A spooky Martin Boyce retrospective at Fruitmarket & a spectre of Rennie Mackintosh
An exhibition of the work of Martin Boyce from 1992 to today fills the three gallery spaces of Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery. For recessed.space, Jonathan McAloon visited & found within the pieces on display a spectre of the great Scottish artist & architect, Charles Rennie Macintosh.

In a recent interview with the Times, Martin Boyce described how as a child he would travel into Glasgow by bus just to stand outside the School of Art’s Mackintosh building. When he was old enough, Boyce applied and didn’t get in. So, he applied again.

It’s easy to understand, from a look at Boyce’s oeuvre, how Charles Rennie Mackintosh might have been a guiding spirit for the Scottish artist. Like the fin de siècle architect, he has sought to collapse distinctions between the structural and the decorative, the functional, and the lyrical. Both were concerned, throughout careers that feel at once deliberately unified from the start around some consistent aesthetic forms and eccentric in their range, with the interplay of fine art and design.


When Boyce was eventually accepted to study at the Glasgow School of Art, his course was called Environmental Art. He has since focused on creating work that reshapes the places in which it is encountered, or that spills into its surroundings. At times dubbing the gallery spaces which contain his pieces “landscapes,” he has shown a talent, just as Mackintosh did a hundred years before him, for making space into an event.

My first encounter with Boyce’s work was the 2011 Turner Prize show at the Baltic, Gateshead. His installation, Do Words Have Voices, would go on to win, and presented a melancholy version of parks familiar from most British childhoods. A structure resembling an unridden seesaw suggested, by some trick of balance, only very recent abandonment: it still had the creak of regular use. Messy autumn leaves made from wax paper were strewn in corners, and felt, on the gallery floor, just as redolent of inside as outside. Of weather’s incursion into the home, when browned leaves might follow you through the front door and onto the doormat.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work continues to make space into an event, this time a tragic one. Boyce’s current show at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery, Before Behind Between Above Below, responds to the fires that gutted the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building in 2014 and 2018. In the Edinburgh gallery’s Warehouse space, black and white photographic prints that Boyce took of the burned-out library are laid on a table. The Spook School series (2016) are almost Victorian in their aura, and most substantial when focusing on material surfaces, such as the texture of a half-collapsed brick wall, surviving arches, or water damage.

“Spook School” was the pejorative term applied at the time to Mackintosh and the artists around him, whose work often included ethereal, paganistic figures that would become so indicative of Art Nouveau. Now, Boyce’s images make a ghost ship out of the group’s most powerful legacy. It can’t have escaped him how the environment in which we view them, with its exposed brickwork, reclaimed wood panelling in colours of wear and damage – even flame – will echo the burnt-out spaces he captured on film.

When setting up this floor, the intention was that it would suggest the idea of a storage space, or, as the artist has said on video material accompanying the exhibition, a “backstage condition.” Some works are boxed up. There’s a package of the paper leaves which have become a recurring motif in Boyce’s installations, and which feature in other works throughout this exhibition. Partitions between works have been created with mesh curtains, screening off sculptures as if they are yet to be unveiled. One of these is Long Distance Sleep Talking (2022): a pink door is positioned on the floor, and above it a corded phone dangles off the hook. As if someone has left in a hurry mid-call. Everything about the assemblage, busy as it is, makes you feel that human involvement is somewhere off to the side.

We are in the engine room here, but it is also a contemplative space. Cold. And I couldn’t help but remember that more than a hundred of Mackintosh’s paintings and original pieces of furniture were also destroyed in that first 2014 fire, because they were in a storage room directly above the library. 


Fruitmarket’s lower gallery space offers what feels like the quintessential Boycean experience. Sculptures, photographs, and paintings everywhere each demonstrate his subtle alterations to interiors: a wall-mounted door, with a chair – potentially of the artist’s own design, though allusive of a Mackintosh original – wedged under the handle; photographs of rooms that contain wardrobes and other partitions.

But Boyce’s most striking interventions in space here are caused by facets of the curation which aren’t strictly artworks. The gallery floor has been divided with sheets of corrugated plastic roofing. There’s something of mid-century American minimalism about them – Craig Kaufmann and Donald Judd would use transparent or translucent plastic objects to create gem-like points of light in an exhibition space. And catching sight of Boyce’s more strictly demarcated works through these iridescent panels, I noticed that their colours would momentarily alter. Black showed as red. Green appeared as a pink imprint, like the afterimage of light on the eyelid. Birds cut out from brown paper disappeared from No Birds #7 (2009). Some colours and shapes were rendered in a TV test card blur.


Under glass, an array of models, materials, plans, and prototypes are displayed. Light switches that protrude, jagged, from the wall. Plug sockets whose holes could only accept awkward prongs. There is a sketch for the telephone in Long Distance (I Travelled Far and Wide) (2022) which has been moulded in silicone and mounted on perforated steel. The buttons on the phone, though, are not numbers, but gnomic glyphs. Symbols which are also the basis of Boyce’s light switches and plug sockets. It would be impossible to call anyone from these phones: an obsolescence heightened by the fact, one of the gallery staff tells me, that many of the young viewers who have seen the show so far have never seen a corded phone before.

These pieces show Boyce working with what he has previously described as his “alphabet of forms”: geometric elements out of which he builds larger pieces. These have often been suggested to him by other works of art or architecture. The shapes on his plug sockets and on his phone dials, for instance, are derived from Jan and Joël Martel’s Concrete Trees: geometric garden sculptures which were designed for a 1925 exposition in Paris.

The Martel forms are also the basis for some of Boyce’s more spectacular work, here and elsewhere. Fruitmarket’s upper gallery has a canopy of aluminium fins covering the ceiling. Each fin, in white or lilac, is one of Martel’s tree forms, and together they create the effect of Cubist cherry blossom, designed for a residence in Japan.

This airy space, floor littered too with red crepe paper leaves, reads like an optimistic, Spring counterpoint to Do Words Have Voices (which also included a canopy of Martel fins running along the gallery ceiling, though in more sombre hues). This top-floor feels like something of a culmination: spare, refined, a meeting-point for many of Boyce’s preoccupations and methods of working. The white wall panels feature decorative mouldings that Boyce used in many of the pieces in his 2018 show The Light Pours Out at Esther Schipper in Berlin: architectural beading and piping, only subtly noticeable, implying a confusion between gallery space and domestic space. And then there are 2003’s Ventilation Grills (for an Apartment Building): the gallery walls have been punctured to accommodate golden grates. A single word from a line of John Donne poetry is on each of them: Before. Behind. Between. Above. Below.


In a 2008 design talk, Boyce spoke about the idea that floors of a building are “notionally interconnected” by old ventilation grills, which become portals to allow stories to move freely. When he came up with the idea, he couldn’t have known the dreadful irony of such interconnectedness, which would, a decade later, destroy the GSA building he loved so much. And watching the exhibition’s accompanying video material, I saw no evidence that the circumstances of the blaze played into Boyce’s conscious artistic choices. But at the inquest into the first 2014 fire, it was discovered that the old ventilation grills in the building, whose system had long been in need of renovation, allowed a fire that started in the studios below –  caused by a projector and flammable expanding foam used for a degree piece – to spread between the floors, and then above into Mackintosh’s beautiful library.

After seeing Boyce’s Edinburgh show I made my way to Glasgow, where Charles Rennie Mackintosh continues to make space into an event. The Renfrew Street front of the Glasgow School of Architecture was completely covered by white protective sheeting. Spook School.

Martin Boyce was born in Hamilton, South Lanarkshire in 1967. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, graduating with a BA in environmental art in 1990, then a MFA in 1997. He lives in Glasgow. Boyce won the Turner Prize in 2011 and since 2018 has been professor of sculpture at HFBK Hamburg.

Fruitmarket is a free, public space for culture in the heart of Edinburgh, which provides inspiration and opportunity for artists and audiences.  We programme, develop and present world-class exhibitions, commissions, publications, performances, events and engagement activities, opening up the artistic process. Creativity makes space for meaning, and we create a welcoming space for people to think with contemporary art and culture in ways that are helpful to them – for free.

Jonathan McAloon is an arts journalist and book critic. He has written for the FT, BBC, Guardian, Irish Times, Telegraph, Elephant and i-D, among others.

visit Martin Boyce: Before Behind Between Above Below is on at Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 09 June 2024. Further details available at: www.fruitmarket.co.uk/event/exhibition-martin-boyce


fig.i,iv Martin Boyce, Before Behind Between Above Below. Installation view, Fruitmarket, 2024. Photos: Stefan Altenburger.
fig.ii Martin Boyce, Future Blossom (for Yokeno Residence), 2022; Dead Star (Reclining), 2017; Ventilation Grills (for an Apartment Building,) 2003; Somewhere there are Trees, 2022; Same Day, 2015. Installation view Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2024. Photo: Stefan Altenburger
fig.iii Martin Boyce, Before Behind Between Above Below. Installation view, Fruitmarket Warehouse, 2024.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger
fig.v Martin Boyce, House Blessing (from the White Album by Joan Didion 1979), 1999. Courtesy of 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.
fig.vi Martin Boyce, Interiors, 1992
4 Framed C-Prints. All images Courtesy of 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. Photo: Ruth Clark.
fig.vii Martin Boyce, Long Distance Sleep Talking, 2022. Installation view, Fruitmarket Warehouse, 2024.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger.
fig.viii Martin Boyce, Spook School, 2016. Installation view, Fruitmarket Warehouse, 2024. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.
fig.ix Martin Boyce, Before Behind Between Above Below. Installation view, Fruitmarket Warehouse, 2024.
Photo: Will Jennings.
figs.x,xi Martin Boyce, A Forest (I) (2009), Concrete Table I (2008), Installation views, Fruitmarket, 2024.
Photo: Will Jennings.
fig.xii Martin Boyce, Same Day, 2015. Courtesy of 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.
fig.xiii Martin Boyce, Before Behind Between Above Below. Installation view, Fruitmarket, 2024. Photo: Will Jennings.
fig.xiii Martin Boyce, No Information or Memory (2021), Installation view, Fruitmarket, 2024.
Photo: Will Jennings.
fig.xv Martin Boyce Future Blossom (for Yokeno Residence), 2022; Same Day, 2015; Ventilation Grills (for an Apartment Building,) 2003; Somewhere there are Trees, 2022. Installation view Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, 2024. Photo: Stefan Altenburger.

publication date
13 May 2024

Art Nouveau, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Martin Boyce, John Donne, Esther Schipper, Fire, Fruitmarket, Ghosts, Glasgow, Glasgow School of Art, Installation, Leaves, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Jan and Joël Martel, Jonathan McAloon, Partition, Photography, Sculpture, Spook School, Turner Prize, Ventilation