It begins with an encounter in a museum, ruins and a stolen camera. The images aren't entirely gone. They've just gone somewhere else. Perhaps already deleted. Fading from memory. Martin Boyce's gorgeous book, A Partial Eclipse, begins with a story of loss and confusion, and leads us through an archive of images that cycle between the natural and constructed, offer glimpses of the past, but also point forward. The haunting spaces and subjects of Boyce's photographs teeter between asserting their structural integrity and succumbing to the forces of nature and entropy, collapsing and at last disappearing into the landscape, yet offering hope and possibility.
All images © Martin Boyce and MACK
Boyce is perhaps best known for his sculpture and installation work, which won him the Turner Prize in 2011. Drawing upon early 20th century modernist design, architecture and sculpture, his work incorporates text, sculpture and light. His 2010 Turner prize nominated show, 'A Library of Leaves,' included numerous works that were derived in part from Joel and Jan Martel's 1925 concrete tree sculptures from the Exposition des Artes Décoratifs in Paris of that same year. Although subsequently destroyed, maquettes and photographs of the work survived. Repeatedly mining the Martel's work, Boyce has teased out motifs and options within the work arriving at his own unique vision. For a photographic audience unfamiliar with his work, this information provides important insight and context to his work and the book. Boyce is clearly drawn to ruins, monumental architecture and decorative architectural elements. Edited and selected from a large personal archive of images, the murky and foreboding photographs in this new book do not seem radically dissimilar from his other non-photographic work. Like his sculptural work, they are elegiac and cautiously hopeful. The look backward is not merely nostalgic, but is rooted in a desire to reclaim lost possibilities from the past.
Aside from the opening story, which frames the images, the photographs don't provide any narrative. Instead, they feel like sketches for the artist or the hazy, partially forgotten and lost images from the protagonist's stolen camera. Concrete stairwells lead to cracked tile floors and graffiti carved tropical plants languish under the noon sun. Palm trees sway forlornly in the wind. Empty gardens and pavilions take us to ruined steps. Decoratively patterned grates, doorways and windows cast mysterious elliptical shadows – each a threshold that both frame our relationship and experience of the space, but also delineate the space itself. Although likely taken at a variety of different locations, one has the sense that the photographer stumbled through an abandoned villa at dusk. Like a harried surveyor or speculator, he's captured the details of the space that suggest its former glory, but also reflect the photographer's own melancholic state – mournful of what is lost, capturing what remains and pointing to new possibilities.
Although not overtly lavish in size or scope, it is worth noting the extraordinary reproductions in the book. Printed on a double-sided paper, the small glossy photographs resemble fine inkjet prints or Cibachromes. The subtle dark tones of the images are handled beautifully and allow the viewer to peer deeply into the shadows. The backside of each image is a light matte green. The somber green tones matches the dark images and ties the work to the peripheral vegetation and nature seen throughout. Moving through the book, the pages alternate between facing photographs, glossy photos facing matte and facing matte pages. There aren't a lot of photographs, but the stunning reproductions command attention and close scrutiny. Initially unassuming, the book is a beautiful object.
As a recent press release for a 2011 exhibition states, "Boyce['s work] makes specific reference to the ghost of Modernism as it haunts the public urban and architectural landscape."* Any effort to reference and pay homage to modernist architecture and design of the early 20th century must also acknowledge its own elegiac nature. It must recognize that the dreams of modernism are distant, and demarcate what, if anything, we hope to recover. Perhaps the title, A Partial Eclipse, is a recognition that these faded visions are not forgotten, whilst also granting that the past can be recovered, reclaimed, re-explored and made present and new.
Please note: This review originally appeared May 6th, 2013 on photo-eye You can get the book here.