Walking to the Museum Für Gegenwartkunst is, unavoidably and of itself, a romantic passage. Located just off the Rhine River, the experience of water is embedded into the ethos of building—both figuratively and practically within the architecture of the space—as viewable from the glass hallways between the museum’s galleries. The river, a fittingly meandering foil to the small path that leads to Martin Boyce’s current exhibition, offers an experience of aesthetisized nature.
Few contexts or experiences of an exhibition rely heavily on the transit of the viewer to the institution, though in Basel in June, this context is nearly inseparable; I was stopped along the way by Parcours, with a piece by Davide Balula—a cart that offers four flavors of ice cream based on images of paintings: river, dirt, smoke, and burnt wood.
Boyce puts a similar concept of the outdoors into practice: nature’s use as a retreat for the Romantics, but also as a source for the installations he presents, and their associated affects. He does not do so in a way that feels contrived or prescriptive—this is not, after all, an intentional or demanding framework of the show—but in an intensely imaginative and spiritualized way that is at the same time fundamentally secular. Here, we are not charmed by the power of the work to alter our person, but by our body in relation to physical space, and its subtle imprint on our senses.
I walked into the museum with the white noise sound of water rushing by me. With the taste of river on my tongue. This is an exhibition for synaesthetes.
As with Romanticism, when nature talks to you, you talk back. Below is a series of call and answer responses to the installations on view—correspondences—marked first by the title of the works.
Martin Boyce, Do Words Have Voices, 2011 (left). Installation view. Courtesy of the Museum Für Gegenwartkunst, Basel
1. Do Words Have Voices (2011)
There is one painting in the room. The word Songs, placed in rigid letters designed by Boyce in his own font, are inserted into the grey cement-like surface of the canvas, each letter falling across the flat plane—S-O-N-G-S—and landing into the viewer’s vision, like low somber notes on a grand piano. If sounds are substitutes for visual forms, this exhibition navigates the boundaries of this and other senses with great fluidity. The touch of the details within the space are almost symphonic.
Where the walls meet the floor, designed ventilation grills are installed just above standard height. Camouflaged by the familiar. What air would this installation circulate? I imagine the possibility that the exhaled air in a space could carry emotions if matched by the concerted feelings of a group. Could the breath of a whole room of hopeful people capture anticipative air? Apprehensive air, impatient air, ominous air.
If every word in a library had its voice, the world would go deaf.
Martin Boyce, A River in the Trees, 2009. Detail. Courtesy of the Museum Für Gegenwartkunst, Basel
2. A River in the Trees (2009)
You are walking on a pathway of stepping stones across a river with no water. A virtual park of designed objects. Folded paper nets are scattered like leaves that fell from nowhere. Perhaps these leaves will replace ours to simulate the fall when we no longer have seasons. The folds suggest a previous form, now unformed. Formless. Or are these fallen birds? I imagine each piece scattered along the floor folding back into cranes, and lifting off the ground.
If there were no more water, would its architecture still remain? I think of who would visit the great craters of the sea, if ponds would stay hollow in the ground or be leveled, if sailboats would still be docked near long stretches of dry plains.
Martin Boyce, Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (Black and Yellow Branches with Trees). Installation view. Courtesy of the Museum Für Gegenwartkunst, Basel
3. Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (Black and Yellow Branches with Trees) (2002)
The saplings are made of white neon. It is a cool light, like the one used to grow real trees when the sun is not an option.
I would under other circumstances criticize or challenge the crutch of lyricism in this piece—the poetic titles in the exhibition overall could be more congruent to the experience of the work, which is at times quite formal—but I will not at this moment.
Martin Boyce, Mobile (For 1056 Endless Heights). Installation view. Powder coated steel, chain, wire and Jacobsen Series 7 chair parts
4. Mobile (For 1056 Endless Heights) and Broken Fall (Wall Mounted Ashtray) (2002)
I wonder what this piece would look like if Boyce used the furniture of an entire home under the same pretext. If an entire life of lived furniture were to be broken and hung up for purely aesthetic pleasure. Instead, here, the kitchen chair—where innumerable serious conversations were had—floats above the heads of the museum public.
Is this chair any more or less domestic than the Calder mobiles sold in museum gift stores?
I leave speculating how Bas Jan Ader would have performed on the river raging just outside these walls, visible through the glass bridge that separates the wings of the museum.
(Image at top:Martin Boyce, A River in the Trees, 2009. Installation view. Courtesy of the Museum Für Gegenwartkunst, Basel)