In the mid-1960's, one of the titles under which the group of artists we now know as Boyle Family worked was the Institute of Contemporary Archaeology. As Mark Boyle has often remarked, 'the billing was not really an issue for us, our primary objective was to make work, our second was to survive.' Nonetheless in the concept of a group of artists working as "archaeologists", isolating fragments of the past and returning it to public attention, we begin to have an understanding of the Boyle's project. Boyle Family - Mark, Joan, Sebastian, Georgia - is who they are, but Archaeology, of a sort, is what they do. But unlike academic archaeologists, or indeed those artists from Paul Nash to Richard Long working in that well-defined if minor British tradition that uses the excavated past in representing the landscape, Boyle Family operates through a paradox. What they expose for re-evaluation, for re-placing in the value structures of contemporary culture, is not the salvage of the past, but fragments recovered from the detritus of the present. When I see these frighteningly exact, one might say, in the manner in which they are conceptualised, photographic, reproductions of tiny fragments of our built environment, or of the natural world, I'm reminded especially of the fragments of our built environment, or of the natural world, I'm reminded especially of the fragments of Roman mosaic which we so often exhibited in our museums in this way. Increasingly, however, I also reflect on Walter Benjamin's description of the Angel of History in his Theses on the Philosophy of History.
A Klee painting entitled Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something that he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skywards. This storm is what we call progress. (1)
The archaeology which the Boyles undertake is to reach into that pile of debris, the wreckage which modernity leaves in its wake, and yet which, in its aggregate it incessantly contemplates, and restore to our attention that which has been discarded or neglected, that which, even if we have not thrown it away, is so familiar that it is outside our gaze, so quotidian that we tread on it unthinking, because we have better things to think about.
The exact restoration of this aggregate - that impossible project that would fix our lives in the paralysis of a total recall of every moment of our experience, and which therefore simultaneously denies the possibility of that experience - is not Boyle Family's goal. Theirs is not the comprehensive replication which Borges attributes to the hapless poet Daneri in The Aleph, nor that word for word correspondence between Menard's Quixote and the original. I would suggest rather that what engages the Boyles is reconciling the alienation between the human and its experience, its perception, of its environment that is consequential upon Modernity. To achieve this one does not need to perceive the whole - indeed the aggregate of experience may deny the perception of that catastrophic process of temporality by which the alienation is effected. To extract the fragment, as metonym, at random, is also to efface the role of the artist in drawing that fragment to attention - the Boyles as artists step aside to bring up as the public into a direct relationship with that which we should encounter, but neglect, in the public sphere. Mark Boyle, in a 1970 essay on their work commented that 'They present as accurately and objectively as I can manage certain sites randomly selected, isolated at one moment. The next moment the sites are different. In half an hour they are transformed. And you have the situation as it was at that instant, perhaps already partially invalidated by its permanence and its isolation.' (2) Again there is something in this sense of framing and objective reproduction of the photograph, if we think of it in the way that Barthes first describes it in The Photographic Message.
From the object to its image, there is of course a reduction: in proportion, in perspective, in colour. But this reduction is at no point a transformation (in the mathematical sense of the term. To shift from reality to its photograph, it is not at all necessary to break down this reality into units and to constitute these units into signs substantially different from the object they represent...' (3)
Just as Barthes is quick to qualify the analogical status of the photograph, introducing propositions which progressively corrode the categorical boundaries that separate them from each other in order for each category to yield the greatest amount of meaning, so Mark Boyle recognises that the very act of recording, of isolating, changes the meaning of what is introduced to our vision. If there is no other transformation of the real to the image in a Boyle Family work there is always the significant rotation from the horizontal to the vertical that brings the surface into our gaze. But like the photograph, in its analogical role, a Boyle Family piece is at no point a transformation as a sign: it is not "different", indeed, it so trades in its verisimilitude that - including material from the site it represents - it is occasionally not even different in substance from the point on the earth's surface that it recovers.
When Mark Boyle and Joan Hills began this project, in London in the early sixties, there were still within the city the random marks of real catastrophe on which to work. The city was poised between a scarred convalescence in the wake of the Second World War and the slowly growing wave of redevelopment. In Mark Boyle's words 'These old bomb sites were wild places where houses had been blasted away during the war. The surface of London was pockmarked with such sites and in the early sixties, when they started to rebuild, the first move was usually to knock down everything that still stood around them.' (4)
Gradually these sites were enclosed and access for the salvage work that Mark and Joan undertook - incorporating the detritus of such places into their paintings - became increasingly difficult. But towards the end of this period, in early 1964, they discovered a framing device within a site that would radically reshape their work.
'Joan and I were staring at a frame lying amongst all this junk on a bombsite, one of those rectangular grey plastic fillets that used to hold the screen of a TV in place. It seemed to us that the arrangement of earth and rubbish inside the frame was absolutely perfect. We thought it was maybe the fact of framing that made it seem so right, so we tried moving the frame to see if it worked elsewhere. No matter where we placed it, it looked wrong, precious or contrived. Eventually it occurred to us that the reason the original site seemed perfect could be that it was natural, because it had just happened like that. So we threw the frame away across the site and wandered over curiously to see what we would find. Again, it was perfect. We spent the rest of the day taking turns and alternately placing the frame deliberately and throwing it away; and every time we placed it, it looked wrong, and every time we threw it, it looked just right. I still cannot really say why that should have been so, but over the next few weeks and months and years we tried many different kinds of frames, different shapes, different sizes, and the random principle always worked.' (5)
Whilst most writing about the Boyle Family project has associated them with the Romantic impulse to represent the whole world through a microcosm - typified by Ruskin's remark that 'If you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world' - this rejection of the subjective, artistic choice in framing the landscape and its substitution with the aleatoric, the ludic, seems to me a rejection of Romanticism at the same time as the Romantic pursuit of reality is sustained. As Jasia Reichardt subsequently observed in Studio International in 1966, whilst chance had been used widely in the previous decade by artists in differing media such as Manzoni, Klein, and William Burroughs, Boyle's use of randomness was one of its most interesting manifestations - inviting the spectator 'to look at something in a way to which he is not accustomed - to respond and examine nature in a critical way.' (6)
The veracity that fascinated Reichardt, and numerous subsequent critics, was not achieved at the same time as the aleatoric method was introduced. For Mark and Joan the use of chance in framing the space to be represented did not immediately solve the problem of how to represent it. They were given an arbitrary field in which to gather detritus to be fastened to a canvas. The pursuit of an exact reality was compromised by the collage effect that such works produced, and their associations with Dadaism. That problem was solved by the evolution of a chemical trace which would exactly replicate the randomly selected site. A thin, transparent, layer of flexible resin would be solidified over the area. When set this low relief was used to make a positive cast in hard resin that was then attached to a wooden armature. Its under surface was painted, and then given a backing coat of matt black paint, so that the colours in a Boyle Family work are seen through the thin, impermeable skin of resin and remain stable. A mixture of resin cast and painted debris and actual material from the site would subsequently be added to the surface to provide an exact record of the site "as it was."
Initial experiments were conducted using this method were conducted in the area around the family flat in Shepherd's Bush - what was then a very run-down and neglected part of West London - throughout 1966. In addition Mark and Joan made the first of what would be many visits to the beach at Camber Sands, on the South East tip of England. As their working method became more sophisticated, so the project of recording the earth's surface grew. To generate sites a hundred darts were thrown into a map of the square mile around their flat, recording a micro-geography of London. This project was never completed as the Boyles were evicted by their landlord, but some of these pieces were exhibited first at Indica Gallery in 1966, and subsequently at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1967 during the launch of their Journey to the Surface of the Earth. When described with cold facts, Journey to the Surface of the Earth does seem like one of those exercises in insane exactitude that Borges parodies. It was intended to visit a thousand randomly selected sites around the world and conduct "Earth probes" which not only recorded exactly the spatial conditions of the site, but its fauna, which took a core sample of the strata beneath the surface, which filmed the site's immediate environs by using a 360 degree rotating camera, and which monitored the artist's physical responses to working on that space. But for Boyle Family this extension of the London project was a move from something that was still too specific - its randomness constrained by the boundaries of a single city - to the completely arbitrary. And unlike Borges's hopeless poets and cartographers, from the very beginning the Boyles had made the realistic appraisal that this was a project that did not need to be completed. So it was that between 1967 and 1969 1,000 blindfolded people, at first selected by the Boyles, later random visitors to the ICA exhibition, either fired or threw small darts into huge map of world without knowing what their target was. Those who missed the map completely were given a second opportunity. That produced 1,000 sites across the globe, though those strikes that were in the sea were discarded, as were those made impractical by conflict or limited access.
By now Boyle Family - even if its exhibitions were being billed only as the work of Mark Boyle - had extended beyond the collaboration beyond Mark and Joan Hills to include Cameron, Joan's son by her first marriage, and both Sebastian and Georgia, the couple's much younger children. The Boyle's multi-media activities at this time included light-shows for a variety of progressive rock bands, notably Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix, and experimental theatrical productions, and these other involvements only tailed off in the early seventies, when the increasing demands of making and exhibiting their "earth-probe" pieces left little time for anything else. These projects, as we shall see, shared much with the earth-probe pieces, seeking to reunite inner and outer experience, to synthesise the human perception of the real. At the same time the Boyles had also extended their repertoire of replication - moving outside of the city to make an extended, time-based, series of pieces at Camber Sands. This project, The Tidal Series, was made over a week in the beach's tidal zone, between tides, to reveal the changing physical relationship between sand and water.
The Boyles had already received substantial European recognition in 1967/8, winning the Prize for Painting at the Paris Biennale, the Premio Lissone in Milan and the Zagreb International. However, their 1970 exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum, in The Hague, was not only their first major European show, it represented the first opportunity to work on, and immediately exhibit an "earth-probe" site from the Journey to the Surface of the Earth. The random process that had been initiated by the first dart strike was repeated in order to determine the exact site on which to work. The throwing process was used on progressively larger scale maps until a specific area is determined. The artists then travelled to that spot, threw a right angle in the air and used that as one corner to determine the rectangle they represented. The expansion of scale that the Boyle's practise in determining sites can be seen as paralleled in their eventual solution to recording the fauna gathered in an 'Earth Probe', where insects are photographed under an electron microscope and exhibited as massive prints. The result here as that what are "in reality" minute limbs on insignificant creatures acquire the visual effect of tree trunks, or similar, prominent, elements of landscape. This synthesis of scale - the miniature rendered gigantic, the 'normal' miniaturised in relation to it - is repeated in Mark Boyle's other project Multi human being, where the surface of the human skin, or hairs, are pictured under electron-photo microscopy. The scaling up of the human surface produces a startling visual analogy to the surfaces of the earth that the family records. A further, important, parallel exists - one that links the Multi human being concept with the Boyle's light-show projects of the mid-sixties. If we examine the Photomicrographs of bodily fluids, or the Boyles density photographs that measure patterns of movement through recording body-heat in space over time, we find a striking equivalence between patterns. I wouldn't want to assert that the Boyle's are suggesting a "we are all one" correspondence between human and world, any more than their use of the exact fragment is an attempt at correspondence between the world and its replica. What these analogies are used for is an attempt at reconciliation, a demonstration of sameness between what is discarded or ignored as insignificant, as beneath the human gaze, and that which is regarded as vital, as an essential part of human life. In this sense the Boyle's are fulfilling the impossible wish of Benjamin's angelus novus - going back against the storm to awaken the dead - or at least the senses deadened by habit, but the repetition of discourse, by the incessant attractions of the new - and repair the relationship, not "between man and nature", but between the present and its history.
I spoke earlier of a photographic quality in the Boyle's work, and I think that we see this articulated here in the fixing of the moment in order to re-present it. Photography is not simply a chemical or digital tracing of the presence of objects - though that in itself is a description of what Boyle Family does. Photography also answers a conceptual need - the replication of objects without the intervention of human agency - or at least, human artistry. Fox-Talbot, for example, writes in 1839 of the new invention as 'Nature magnified by herself.' (7) Photography as practice repeatedly privileges the mechanical, the automatic, over the human intervention that consciously frames and "composes" the recorded image. Mark Boyle, comments of what he and his family make, 'there is this, there is this, there is this. As far as I can be sure there is nothing of me in there.' (8) Like the automatically realised photograph, Boyle family pieces are vitiated of artistic agency - although we know that they are authorised, although we know that no other people make work that looks like these exact, chemical traces of the real. As far as possible "nature" speaks of and for itself. We think, at first that we see the Real as itself. The New Zealand curator Andrew Bogle has written 'For those who are not familiar with the Boyle's pictures, the revelation that what they are looking at is not a massive slice of reality lifted bodily out of the ground, but a thin painted fibreglass shell, comes as a shock of disbelief. Seeing is believing.' (9)
The Boyle's visions of the natural, however, is hugely distant from Fox-Talbot's, it is a nature includes, that willingly accepts Modernity, a nature that can encompass everything from a London building site to a quarry in Japan and an Australian desert, a conception that understands modernity's production of the fragment and is process of discard. David Thompson and H.U. Locher have both discussed the Boyle Family project as deriving from a specifically Romantic world view, refusing to recognise boundaries between things, embracing totalities, and accepting the real rather than abstracting it Locher in particular has sought to establish parallels between the Boyle's project and what he sees as a fundamental shift in European art and science at the end of the 18th century - the beginning of the Romantic period. This period saw numerous attempts to realise natural phenomena as their objective reality - photography is only one such, employing the technological capacities and discursive scope available at that moment. But these modes of hypostatisation are, at the same time as they are driven by a Romantic impulse, thoroughly Modernist. They indeed rely upon boundaries between things - framing, time-sequencing - and isolate the specific rather than embrace totalities, and they abstract, even as they accept the real, repositioning it in new mediating circumstances, whether that is a photograph of a "real" event in a newspaper, a film in a cinema, or - in the case of the Boyle family - an "Earth-Probe" installed in an art gallery or museum.
Rather than being Romantically driven utopian of "the real", it seems to me that Boyle Family is Post-Romantic, wholly imbricated in Modernity, but simultaneously playing between an engagement with that unstable culture and a yearning to fix and order the moment. The non-selectivity of sites and the randomness of their acquisition challenge the systemacity attributed to the Enlightenment scientific thought that Locher yokes to Romanticism, and the quotidian character of much of their subject matter similarly contests those Romantic theories of beauty and control that surface in the concept of the miniature. For the Boyles there is not only the realistic judgement that "the fragment will have to do" - an understanding that metonymy may serve their purpose far better than totalisation - there is a willingness to engage with Modernity and its processes. Mark Boyle has commented that he wasn't celebrating junk in his early paintings, junk was all that he had available to work with. But junk is a condition of modernity, of progress. If junk, it modern nature, it is presumed natural because it is, through its moment of discard, suddenly changed in status, in its obsolescence it becomes a constitutive exterior to what is now deemed to be modern, exciting, new, progressive, For modernity, junk plays nature to culture.
The Boyle's work strives not to preserve only the moment in which what is now junk was valuable - synthesising nature to culture by accepting everything as "natural" but it simultaneously accepts firstly that the discarding, the changing, of things is necessary, and that far from there being an ordered synthesis of man and nature the connection that exist are random - that is it also accepts all things as "cultural". What the Boyle's work strives to demonstrate is that neither the changed condition of the object, nor this random connectivity, predicates a severed relationship between the object and the human. The readings of the Boyles as Romantics that Thompson and Locher propose would also position them as pursuing a hopeless nostalgia. The metonym of the Earth-Probe becomes here a kind of containment, a managing of the Real. We might even understand - despite the absence of any physical reduction - that the Boyle's replications of the Surface of the Earth constituted a kind of miniaturisation, a diminution of what was there in order to render it harmless. Barthes's remark concerning the photograph is relevant here: From the object to its image, in Boyle piece there is of course no reduction: neither in proportion, nor in colour; there is at the point of the sign no transformation, but there is a reduction from the whole to the fragment, at the same time as there is a shift in perspective. Locher indeed discusses a certain miniaturisation inherent in the Boyle's work when he introduces LŽvi-Strauss's example of the scale-model as a means by which the modelist may 'acquire knowledge in a way that causes the least possible change in the thing he is interested in.'(10) The reduction - if not one of dimension - is nonetheless spatial, in its extraction of the object from context, and temporal, since it does not mimic the duration of the object. However, what Locher does not draw attention to is LŽvi-Strauss's remark, later in the same book (The Savage Mind) where he talks about detail in Clouet's painting of Elizabeth of Austria, that reduction simultaneously increases the significance of the object within a system of signs. The miniature thus freezes and particularises time and space. It becomes a site of nostalgic investment, an answer to longing for the moment past. Far form representing a reconciliation of exterior nature to internal culture through synthesis, the miniature represents an evasion of nature through its interiorisation. But as Susan Stewart has argued, the miniature also functions so that the 'instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances'. (11) The miniature - that mark of Romantic realism in its exact modelling - can also act as the abstract that opposes Romantic thought. Imagined as miniatures, Boyle Family pieces can be seen precisely as signs of subjective interiority, of a controlling impulse that manages the Real even as it replicates it. What might enable us to imagine the work differently is to understand it not as carefully fashioned "model" but as unthought fragment, not as something in which labour "pointlessly" duplicates reality, but something in which the world has been automatically, chemically traced (that is conceptually, at least, photographed) without conscious agency.
Seen in this way there is some common ground between Boyle Family's project and those of both Tony Cragg and Bill Woodrow, with their emphasis upon the redeployment of the detritus of contemporary society, and, in their emphasis upon replicating the mundane to Daniel Spoerri's "snare pictures". In an essay accompanying an exhibition entitled 'Excavating the Present' in 1991, Mark Edmonds and Christopher Evans commented that 'In certain respects, it would be easy to read the work of artists such as Cragg and Woodrow as critiques - as sculptures which through a process of metaphor and association, expose the contradiction and pathologies of contemporary materialism. Yet this would be to take a somewhat narrow view, for in their use of the broken, the discarded and the mundane, they also attempt to set up encounters with contemporary material culture which elicit a variety of emotional and aesthetic responses. (12) For both Cragg and Woodrow the object matters of itself, it is, formally, a necessary part of the work, rather than simply constitute of a political critique, and his formal engagement with the object can be understood as an attempt to overcome not only the alienation inherent in the mass-production of the object, but our alienation from it as junk. For Cragg and Woodrow, as for the Boyles, all objects matter, what differ are their ideological and discursive charges. Cragg and Woodrow are, of course, working "artistically", intervening with their materials to emphasise those ideological charges, whilst the Boyle's "merely" document and leave their audience to mediate upon the meaning of the presented object.
In this reconnection of persons to things the Boyle project becomes distanced from Romantic though - both in its interiorisation of the object, and in position of nature as an object outside of human experience. Their nature, like Cragg's and Woodrow's is, in its acceptance of human detritus as "nature", profoundly distanced from the Romantic perception of a sublime nature as pre-cultural. Writing of Richard Long's work in an early issue of the magazine Modern Painters, Martin Golding cited Lucretius's phrase 'the person is torn away, the thing remains' and compared it Long's remark that 'time passes, a place remains. (13)
The Boyles are, I think, profoundly disinterested in a nature that exists of itself. Central to their art is a reconnection of persons and things, the thing no more remains without the human to acknowledge it, than we remain fully human if we fail to acknowledge our intimate relationship to the fragmentary object the constitute the totality of our experience. Theirs is indeed an archaeology of the contemporary, working both against and within Modernity's accelerating rate of discard. The Boyle's pose a political question as much as the more direct critiques of Cragg and Woodrow, but it is not one of eco-art. Theirs is not an art of commitment, rather it concerns our connection to the material remains of our past and the present - the products which we consume and discard, whether buildings we demolish, leaving only cracked and harrowed pavements, or cans, tyres and burned wood. Boyle family is not an ideological opponent of modernity, but rather celebrate failure as an inclusive element in modernity's fantasy of unlimited, linear, progress. They delve into the rubbish tip of failure and obsolescence and hold up its fragments to say that this, this too, is who we are.
(1) Benjamin, W. Theses on the Philosophy of History' in Arendt, H. (ed) Illuminations (London: Fontana Press: 1992) p. 249
(2) Boyle, M. (1970) 'Journey to the Surface of the Earth.' in Journey to the Surface of the Earth, Mark Boyles's Atlas and Manual. (K—hn: Edition Hans-Jorg Mayer: 1970) n.p.
(3) Barthes, R. 'The Photographic Message' in The Responsibility of Forms (Oxford: Blackwell: 1986) p.5
(4) Boyle. M. (1991) 'Working in London - Boyle Family.' in Boyle Family: Docklands Series - London (London: Runkel - Hue-Williams Ltd: 1991) p.4.
(5) Ibid. p.6
(6) Reichardt, J. Studio International October 1966
(7) Fox-Talbot, W. letter to John Herschel, March 3, 1839, cited in Schauf. L. Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography (New Haven: Yale University Press: 1991) p. 48
(8) Boyle, M. (1970) Op cit.
(9) Bogle, A. 'Boyle Family: Probing the Underworld' in Down to Earth: Boyle Family in New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland City Art Gallery: 199) p.8
(10) Locher, J.L. Mark Boyle's Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Stuttgart: Edition Hans-Jorg Mayer: 1978) p.46
(11) Stewart, S. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press: 1993) p.48
(12) Edmonds, M. & Evans, C. The Place of the Past: art and archaeology in Britain' in Excavating the Present 2: History (Cambridge: Kettle's Yard: 1991) pp 16-18
(13) Golding, M. 'Richard Long: a pilgrim of the sublime' Modern Painters 3, pp. 50 - 53