The sixties according to Philip Larkin, did not really start until 1963 around the time of The Beatles first LP. Before that the world had been different; hierarchical, class ridden, culturally conservative and circumscribed. Slowly the old order had begun to crumble. Politicians were found sleeping with call girls who were considered a threat to national security, Kenneth Tynan said fuck on TV, censorship was abolished, Jimmy Porter got angry and respectable students at the LSE grew their hair long. Welcome to the permissive society.
In the mid-50s Mark Boyle, son of a Scottish lawyer, enrolled at the University of Glasgow to study law, leaving the following year to join the Scot’s Guards. Meanwhile Joan Hills had just left her course in architecture at Edinburgh College of Art to get married, set up a beauty parlour and paint on the side. When Joan and her husband split up she went to live in Harrogate in a small flat above a café, where the young Boyle, who organised supplies for the Ordnance Corps, went to write poetry. Thus was born an artistic collaboration that has lasted until the present day and now includes the couple’s two children, Sebastian and Georgia. In his first published statement in 1965 concerning his artistic practice, Mark Boyle said, “My ultimate object is to include everything in a single work…In the end the only medium in which it will be possible to say everything will be reality.”
In 1964 Boyle and Hill invited an audience to an event at a venue in London where they were led through an entrance marked “Theatre” and seated in front of a curtain. When the curtain was raised the audience found themselves looking through a shop window at passers by who, in turn, stared back at them. Thus the boundaries between viewer, actor and event were erased and the hierarchy of looking broken down. This ‘performance’ followed on the heels of the first Happening in Britain on the final day of the International Drama Conference at the Edinburgh Festival in September 1963 (they exhibited in Edinburgh on a number of occasions with Richard Demarco at the new Traverse Art Gallery). The conference had been turned into a spontaneously anarchic event during which, rather than ‘discuss’ drama, a drama had been ‘created’ and the ‘actual’ material of the world presented as ‘art’. Such subversive action grew out of the Dadaist philosophy that saw the world and humanity as nihilistic and without purpose - a position that accorded with the 60s zeitgeist and a desire to break down old taboos and constraints. This ‘total action’ was to become very much part of Boyle and Hill’s aesthetic. Art was to include everything, to avoid any form of preferential selection. The artist had to become as objective as the scientist in order to portray ‘reality’.
After spending time in Paris the Boyles returned to London where they had begun, in the summer of 1962, to make a series of assemblages. Without funds or conventional art training they pillaged the demolition sites - the results of bombing and slum clearance - that covered swathes of west London. This use of detritus fitted with their ‘inclusion of everything’ aesthetic. It also acted as a potent anti-art and anti-establishment metaphor. Assemblages that included bedsprings, doors from an old wardrobe, shoes and rusting paint cans needed no special skill or equipment to put together. This methodology owed much to Kurt Schwitters and paralleled the spirit of other artists working with non-art materials such as those within the arte povera movement in Italy and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in America.
When the Boyles chanced upon a discarded grey television surround, it was radically to alter their working methods. Throwing it like a dice they decided that whatever portion of a site it framed would became the subject of their next work, even if it fell on a patch of bare earth. Chance – which had so appealed both to the Dadaists and Surrealists - was to become a major component of their work. Resin was now used, onto which they pressed the collected surface material. But beyond saying that, it impossible to explain how they make their ‘paintings,’ for they resolutely refuse to discuss their working methods. It is probable that they make some sort of caste – so that the subject is at the same time both real and replicated. Their first experiments were made in Camber Sands, East Sussex in the late 60s where they recreated the tidal patterns left on the beach over seven days. Sites for subsequent works in London, around Notting Hill where they lived, were chosen by throwing darts into a map. The darts would select sites in a way that was entirely random. A carpenter’s right-angle was then thrown into the air to delineate the bottom edge. A series of printed cards claiming that they were members of the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology usually prevented any unnecessary official interference. In 1968 they took the project to its natural conclusion and invited friends to throw darts at a map of the world. The aim was to “take the actual surface coating of earth, dust, sand, mud, stone, pebbles, snow, grass or whatever. Hold it in the shape it was in on the site. Fix it. Make it permanent.” So huge was the project that it is still unfinished.
From their early childhood the Boyle offspring, Sebastian and Georgia, have been involved in the making of work, accompanying their parents on all their trips. It has taken the family to Norway to create snow pieces, to a German coal mine and to stony escarpments in Sardinia and to Israeli and Australian deserts. Unlike Christo, the wrapper of buildings and landscapes, who seeks the permission of officials and dignitaries, the Boyles tend to work in secret.
And what is it that they have ended up making? Are they paintings or sculptures? Well they are, in fact, closer to painting than sculpture, for primarily they are about surface; the surface as earth, the surface as skin, the surface of a mundane object that was once horizontal but which now hangs vertically on the wall as an art object. They have made work that replicates potato fields and paths - the sort that lead to countless London houses, complete with intricate Victorian mosaic - they have fabricated gutters and pavements where the yellow stripes painted on the road read like the zips in a Barnett Newman painting or the regular concrete slabs of a sidewalk like a minimalist Carl André. They have taken sections of Mark’s magnified skin and blown it up so that it looks like cracked mud or a lunar landscape. Like magicians they have produced a series of stunning tricks, illusions that ape reality. It is as if by collecting numerous specimens of the actual, material world, that like crazy Victorian fossil hunters or palaeontologists, they can make sense of it. Despite the fact that their work is composed of fragments it has little to do with post-modern sensibilities. There is no irony here, nor is their work a metaphor for anything, for it stands for nothing other than itself.
Art made by committee raises all sorts of questions and hackles. There are Gilbert and George, of course, that Derby and Jones of Brit Art, and Art and Language. But a family? Artistic endeavour is historically seen as male, heroic and the struggle of an individual psyche to create a unique aesthetic. The Boyles describe themselves as four argumentative individuals, but mostly it is Mark who talks on video about the work. So do they divvy out the tasks, do they all work on the same piece at the same time, do the younger Boyles have any life of their own? Didn’t they ever want to run away to become accountants? Perhaps these questions are not pertinent to the work but they are the ones everyone wants to know.
Mark and Joan are now in their seventies and this is largest show ever mounted of their work; a retrospective spanning 40 years. Comparisons have been made with photography, with that eternal frozen moment when the shutter closes. Yet somehow their work is more visceral than that; its physical presence, the memory of its previous state more insistent. What grew out of the alternative counterculture of the 60s – the ideology that nothing was of greater value than anything else, that chance was as good a ‘belief’ system as any other on which to base human destiny - has evolved into a unique way of seeing the world. Such a vision has its limitations. For it accepts as axiomatic that art is always amoral and objective. Yet despite this insistence on objectivity, something else happens – perhaps something over which they have no control - in the making of this work; a form of transformation of the mundane into the aesthetic. The ordinary suddenly becomes elevated to the extraordinary when our eyes are opened to the world, to a world we largely take for granted or ignore. As Francis Bacon said, a friend and a fan of the Boyles, “If only people were free enough to let everything in, something extraordinary might come of it.”
The Boyle Family at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh from 14 August to 9 November 2003