Visual Arts: Worth a second look


MARTIN Boyce's returning show from the Venice Biennale has an air of the homecoming hero about it. Curators on the project, DCA's Judith Winter and Graham Domke, made the daring choice of a single artist and went with him to Venice to choose their location. But they always intended not one show but two – the work would be reconfigured for the galleries back home at DCA.

It was always going to be a challenge. Boyce, an early graduate of Glasgow School of Art's Environmental Art course, made work inspired by the space (a decaying 15th-century palazzo) and by Venice itself. Installing it in Richard Murphy's spacious modern galleries at DCA was always going to need a radical reimagining.

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Boyce, who made his first visit to Venice after receiving his commission, was entranced by the city in its out-of-season, down-at-heel splendour, its faded grandeur and powerful echoes of the past. His aim for Palazzo Pisani, moderately sized and faintly decaying, was to imagine the space as a semi-derelict mansion and garden, populated by fallen leaves and broken furniture.

In itself, this idea is not groundbreaking. The glorious decay of Venice has entranced visitors for the past two centuries. Steve McQueen, making work for the British Pavilion – in the "official" part of the Biennale – created a film about the Giardini out of season, all boarded-up buildings, stray dogs and solitary cruisers.

Boyce's unique take on the subject is that his artistic language comes directly from modernism. Every shape in this exhibition has been derived from a set of concrete trees created by Jol and Jan Martel for the 1925 Exposition des Arts Dcoratifs in Paris.

In Venice, he also noticed the work of modernist Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, at Querini Stampalia near Palazzo Pisani, and briefly considered this as a possible venue. Scarpa, in turn, influenced Richard Murphy, the kind of serendipity which sounds like it should be helpful when taking the work through a radical location change, though in practice it seems to matter little.

Certainly, the work has been reconfigured, but I wonder if the transformation is radical enough. The size of DCA's larger gallery has the potential to evoke outdoor space much more effectively than the palazzo. It is big enough to echo Boyce's highly successful 2002 show in Tramway, Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours, which imagined the indoor space as a suburban park at night. At DCA, the curators attempt to echo

the palazzo's modest-sized rooms by dividing up the main space using coloured panels. I wonder what would have happened if they had dispensed with the divisions and imagined the whole space as the windswept ballroom of a derelict mansion, with winter sun streaming through the roof windows as through broken rafters?

It is a mistake not to use A River in the Trees, Boyce's series of concrete stepping stones, as the entry to the show, as it was in Venice. To have entered through Gallery B, walking along the stones, would have been an appropriately theatrical arrival. There is less reason to walk on the stones when they are clearly a cul-de-sac.

But these comments are superficial, and this is not a superficial show. If one spends time with it, one realises that the power of Boyce's work lies not so much in what is here, but in what is not. There are stepping stones but no water, a bird box but no birds, leaves but no trees, structures but no reflection.

Like Peter Pan's shadow, the essence is in the absence.

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This is a bold strategy for Venice – at Biennale time the city feels so full of "stuff" that you wonder why it doesn't sink into the Adriatic – and also a risky one. Hungry crowds of art lovers could end up hurrying on to the next palazzo without plumbing its depths, and some clearly did.

Also, in its evocation of loss and abandonment, it felt like it was competing with the city itself. Venice is full of such echoes, of empty palazzi with cracking plaster and peeling frescoes. The whole city already evokes loss so well it almost does not need artistic intervention. Here, in DCA, we get a better look at what Boyce is doing, and we realise there is more to it. He started with Venice, but he has made work which reaches further and is more resonant. Using the Martel trees, he has created a language of invented modernism which addresses the more recent past, the failed ideals and empty dreams of the modern era.

It is an awkward, jagged language, written in uncompromising materials such as galvanised steel. Though his titles are poetic (A Raft in the Roof, No Brilliantly Coloured Birds), the forms themselves militate against the poetry, eliminating any shred of nostalgia. If this is an elegy for the past, it is a harsh and unmusical one. Appropriately, the jagged brass letters on the wall spell out Petrified Songs.

In DCA, when they are not competing with something more ancient, we see these forms afresh. They look aged and dated. What they evoke is not the sadness of Venice for a grand era centuries past, but the emptiness of the modern world one day in the future when the rafters are missing from our houses and all that we once considered progressive is lying in rusting ruins.

And yet the show is only partially successful. No Reflections requires an investment of time and thought that not everyone will make. It is not enough simply for a show to be profound; it needs to grab its audience's attention and entice them into an encounter with that profundity. Boyce makes the gamble of subtlety. Maybe days later, sitting on a train, you might think afresh about what you saw. Maybe years later, people will still be talking about this show, while at the time they felt a little underwhelmed and didn't understand why.

• Until 14 February