© Courtesy of The Artist


Martin Boyce (1967 – )


Powder coated steel, chain, wire, altered Arne Jacobsen Series 7 chairs
Accession number


Ghosts are ever present in the work of Martin Boyce, and Mobile (Being with you is like the new past) is no exception. At first glance, what appear to be oddly formless, dark shapes hang from a mobile, floating in the air like unlikely spirits, with a mixture of grace and awkwardness. The structure of the work suggests a more omi¬nous rendering of the mobiles of Alexander Calder, who invented the modern mobile in 1931. Suspended in Boyce’s sculpture, however, are not the distinctly abstract shapes of which Calder was fond, but parts of chairs designed by the Danish architect and designer Arne Jacobsen. The parts come from the 3107 Chair, designed in 1955, also known as the ‘series 7’ chair, perhaps the design for which Jacobsen is best known.

As in much of Boyce’s work from this period, there is a fascination with icons of Modernist design and architecture, and with the continu¬ing atmospheres and ideologies that might be contained within the remaining objects. As well as Jacobsen, the designers Charles and Ray Eames play an important role for Boyce at this time. The ghostly feel of this series of works, often grouped together in atmospheric environ¬ments, might be encapsulated by the phrase ‘undead dreams’, which can be read on the artist’s sculptures of ventilation grills. Phantom Limb (Undead Dreams) (2003),[1] a contemporaneous work, is a sculpture based on an Eames’ ‘Splint Sculpture’ (1942), which reappears in Boyce’s work, altered, and resembling a cartoon phantom.

What is, to some extent, at stake here is the idea of built-in obsolescence that was becoming common in American manufacturing in the mid 20th century, with a burgeoning economy supported by a willingness to discard objects. The dreams for Modernist design, particularly seen in California during this period, were based in utopian solutions for a post-war economy: usable objects that might change the way the average family lived. Ultimately, however, over time these ‘classic’ pieces of design became luxury commodities for the rich and educated. In Mobile, the principles of democratic design and ‘form follows function’ are ridiculed, as the chairs’ seats and backs dangle out of reach, impossible to use. Boyce’s reframing of these design ‘icons’ speculates that Modernism itself also contained built-in obsolescence from the start. Approaching these 50-year-old ghosts now, as Will Bradley has commented, reveals the ‘emotional bond’ of Modernism – not only in relation to ideas, but in ‘the acceptance that certain formal strategies could usefully represent those ideas. That acceptance has gone. Few people, now, would be fooled into thinking that pretty flow¬ers or even thoughtful design could bridge the gaping holes in our social and political structures.’[2]

And, yet. What if? What utopian hope remains in these chairs, these designs, untapped? Is another, alternative future or present discern¬ible? The subtitle of Boyce’s mobile, Being with you is like the new past, hints at the work’s peculiar relationship to time. ‘Being with’ someone connotes the present, or at least presentness, but the invocation of a past that is ‘new’ loosens its temporality. Boyce has spoken of his work with Eames’ sculptures as creating ‘derailed’ versions of the original – objects that might have ended up in the present via a parallel route. Whether these objects come from a time that is better or worse is hard to say. However, as rendered by Boyce, they are charged with different, fluctuating potentials. They hover, above the ground, in a kind of limbo, a spectral waiting area for other imagined futures.


[1]. First shown at RomaRomaRoma, Rome, in ‘Undead Dreams’ (2003).
[2]. Will Bradley, ‘California ghosts and flowers’, in Martin Boyce: Undead Dreams (London: Koenig, 2003), 12.

Published in Passports British Council Collection, British Council, London 2009