Imagining places in which to explore ideas is a fruitful field for many contemporary artists, from a single room to an entire world. The fact is, architecture is a common language; whether or not we know the specialist terms, we know our brutalism from our Belle Époque, and the ideas associated with each. That means there’s a lot for an artist to work with.
Martin Boyce: Light Years, Modern Institute, Glasgow ****
Nathan Coley: Palace, Dick Institute, Kilmarnock ***
Sahej Rahal: Barricadia, CCA, Glasgow ***
Martin Boyce draws on ideas and forms from modernist architecture and design, sometimes mining them to considerable depths. For 15 years now, he has been working with a lexicon of shapes derived from concrete trees made by the French artists Joël and Jan Martel for the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in the 1920s.
Using very precise building blocks like these, he constructs evocative atmospheres, often with a melancholy backwards glance: the play park from adolescence built inside Tramway for Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours in 2002, or No Reflections, the exterior and interior worlds he created when he represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2009.
For a show in New York earlier this year, he created a series of sculptures called Dead Stars, based on standard lamps. Without lightbulbs, and each with a cast bronze socket no plug could fit, they are forms without function. Placed in a room with decorative moulding, broken wall lights and coloured wall panels – perforated steel painted to look like faded silk – they evoke a sense of a grand but decaying domestic interior.
The lamp-like forms are unmistakably anthropomorphic. One stands tall like a Giacometti figure (there is also a reference here to Diego Giacometti, Alberto’s brother, who designed furniture); another seems to lounge like a languid Oscar Wilde; another, with a fringed shade in pale pink like a flapper-style cocktail dress, leans nonchalantly against the wall. It’s like a ghostly party in a Belle Époque mansion, the voices of Gatsby and his guests echoing through the empty rooms after everything has fallen apart.
Boyce’s work is meticulous in its detail (look for the Martel shapes in the bronze sockets) and rich in its field of references to art, design and cinema. Marking a new imaginative direction in his work, this show is an elegiac nod towards long-faded grandeur. Like stars which continue to shine long after they have burned out, these lightless lamps continue to spark our imaginations, even when their era is long past.
Nathan Coley, a contemporary of Martin Boyce, has an equally meticulous approach to sculpture and installation, often using text to foreground a discussion of ideas. Palace, a large-scale installation at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, is part of an ongoing series in which the same five illuminated words are placed in different architectural contexts, found or constructed, from the frontages of a Wild West town to a historic courtyard in Bruges.
Land, life, belief, mind and wealth are the “five necessities” under Sharia law – the things to which a person is considered to have a right. In the Dick Institute, they are placed in a Victorian art gallery, a building which recalls an age of industrialism, philanthropy and not dissimilar values, setting up a discussion in the mind of the viewer: what mattered to us then? What matters to us now?
However, Coley does more than use the elegant context of the main gallery space at the Dick, he sets up a further backdrop, a black and white mock Tudor construction. Like Boyce’s standard lamps, it’s a form without a function, a building without windows or doors or any kind of interior, but which evokes a pastiche of ye olde England.
The Palace project, which Coley intends to continue, explores ideas of one religious tradition by placing them in different environments - some might feel harmonious, others will certainly clash. But this mock-Tudor structure feels jarring, evoking an era of English history which no longer exists, perhaps never did. It cuts across a more subtle, but possibly more fruitful, dialogue between the words and the building itself.
These quiet, meticulous installations could scarcely be more different from the environment created at CCA by Mumbai-based Sahej Rahal. The place he calls Barricadia has been created over a eight-week residency at Cove Park, mingling new work with existing and remade works from shows in Nottingham and at the Liverpool Biennial. The result is a show bursting at the seams with sculptures, paintings, film, noise and ideas. A dual-channel film occupies both end walls of the main gallery: a group of people in a tent learn to sing a protest song, a ship leaves harbour, then there’s a nightclub in Bombay and a stretch of Scottish coastline. A series of large sculptures are just visible in the dim light, seeming to evoke weaponry or wrecked fuselage. A row of rifle-like objects leaning against the wall with axe and pick heads grafted on are well worth a look, if you can see them in the semi-darkness. The two smaller spaces are full of paintings, video instalations and a plethora of objects made of clay, like the findings of an archaeologist.
Is Barricadia, then, a past civilisation which is being recovered, a present-day country of the mind or a vision of the future? Might it be a bit of all three? Rahal references myth, fantasy, science fiction and contemporary Indian politics (a publication, or “grimoire”, features the face of Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim man killed by a lynch mob in Uttar Pradesh in 2015 after being accused – wrongly – of stealing and slaughtering a cow). It’s a place of multiple narratives and colliding ideas; no sooner do you find a reference point to hang on to than it’s elbowed out of the way by half a dozen more.
There is a recurring male figure – the shaman, the DJ, perhaps the artist – whose authority might be being questioned. There are apocalyptic overtones, and an undercurrent about extremism, the rise of the Right and the importance of protest. One feels that there might be a positive message in there somewhere, but mostly this show feels like an outpouring of creativity, vigour and anger, high on energy but lacking in clarity.
*Martin Boyce until 4 November; Nathan Coley until 23 December; Sahej Rahal until 29 October