“I shot an arrow into the air. It fell to earth I know not where,” wrote Longfellow. Which was also almost the working method of the Boyle Family, a group of conceptual artists comprising husband and wife Joan Hills (b 1933) and Mark Boyle (1934-2005) and their children.
“I have tried to cut out of my work, any hint of originality, style, superimposed design, wit, elegance or significance,” Boyle wrote in 1966. What he and his family tried to fit into his work was absolutely everything else: the entire world. As they developed as artists, they moved from initial attempts to incorporate parts of the world into their art to grander attempts to duplicate the world exactly.
Borges suggested that only a map to the same scale as the world would be a sufficiently accurate representation of reality. He considered such a thing rather impractical, but the Boyle family set out to create nothing less than a lifesize model of the entire world, a little bit at a time, working in randomly selected areas. The result is the World Series, a series of sculptures and other material produced since 1968.
Joan Hills was born in Edinburgh in 1933 and studied building construction and engineering at Heriot Watt University for two years before switching to architecture at Edinburgh College of Art. She left a few months later to get married and live in England, having a son called Cameron in 1952. She divorced in 1956 and briefly moved back to Edinburgh, then to Harrogate to train and work as a beautician.
Mark Boyle was born in Glasgow a year after Hills and studied law at the University of Glasgow for a few months. He dropped out in 1953 and joined the army, where he spent most of his time writing poetry: his early ambitions were literary. When posted near Harrogate he was introduced to Joan Hills, and they rapidly discovered an intellectual connection. Both of them had begun to paint, and Mark was particularly interested in demolition sites and detritus, like another sometime law student, New York poet Charles Reznikoff, who wrote
Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies
a girder, still itself among the rubbish.
In the late 50s they began to sell paintings. Boyle, despite his lack of schooling, was first to make a sale. Henceforth both of them would sell their work under the name Mark Boyle, and this marketing practice continued until the 1980s. Other creations included a son and daughter, Sebastian Boyle (b. 1962) and Georgia Boyle (b. 1963). Both of them, as well as their half-brother Cameron, played a role in the Boyle Family’s art-making.
Joan Hills and Mark Boyle spent some time in Paris, before being repatriated by the British government when their money ran out, but mainly lived in London, where they were involved in the thriving scene around the Institute of Contemporary Arts. They also had a strong connection to Edinburgh, particularly via arts impresario Richard Demarco who from 1963 put on a number of exhibitions at venues including the old Traverse Theatre. As well as their paintings, which often incorporated Mark Boyle’s interest in junk, they worked theatrically to produce happenings and events. These included projections onto a naked woman and displaying EEG signals from the brains of a couple having sex on stage.
The World Series (1968-) followed a major change in their artistic practice in the mid 1960s. Rather than trying to incorporate objects into their art in the style of neo-Dada art, they experimented with exactly duplicating parts of the real world. Messing around on a construction site they discovered that a randomly thrown object could select other things to be incorporated in artworks. Now they moved from incorporation to exact reproduction, initially with experiments at Camber Sands in 1966 where they attempted to reconstruct sections of the beach.
Previously, the London Series in 1967 involved selecting at random from a map of London and copying a rectangle of ground at the chosen location. This led to the World Series, which was launched in grand fashion in 1968. They sent party invitations to friends, each containing a dart. The recipients (or those whose darts were not conviscated by the Royal Mail) arrived at the party and, blindfolded, threw them at a map. This selected candidate sites for the artists to copy. Located around the world, visiting them all would take many years, so the Boyles had to choose which to use based on other factors like the location of galleries they were invited to exhibit at.
They developed a sophisticated working process. Sites would be identified using increasingly large-scale maps. The next stage was to begin fieldwork. A rectangle was selected on the ground by throwing a carpenter’s right angle and seeing where it landed. Then they would use various methods to pick up, cast, and otherwise analyse the surface. These methods would evolve as time went on, to handle increasingly complex and challenging surfaces with deeper projections and more complex geometry, though certain areas proved impossible, such as a region underwater off the coast of Denmark in 1970. They also had to deal with officialdom and curious members of the public, so they produced cards announcing their membership of the Institute of Contemproary Archaeology. In New York they managed to cordon off an area of street with parking cones and work in peace.
Other areas investigated included The Hague, Vesteralen Islands in Norway, Negev Desert (where they had to contend with the Israeli Defence Forces), Bergheim in Germany, Switzerland, Sardinia in Italy, and Japan where they failed to copy a flooded paddy field.
The duo’s other projects also showed an interest in capturing the world in all its tiny details. For the Skin Series (1973 on) they had people throw darts at Mark’s body and produced highly enlarged photographs of his body. The World Series progressed to include studies of local wildlife and traffic movements. Joan Hills’s Seeds for a Random Garden involved collecting seeds from random locations and packaging them in paper packets, which were sold for whatever the buyer chose to pay.
They largely kept clear of the commercial gallery scene and sold directly to collectors, although it’s not clear exactly why anyone would buy a Boyle Family artwork – perhaps some ambitious collector wanted to own the entire series. Hence they did not get the same publicity or fame as many of their contemporaries, even if you can see their influence in later conceptual art and greater recognition came with a 2003 retrospective at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.
Andy Warhol declared the desire to be a machine, and there was something of the same quality in the Boyle Family’s work: the removal of the traditional notion of the artist as someone who creates something beautiful using their skill and discrimination. Instead, selection is made by chance and the artist’s input is minimised. Yet Warhol was one of the most flamboyant and theatrical figures in modern art, and Hills and Boyle shocked and delighted with their staged events. Boyle’s first love was writing, and his artist’s statements show a desire to confuse and challenge through language.
The idea of the artist as machine often seems to be less a sincere desire for modesty and anonymity than a way to assert the artist’s continued relevance and modernity. The mechanical and aleatory (chance-based) were common in artistic circles of the time, including the Independent Group centred around the ICA in London, which included pop-influenced artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The 1970s brought the darker mechanical version of Metzger’s auto-destructive art; the Boyles had similar ideas to Metzger, showing slides that were destroyed by fire or acid in the projector. Perhaps there is a connection with the Bechers’ photographic catalogues (which drew on earlier, more humanistic art such as Edward Steichen’s Family of Man, August Sander’s sociological photography, and Albert Kahn’s anthropological journeys).
American neo-Dada was another influence, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns trying to incorporate as much of the modern world into their art as they could, through collage, painting, and works such as Johns’s trompe l’oeil sculpure of two Ballatine beer cans. This goes back to the great aggregator Kurt Schwitters, the German artist who pioneered collages and nonsense poetry (that was sometimes also love poetry) and filled each place that he lived with increasingly large assemblages, that grew from sculptures into wall and then into complex spaces as he added ever-increasing amounts of detritus. Most of Schwitters’ works were destroyed by himself or by British bombs in World War II, though a wall he built in Ambleside, Cumbria is now in the collection of Newcastle University. By incorporating everyday materials, the Dadaists sought to break down the border between art and life, and looking between the Boyle’s work and reality it is hard to know which is which.
Although the Boyles’ World Series may seem to be mechanical reproduction, there is something theatrical about their secret methods used in its production – most accounts of their work dwell on the fact that nobody knows exactly how it is created. This is not the laid-bare methods of machine duplication (or Warhol’s use of commercial duplication techniques or Sol LeWitt’s instruction-based conceptual art) but the secrets of a stage magician. And not just magicians: there are stories about jazz greats like Louis Armstrong playing with a handkerchief over his trumpet to avoid showing exactly what he was doing.
Authorship is another issue which their art seems to pick at, initially by accident with Hills’ work sold under Boyle’s name. Is this an example of how the work of women is minimized in the artworld, or a challenge to ideas of artistic skill? In some ways it recalls Warhol or more recently Jeff Koons, whose work was produced not by the named artist but by a workshop, which can be seen as destroying traditional notions of authorship. In 1978 they produced the first work credited jointly to Boyle and Hills, and in 1985 began working under the name the Boyle Family. After Mark Boyle’s death in 2005 their work continued.
Conceptual art is one of the great threads of Scottish art since the 1990s. The Boyle Family had one of the best concepts imaginable. Their work draws on a long avant-garde tradition and even more than most Dada or neo-Dada it is oddly democratic, something anybody could appreciate, delighting the senses with its craftsmanship even as it delights the mind with its concept. It is similar to the art of contemporaries like Duane Hanson’s creepy reproductions of people, but altogether more pleasing to the eye. That they also touch on issues of gender and authorship adds further depth. In an ideal universe, they would have been able to create a whole planet like in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A lifesize model of the earth would be a perfect tribute, but it’s unclear where you’d exhibit it.
Further Reading: Patrick Elliott, Bill Hare and Andrew Wilson, Boyle Family (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2003).