Auckland City Art Gallery
11 September-28 October 1990

Boyle Family: Probing the Underworld


Mark Boyle Telegram to Mike Jeffries, August 1967

For those who are unfamiliar with the Boyles' 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. The illusion is so seamless and convincing that the mind cannot suspend what it views to be the truth.. a tap with the knuckles on the surface of the shell produces as hollow knock and the bubble of disbelief bursts. Still, the verisimilitude of all the Boyles' surfaces and textures is to complete that it is difficult to comprehend how the illusion is achieved. The Boyles consciously promote this air of mystery by refusing to be specific about their methods, emphasising that the techniques required for each piece are different and governed by the peculiarities of the site.
What is known is that each 'earthprobe', as the Boyles call it, usually incorporates a certain amount of loose surface material from the randomly chosen site such as twigs, leaves, dust, pebbles and litter which is fixed with resin and lifted from its immovable base (rock, pavement, clay etc) to be later reunited with the fibreglass cast of that base once it has been rendered. The result is a seamless dovetailing of actuality and illusion so that it is impossible to say where reality ends and representation begins.
The fabrication techniques, synthetic resins and exotic reinforcing materials that the Boyles employ are similar to those used in the moulding of modern boat hulls; but the effects they achieve are decidedly low-tech and betray no hint of how they have been made. A glimpse behind the scene, however, reveals a wooden armature to which the shell is securely fibreglassed. The reverse side of the shell, where the colours have been applied (so that form the front they are seen through the translucent resin) is completely obscured with a backing coat of matt black paint.
The first earthprobes were made in 1964 under Mark Boyle's name, since they were his creations.. when he and his partner, Joan Hills (they first met in 1956 in Glasgow, before moving to London) collaborated, they used the names The Institute of Contemporary Archaeology and The Sensual Laboratory, which were umbrellas for a range of theatrical events and multimedia presentations that included the first light show. The latter were projected as a visual accompaniment to the live performances of the experimental music group Soft Machine, who toured the USA with the Boyles and Jimi Hendrix in 1968. A theatrical event the Boyles staged in London in 1964, called Street, resulted in people they had invited to a performance at premises market 'Theatre' looking out through a shop window into a street once they were seated and the curtain was drawn. It wasn't until their children, Sebastian and Georgia, were old enough to make a significant contribution to the collective making of the earthprobes that the name Boyle Family was coined. Mark Boyle: They came to all the sites. The Tidal Series at Camber Sands, the Rock and Sand Series, the Lorry Park Series, the Paved Yard Series and so on. And they contributed their utmost.... There's been no sudden impact on our work because they've been making their way in our practice for more than 15 years and they've had a gradual but increasing effect on the concepts and techniques.... Everyone in our family knows their way around the resins, can break down, crush and prepare colours, can lay a pretty good polyester and fibreglass lamination over quite a large area and so on.... Joan and I didn't want them to commit themselves to our practice until they had a chance to discover some alternatives. But they've tried other things and they always just kept coming back to the work on the latest piece. So to call ourselves Boyle Family is just to accept an existing reality.'
Between August 1968 and July 1969, when Sebastian and Georgia were still youngsters, Mark and Joan invited a number of people to initiate a global project involving earthprobes in completed arbitrarily selected places. Each mailed invitation contained a small dart which the invitee was instructed to shoot from a gun at a wall-sized map of the world. Participants were blindfolded and darts that missed, were fired again until 1000 random pinpricks were obtained. Many of the darts landed in the sea, resulting in sites that are technically not viable. Some landed in countries at war and others landed near military installations, where access is forbidden, which ruled them out as well. The Boyles' mission, however, is to visit as many of the World Series Sites as possible and execute earthprobes at each of them, by repeating the dart-throwing process with progressively larger-scale maps of the general area until a precise location, approximately a stone's throw in diameter, is determined. They will then travel there and upon arriving at that place throw a right-angle into the air. Where it lands will form a corner of the final square or rectangle of ground they will represent.
To date the Boyles' odyssey has taken them to places as diverse as Toyama, Japan; Mount Ziel, Central Australian Desert, the Vesteralen Islands off the coast of Norway; Nyord in Denmark; the Hague, Netherlands, Sardinia; and Bergheim, Germany. Six darts struck the continent of Australia, two of them in Queensland, three in Northern Territory, and one in South Australia. A single dart landed in New Zealand, a bullseye on Gisborne which is the first significant town in the world to see the morning sun, lying as it does close to the international date line. The map the Boyles' used was in Mercator's projection, with the North and South Poles featured in insets. Apart from the South Polar region where one dart struck, Gisborne is the southernmost of all the sites in relation to Greenwich, London where the Boyles live, extraordinarily close to zero meridian. The Boyles came to New Zealand in March/April 1990 as part of a programme of Foreign Artist Projects at the Auckland City Art Gallery. Gisborne Triptych is the resulting work and was directly acquired for the permanent collation.

Gisborne is the principal population centre on the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand is situated near the confluence of the Waitemata and Taruhera rivers where they become the Turanganui, the indigenous name for Gisborne. The town, which took its name from the colonial secretary of the settlement when it was laid out in 1870, is situated at 178 02' longitude and 38 41' latitude. The population of Gisborne is approximately 36,000. The port of Gisborne serves the extremely fertile Poverty Bay Flats, a flood plain of alluvial soil (the richest in the country) which is up to 10 metres deep in places and highly suitable for all types of pastoral, agricultural and horticultural production. Viticulture (Gisborne was the site of New Zealand's first commercial vineyard), sheep and cattle farming, fruit growing, market gardening and maize and barley cultivation are the main sources of production in the area. The area's average annual temperature is 13.9C as against 12.8C for the whole of the North Island and it receives about 2300 hours of sunshine a year, which makes it one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. It is well watered both by its rivers and a copious rainfall of 1170 millimetres average a year. The town of Gisborne prospered and expanded rapidly early in the century on the strength of its exports of frozen meat, wool, hides and tallow. To cope with this export growth and the larger ships necessitated a breakwater which was constructed beyond the harbour entrance. On part of this reclamation of a freezing works was established and later a tankfarm for petroleum storage. So on account of its prosperity the ironically named Poverty Bay was significantly altered, especially in the region of Boat Harbour, which is the port of Gisborne.
Gisborne is famous in New Zealand for two major events, Captain Cook's arrival in the country and Cyclone Bola. The name Poverty Bay was bestowed by Cook who made his first landfall there after arriving from Tahiti on 8 October, 1769. He initially decided to call it Endeavour Bay, after his shop, but change the name in his disappointment at being unable to obtain fresh water and food there 'because it offered us no one thing we wanted' (2). The precise place Cook landed, Kaiti Beach, a little east of the mouth of the Turanganui river, is now under the land reclaimed by the Gisborne Harbour Board. Today the spot is marked by a memorial, and a statue of Captain Cook overlooks the site from Kaiti Hill nearby.
It is a remarkable coincidence that the place where Captain Cook happened upon New Zealand is in the same vicinity as the point at which a random dart stuck on the Boyles' giant map of the world a coincidence the Boyles' rejoiced in, upon recently learning of its historical significance. In his book Mark Boyle's Journey to the Surface of the Earth (1978), J.L. Locher draws a parallel between the Boyles' objective spirit of enquiry and the empirical methodology of the processional artists who accompanied the exploratory voyages to the South Pacific. These artists, Locher says, 'found that the new scientific requirement conflicted with the traditional criteria of the art world of that time. This conflict was finally won by the demands of science. The artists relinquished the principles of neo-classicism and concentrated on empirical observation. This led to ... the "typical landscape", the objective being to depict each place as a typical entity and its own climate, surface configuration, vegetation, fauna and human type. The empirical picture they gave of the South Pacific, which was widely disseminated and exerted enormous influence, contributed appreciably to the genesis of a new representation of landscape. (3)
Perhaps it is academic to say that the Boyles are the inheritors of that legacy, but there are curious parallels between the Boyles' Journey to the Surface of the Earth (and the fragmentary picture that their earthprobes present of this world) and the exploratory voyages to the South Pacific that Cook and his scientists and artists made (and the fragmentary picture they presented of those countries they visited from the geographically disparate viewpoints of isolated anchorages and brief landings). Seen in context of the history of New Zealand landscape art, the Boyles and Captain Cook's artists occupy a unique place. Most New Zealand landscape artists have depicted a local landscape they came to know intimately and for which they developed a deep emotional attachment. Painters as diverse as Albin Martin, Alfred Sharpe, John Gully, William Sutton, Rita Angus, Doris Lusk and Colin McCahon have tended to depict either scenes that embodied spectacular or sublime views, or places that they came to know extremely well, often because they lived there. Albin Martin's view of South Auckland and Colin McCahon's views of French Bay are examples of the latter. What the Boyles and the artists who accompanied the early exploratory voyages shared was a lack of familiarity with and emotional attachment to the geography the latter from necessity and the former by design. Both cultivated a stance of objective detachment from their subjects.
Empirical observation was manifested in not only the detailed maps that Cook made of the coastline of New Zealand, but also in the copious sketches he and his artists Sydney Parkinson and Herman Sporing made of the landscape, the Maori, their pa., habitations, canoes, implements, clothing and ornaments, as well as botanical specimens, birds and fish. In a place where everything was new and unfamiliar to their enquiring minds, all things demanded the same detailed observation and recording as is evident from the extensive notes in their journals and the sketches they made.
For example, when Cook and his party went ashore at Kaiti Beach, Dr Monkhouse noted the dimensions of the huts ('there was one tolerable house about eight yards by six (7.4 x 5.5 metres'); their method of construction ('the end wall... was placed about two feet [0.6 metres] within the roof and side wall'; the materials used ('thatched with a kind of rush and course [sic] grass). (4) They also recorded the placement of objects nearby, such as some old fishing nets, and a burnt and blackened tree stump on which was placed a piece of white pumice carved in the shape of a human figure, and so on.
In a similar spirit of scientific enquiry Mark Boyle, in 1970, prescribed for each World Series piece a programme of investigations and recording that included taking an earth core showing the composition to a depth of 1.8 metres, making a film involving a 360 pan from the centre of the site; collecting seeds on the site; in the surface presentation preserving all traces of animal life, and so.
Some of the tasks have proved to be impractical, it is not easy, for example to make an earth core to that depth in a concrete pavement. What the Boyles do with most of the World Series pieces is remove insects from the selected site. These are later photographed under an electron-microscope to produce enormous enlargements of the creatures, the photographs then becoming part of the final presentation of the piece. The quantum leap in scale between the electron-microphotographs and the earthprobes subverts our ingrained sense of dimension so that that hairs on the leg of an ant can look like the trunks of pine trees, larger perhaps than any isolated feature of the earthprobe, in this way, by examining in such minute detail isolated features of each site, the Boyles reveal worlds within worlds, extending the process of throwing darts at progressively larger-scale maps and expanding scale almost exponentially.
'Kindly think seriously about the inanity of dimension,' Jean Dubuffet wrote in 1957. 'It is a made prejudice, a vulgar tarp, which makes you marvel at your snow-capped peaks, high cliffs, your gardens of rare species, or your elegant islands. Burn scale! Look at what lies at your feet! A crack in the ground, sparkling gravel, a tuft of grass, some crushed debris, offer equally worthy subjects for your applause and admiration. Better! For what is more important is not reaching objects of reputed beauty after long days of travel, but learning that, without having to move an inch, no matter where you are, all that first seemed most sterile and mute is swarming with facts which can entrance you even more.... The world is made in layers, it is layered cake. Probe its depths, without going any further than where you stand, you will see!'.
The above words are not theirs, but the sensibility they express is one that is at the core of the Boyles' inimitable odyssey. The World Series is predicated on the notion that the Earth is an infinitely rich and fascinating place, regardless of where one is, if one can only get to see the past the screens of conditioned values instilled in us by our upbringing and education. To do this it is better to begin by looking in any one place thoroughly, since it is not the place that is important, but the process of looking. It follows from this premise that any one site will do as well as any other. As Mark Boyle has said, 'To study everything we may isolate anything' (6) and 'I am not trying to prove any thesis and when one is concerned with everything, nothing (or for that matter anything( is a fair sample. I have tried to cut out of my work any hint of originality, style, superimposed design, wit, elegance or significant. If any of these are to be discovered in the show then the credit belongs to the onlookers.' (7)
The random aspect of the Boyles' work is vital to ensure the objectivity they aspire to Chance is blind. And because it is blind it pays no heed to the romantic and archetypal views that people form of different countries. In fact the Boyles earthprobes have a way of debunking prevalent myths about places. In Switzerland, close to the Lichtenstein border, they were shocked to discover their site turned out to be in the middle of a half-built autobahn. Mark Boyle; 'To the British, Switzerland is a land of cow bells and sunshine and mountains and yodelling and summer pastures and blonde smiling milkmaids and Edelweiss and icecream and extremes of natural magnificence. And out of this we had made a random selection and there we were, four bedraggled Londoners, in the rain, looking at this vast area of mud.' (8)

When the Auckland City Art Gallery invited the Boyles to come to New Zealand to execute the Gisborne piece I wondered what kind of patch of ground their dart would lead them to. I knew that it had landed on Gisborne, but the hole made by a dart on a map of the world can cover an enormous area.. (For this reason the Boyles repeat the process with larger-scale maps.). I considered the topography of the area, and thought how ironical it would prove if the dart struck one of the slips or slumps that scar the highly erosion-prone hill country behind the town, ravaged by Cyclone Bola in March 1988. Would it be a denuded patch of argillite and mudstone that forms some at the most unstable land in the world; or a layer of alluvium sediment and debris washed into the rivers and deposited on orchards and farms on the Poverty Bay Flats? Might it be a fence broken under a mass of tangled branches and slit? Some hill country farms lost 30% of their grazing area during New Zealand's worst natural disaster, and the majority of farms lost between 5 and 10%. The chances therefore would not be excessively remote for the dart to strike one of these devastated slopes. What kind of statement would that make about the land New Zealanders cherish as (and the rest of the world believes it to be) one of the most unspoiled in the world? For the truth is, over little more than a hundred years, the forest cover on the unstable slopes around Gisborne was mindlessly cleared and felled for pastoral purposes despite warnings by nature and by experts. In 1989 the American environmentalist Michael Pilarski said of the East Coast, ' ranks among the worst erosion in the world.' (9) Recently (two years since Cyclone Bola) a report issued by the Ministry of Agriculture said, 'There is still no visible strategy in place of effectively diminishing the region's susceptibility to a repeat of the Bola disaster.' (10)
The Boyles arrived in Gisborne to execute the predestined World Series piece in March 1990. In the event their dart did not land on one of the eroded hillsides; it landed much closer to the centre of town, not far from where Captain Cook made his first landing. Because they had come so far the Boyles threw three darts at the local map of the area instead of customary one; they felt the great distance they had travelled justified the extra effort. The result was Gisborne Triptych (World Series) 1990, which is exhibited here for the first time.
Gisborne Triptych is not about pasture and sheep tracks, or vineyards, or fields of sweetcorn or potatoes, or kiwifruit orchards, let alone about a leafy forest floor or bracken-covered slope, or tangle of gnarled pohutukawa roots and sand. It is far more urban than that. Nature in fact is almost completely obliterated. The skeletal remains of a small dead bird (perhaps a sparrow), a brittle pohutukawa leaf, a dried puddle or mud, a charred log of wood, and myriad small pebbles embedded in a concrete matrix are the only traces of nature among the three large panels. The predominant elements are concrete, steel railway lines, a manhole cover, asphalt and pieces of corrugated roofing iron.
Any symbolism the viewer finds in the Boyles' pieces 'belongs to the onlooker,' to borrow Mark Boyle's phrase, and is entirely coincidental. Nevertheless, it is though providing that of all the places in New Zealand on which the Boyles' darts could have randomly fallen, serendipity chose sites with disused railway lines and a jumble of building rubble and a charred log of wood. It is also a challenge to the romantic image New Zealanders have of their landscape. Not that the Boyles are making any overt, environmental statement. Their pieces inevitably have environmental implications since they mirror the environment albeit small, isolated fragments. But these environmental connotations are really a by-product of the earthprobe itself, and its indomitable presence as a facsimile of a piece of reality comprising the culmination of nature's complex processes, man's prodigious industry, and myriad historical facts and accidents interacting intensively within a small patch of ground.
The result is a combination of the ordinary and the unexpected, the fascinating and the banal, the organic and the inorganic, richly layered like Dubuffet's metaphorical cake. Reality after all is surely infinitely more rich than the most spectacular creations of the imagination, even the most ubiquitous patch of stained asphalt or cracked concrete. It demands that we open our eyes to what in everyday circumstances is so obvious and commonplace that to all intents and purposes it lies outside our line of sight. In 1966 Mark Boyle wrote, 'the most complete change an individual can effect on this environment, short of destroying it, is to change his attitude to it'. (11) It is not an exaggeration to say that Poverty Bay, once one of the most fertile and productive regions in new Zealand, has been effectively destroyed. In the words of New Zealand's most eminent geographer, Professor John Morton. 'Today the East Coast is a province of anxiety. Soil-eroded and flood aggravated, it is once more Poverty Bay.' (12)

In the word 'earthprobe' that the Boyles use to describe their surface presentations is an interesting one. To probe is to investigate penetratingly; to examine closely. A probe is an instrument for exploring a wound, and an unmanned exploratory spacecraft transmitting information about its environment. It was in the early 1970s that the American and Soviet space programmes launched their first planetary probes to explore the surface of the Moon and Mars. Mark Boyle's Journey to the surface of the Earth project, a kind of Jules Verne epic which may never be completed because of its impossible scope and logistical complexity, takes on a special meaning when considered in the light of these scientific explorations into the frontiers of space. The planetary probes such as the six Soviet 'Luna' probes and the American 'Viking' Mars probes were designed to land on the planet's surface and take soil samples, measure magnetic an gravitational fields and solar wind particles, test for signs of life, and so on. The Boyles' project is a kind of complementary exploration of the planet Earth. Where the astronomers look up, the Boyles look down. There is a large element of chance to even the most sophisticated planetary probes. When the surface of Mars is the ballpark it doesn't really make a great deal of difference where the probe lands.
Luna 16 landed in Mare Fecunditatis on 20 September, 1970 and returned with 100 grams of moonsoil. The way the Soviet scientists pored over those humble grains of dust is echoed in the Boyles' obsessive attention to arbitrary patches of ground, in far-flung corners of the world selected with the same kind of randomness as a planetary probe fired from Earth. The Boyles' art occupies a position well outside the mainstream and has not direct historical precedents. Indeed, it resists convenient pigeon-holing, spanning as it does a wide range of artistic styles, techniques, movements and genres that include landscape, still-life trope-l'oeil hyper-realism, arte-povera, earth art, process art,, aleatory art, objet-trouve, assemblage, the 'ready-made', performance art, happenings and more. Perhaps the earliest antecedent of the Boyles' earthprobes is Albrecht Durer's The Great Clump of Turf, 1503. This famous watercolour is unique amid the art of its time in its faithful recording of countless minute details of a humble clod of weeds in such a way that it holds all the interest of a full-blown landscape. An exquisitely rendered microcosm of the landscape, it is complete in itself, a self-contained World, teeming with incident and information in the same way that the Boyles' probes are infinitely rich and complex. The Great Clump of Turn is a finished, integral scene, mirroring the greater world in miniature. As such it embodies a sensibility that is also apparent in the Boyles' microcosmic landscapes.
The Cubists were amongst the first artists to incorporate actual everyday objects and materials in their pictures, such as pieces of newsprint, oilcloth and rope. These elements sere integrated into their painted still-life compositions in a way that presages the Boyles' interpenetration of actual and presented elements in their earthprobes. But whereas the Cubists' choice of materials was indisputably subjective, the Boyles' surfaced elements (twigs, pebbles, cigarette butts, a discarded glove) are completed objectively selected and remain inextricably related to their 'original context'. In this latter respect they are more closely related to the 'snare pictures' of Daniel Spoerri who 'traps' objects within a designated field of play (for example, the remains of a meal on a table) and exhibits them in a vertical plane as a picture of reality. Spoerri's snare-pictures constitute a kind of 'ready-made' but unlike Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades such as Bottle rack 1914 (a common object elevated to the status of art by an act of conferral), Spoerri's snare-pictures, like the Boyles' earthprobes, preserve the objects supporting base and immediate physical context. In this sense the Boyles' and Spoerri's pictures are still-lifes, representations of existing tableaux, the dynamics of which stem from their interaction with the real world, not just the artist's imagination. The creative act in both Spoerri's and the Boyles' works is essentially conceptual, for in effect a slice of reality is, in both cases, divorced from its physical continuum and frozen at that moment of time like a three-dimensional snapshot, and 're-presented' like a picture, vertically, on a wall. In such a context the familiar and the prosaic take on a peculiar aspect. People often remark on the striking compositional qualities of the Boyles' works, as though the artists had some hand in it. Francois Morellet was right when he said 'works of art are like picnic areas or Spanish Inns, where one consumes what one takes there oneself.' (13)
In the 1960s New Realism was an important movement in Europe Raymond Hains and Mimmo Rotella made decollages of posters torn from billboards. These constituted a kind of ready-made, an urban, landscape picture in the same sense as a pavement in Westminster is a ready-made urban picture awaiting the attention of the Boyles to elevate it into a field of aesthetic interest. In 1961 Yves Klein produced a series of 'Planetary Reliefs' which bear a curious thematic resemblance to the Boyles' earthprobes. Klein's earthprobes are relief maps of large areas of the Earth's surface, modelled in gesso-cement so that whole continents, mountain ranges and oceans form a kind of abstract bas-relief, in spite of the fact that they are grounded in reality. Klein coated these reliefs with the pure pigment with which his name is now so closely identified, for reasons which are not relevant here. Suffice to say Klein's Planetary Reliefs' are, superficially, like macroscopic versions of the Boyles' microcosms of the Earth's surface.
On the other hand the random method of selection the Boyles employ to pinpoint their subjects aligns them with certain aleatory artists such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, Francois Morellet, Herman de Vries, Kenneth Martin and George Brecht, all of whom have employed such devices as tables of random numbers, tossing coins, throwing darts, tossing dice and related ludic aids to bypass subjective control and enter into a dialogue with the unexpected and the unforeseen. By such objective procedures the artist opens his or herself to possibilities that consciousness and conditioning preclude from consideration. Duchamp used a variety of methods to invoke chance including, significantly, the firing of matchsticks dipped in paint from a toy cannon to randomly compose the nine points or 'Shots' in The Large Glass 1915-23, a procedure not unlike the Boyles' dart-throwing exercise.
In other respects the Boyles are more closely related to earth artists such as Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, James Turrell, Richard Long and Alan Sonfist, for whom the great outdoors and the natural terrain are their raw materials and their studio. Then again, the extreme realism of the Boyles' work links them with the hyper-realists. At least one commentator has remarked that the Boyles' earthprobes are a kind of landscape counterpart to Duane Hanson's polychromed fibreglass sculptures of everyday people. Certainly the fabrication techniques that Hanson uses and the way that he dresses his figures in actual clothing bears comparison with the Boyles' integration of actual objects and illusionism in their pieces. Above all the Boyles' Journey to the Surface of the Earth is an epic conceptual work of which each World Series piece is a fragment. Their mission, which has so far led to the execution of forty World Series pieces and many other earthprobes, may never be completed. The family's destiny is now inextricably tied up with the project in such a way that their whole life is in a sense one enormous performance or theatrical event played out on stages scattered about the globe. In the process pieces of the world get shuttled back and forth across oceans and continents so that a chunk of the Australian desert finds its way to London, for example, and a piece of quarry from Japan gets transported to Dusseldorf, and so on, like a pack of cards being shuffled.

Andrew Bogle
Senior Curator of International Arts

Bovie 1986, p.12.
Begg, p.12.
Locher, p.18.
Begg, p.12.
Dubuffet, p.611.
Boyle, 1987, p.49
Boyle 1987, p.49.
Boyle, 1987, p.23.
Boyle, 1987, p.49
Naylor, p.641.