Project 18 - Martin Boyce

Martin Boyce creates unique new environments, sampling from the vocabulary of 20th-century architecture and design, the built spaces and constructed experiences of contemporary life. For Project 18, Boyce’s new work, We are shipwrecked and landlocked, created a dramatic installation for the courtyard of the Old Melbourne Gaol. A dusty desert landscape was filled with a matrix of sculptures all developed from the same basic shapes – manipulated and reconfigured into different combinations. At once familiar and surreal, the forms recalled the modernist architecture of an urban park, colliding with the 19th-century architecture of their surrounds.

Using familiar designs, architectural styles, ambient lighting and poetic phrases from song lyrics and literature, Boyce creates a staged setting for the viewer. Sometimes eerie and desolate, futuristic and yet obsolete, his works evoke another time and place. Echoing modernist forms, his sculptures and installations recall the ideals of a forgotten era; forms and functions that have changed over time. The slippage between the ideal image of the city and the experience of urban life seems tangible in Boyce’s forlorn and desolate spaces. Their original meanings eroded, this architecture becomes like a phantom or ghost of the urban landscape. Reshaped, twisted and remodelled, the forms seem at once recognisable and surreal. Like dreamscapes or noir scenes, they extend beyond the built environment to a psychological space, some recalling the constructed images of the cityscape from film and television.

In recent years, Boyce has created a series of installations that draw on the sculptural, concrete, tree-shaped forms designed by Joël and Jan Martel for the Exposition des arts décoratifs held in Paris in 1925. Boyce has transformed and repeated their shape in numerous configurations, from three-dimensional structures to flattened grids and decorative patterns. Like a modular design, the Martel tree has become the basis of numerous variations; Boyce has even fashioned a typeface from its graphic shape. The design is also the basis of We are shipwrecked and landlocked, 2008, Boyce’s largest and most ambitious work to date. Created within the exercise yard of the Old Melbourne Gaol, near the site of Ned Kelly’s confinement and hanging, Boyce paved the ground with gravel in a clay matrix, transforming the space and creating an oasis for three geometric Martel palm trees, appearing like monumental white windmills.

Winding across the centre of the space, separating these tree-like structures, a black metal fence was patterned with the geometric design of the Martel tree. Like a skeleton of the surrounding forms, it twisted and folded, casting shadows across the ground. Skewed wire-mesh rubbish bins, marking either side of the fence, were shaped in the form of the concrete leaves. Embedded in the ground, a square drain echoed the shape of the trees, recalling those designs that are regurgitated at all levels of production. The overall experience was of a site at once familiar and unreal.