Saturday, 17 December 2011

"I went to art school to meet exciting people and luckily I did"

Everywhere Martin Boyce goes in Glasgow School of Art someone calls his name, extends a hand or offers a disbelieving smile. It starts in the foyer, where Seona Reid, the school’s director, has asked to meet him briefly to offer her congratulations. Next, a man in the lift, grinning from ear to ear, shouts his praise. Then a slack-jawed student almost drops her sheaf of prints as she sees the artist walking along the corridor.

This, apparently, is the price of fame in Glasgow’s friendly world of contemporary art. On Monday night, after ten years or more on the judges’ long-list, Boyce, 44, was finally awarded the Turner Prize, after Richard Wright and Susan Philipsz, the third successive graduate of this school to claim the prize.

 In his dignified acceptance speech on Monday, Boyce had no doubt about the importance of this great institution in his own development. After thanking the Baltic (the gallery is the first non-Tate institution to host the show and it has been a barnstorming success, with 120,000 visitors to date) and his mum and dad, he ended by saying: “I want to acknowledge the importance of teachers.” It’s why we’re meeting here. His worries are now for the next generation, who may never get the same opportunities he experienced.

 “Would I go to art school today? I don’t know. It was easier to go to then. Just the sheer economics of it today ... Funding, cuts and all these kinds of things. The fees ... ” He lets that thought linger.

In Scotland, home-grown students don’t have to pay fees, but English, Welsh and Northern Irish incomers can expect to pay £27,000 if they arrive in Glasgow to study art. It’s even worse in other schools, particularly English colleges, where the number of arts applications is down by 16 per cent, according to the National Union of Students. For architecture you might need the Turner Prize winnings of £25,000 and half as much again to complete the five-year degree these days. There are grumblings among teaching staff on both side of the Border that art schools are becoming elitist playgrounds and the arts will suffer if only a certain type of person can afford them.

Glasgow’s magnificent Mackintosh Building bears the marks of straitened times. Boyce, a friendly self-effacing guide, has agreed to lead a tour of the school’s famous building. Designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, it’s a mad, ornate, draughty and utterly marvellous place. The most famous rooms — the library, the lecture hall, the Mackintosh Room itself — are places to linger, and think. But even the eerie stairwells and dark wood corridors are full of inspiration: a name and date — “Izzi 78” — carved into the wall is a jagged echo of the details in some of Boyce’s own work.

 When he was a schoolboy, this place inspired him, and even now Boyce can hardly contain himself. “There was something about the art school, before I came here, and this incredible building,” he says. “I wanted to come here; then to be accepted as part of it; then to come to the building every day.”

His success at Monday’s Turner prize-giving, along with the triumphs of his immediate predecessors, suggests that the Turner’s shock factor, epitomised by Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child Divided and Tracey Emin’s My Bed (which didn’t even win) has receded. How would he describe his work? “Ooof,” he exclaims, as if he had never been asked. “You really could say it is like landscape painting. It’s not far off that.”

At the Baltic in Gateshead, Boyce converted three large white gallery pillars into concrete trees, scattered leaves from wax-coated crepe paper across the floor, and introduced a wonky, out-of-place library table (scarred with what appears to be student graffiti). He sealed in the strangeness of the setting with a canopy of white-metal leaf-like panels.

“I was always interested in arrangements of things,” he says. “You collect things, you arrange them in your bedroom or on your wall. In a way it’s an extension of that process. I guess I’m as interested in an idea of a place as much as the things themselves. There’s something, a relationship with memory, but the installation also triggers snapshots of things, fragments that come together.”

 By now we are wandering along a ground-floor corridor, with Boyce leading the way past the college war memorial and a phalanx of Classical statues. Outside a studio, he fills in the chronology. Born and raised in Hamilton, it was a gifted schoolteacher who switched him on to art and piqued an interest in post-punk design.

Cosseted by a student grant (remember those?) he matriculated in 1986, arriving serendipitously, just after a key moment in the school’s history. A couple of years earlier a department that once had been “murals and stained glass” was transformed by tutors Sam Ainsley and David Harding into something called environmental art. At that point, says Boyce, there was a rebellion by “determined, mouthy, dynamic” students — Douglas Gordon, Roderick Buchanan, Iain Kettles, Nathan Coley, Ross Sinclair, Christine Borland — and Harding decided he should sit down and redraft the course curriculum with his lippy undergraduates.

It was a teaching revolution. By the time Boyce arrived, the department had acquired a magic all of its own, and was based in a former girls’ school, near the Mackintosh Building. This too was an alluring place: Boyce remembers a couple of intertwined staircases; you could walk all the way up and hear someone coming down, but never meet the person.

“David Harding said context had to be 50 per cent of the work,” says Boyce. “The classes and the teaching extended into the bars and people’s flats, with folk throwing parties and socialising all the time. David and Sam were great at getting people together. David would start a song and people would sing. It was natural for David, and his personality just rubbed off on the students.”

This was an irresistible mix to a 19-year-old, who studied environmental art from the beginning of his second year. “It was the kind of people as much as anything,” he agrees. “I remember seeing the work coming out of the department. There was a bit of a pop sensibility, it seemed interesting, something was going on. But the people you saw in the Vic Bar [the college bar] and around the school — they were so open and friendly. I remember when I was accepted on to the course, Roddy Buchanan stopped me in the street and congratulated me and welcomed me into the department. That kind of feel is important.”

During studio time, there was no sense of hierarchy. “Even in my second year I’d be doing a project and stay late, and I’d go down to the old gym hall, where Roddy and Douglas and the others were in ‘the Big Studio’, and I’d hang out, talking late into the night. There was no sense of, ‘beat it’. There was a desire to engage. I loved it. It was the whole reason I went to art school, to meet those kinds of people. You have an idea that you will meet exciting people, and luckily I did.”

The broad definition of environmental art — it really just meant “art in a place” — opened a window on every kind of discipline. Painting and sculpture, collage and film could all be studied and purloined from inside the Mackintosh Building. Scavenging had a literal meaning too, in the streets around the college.

“People used to get into the old Metropole theatre and drag out all sorts of amazing things,” recalls Boyce. “There was the whole thing of using found objects. There was — not quite a gang mentality — but a group identity within environmental art. There was a sense of doing things together.”

After graduation, that sense of togetherness remained. Many of the school’s young artists lived in Garnethill, just a street away from the Mackintosh building. “We were always in and out of each other’s flats, especially the ones who made good soup,” recalls Boyce. “We used to joke that it was a little like that scene in the Beatles movie where they all walk into separate front doors of terrace houses only to reappear in the same big open house.”

This shared experience translated into Transmission, an artist-run gallery in Glasgow, and quickly into international collaborations and worldwide recognition. Douglas Gordon was the first Glasgow-trained Turner prizewinner, in 1996. Boyce, too, rapidly emerged with shows across Europe culminating in Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours at Glasgow’s Tramway in 2002. “You should have won the Turner for that,” another well-wisher tells him, as he passes on a gloomy staircase.

Yet amazingly, all this recognition began with something like abject failure. Boyce was unsuccessful in his first application to the school, and spent a year signed up to life-drawing classes in the Mackintosh Building, creating a new portfolio for his second attempt. “You got one lesson a week,” he recalls. “But full-time students from the college would come in too, to get an extra lesson. I was talking to this guy and he thought I was a proper student. That made me think. I started coming in twice a week and sitting in the students’ lesson when I wasn’t meant to. So I got extra lessons. It seemed to work.”

By now, we have reached the basement studio, where Boyce spent that first year at college. The famous Turner prizewinner pushes open a door to reveal a strange and colourful interior of fabrics and felt, occupied by a middle-aged woman, a would-be student who is putting the final touches to the portfolio that she hopes will gain her entry to the college next year. This large lady looks up from her desk and regards Boyce with irritation. “Who are you? Do you work in the college?” It is perhaps as well that Boyce is indifferent to fame. “No, I’m an artist,” he says, with a wan smile. “I occasionally come in . . . every so often they ask me to come in.”

Portrait by James Glossop

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