstrated that these artists have a melancholic relationship with the high Modernism absent from Scotland’s art history. This new work, by ‘performing Modernism’, becomes the thing that was lost, suggesting it was not lost—the strongest melancholic position to take.
[2] Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, Contingency, Hegemony and Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, Verso, London and New York, 2000, p 32
[3] Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, translated and edited by James Stratchey, Penguin Books, London, 1984, p 252
[4] Mieke Bal, Quoting Caravaggio—Contemporary Art, Preposterous History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, p 1 5 Ibid, p 7 6 Ibid, p 16