Belfast-based artist Martin Boyle experienced a ‘Jinshin Jenko’ whilst beginning a residency in Tokyo. This incident – a suicide announced as a ‘Human Body’ accident to commuters – became a foundation for his latest body of work, exhibited in Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast.
Dorothy Hunter: The exhibition ‘Human Body’ Accident has a heavier subject matter than your regular practice to date. Was it something that you decided to address directly or was more something that just came through in your work?
Martin Boyle: I don’t think it was a conscious decision. My work is quite playful and humorous, but that was taken away in this; the show is of a far more serious nature. I was on a residency in Tokyo and on my first day I got on the train – it was a crazy experience, with people everywhere and everything so new, I really didn’t have any bearings whatsoever. The train stopped suddenly and everyone got off, I was the only one that stayed in the carriage. It wasn’t until afterward that I realized what had happened.
I started looking into suicide in Japan, and was shocked to see the huge number of Japanese people that commit suicide every year, to the extent that the train companies have systemized it; they fine the deceased person’s family for each minute a train is delayed as a deterrent. Millions of people use the trains each day to commute to work, a slight disruption can cause a big delays, resulting in this person being cursed by a lot of people as they exit life.
Besides this, a few years ago Japan put blue lights along the main subway lines, the idea being that the colour would calm and deter people who may be on the edge. The suicide rate by train has gone down, and it’s been attributed to this blue light.
I came to realize that the society I was in has a different attitude to suicide. I suppose because we come from a Christian country, and even if you don’t have that faith its values are more deeply rooted than you realize. Your attitude is intertwined with the country you live in. Because I spent so much time riding on the subway every day, on this same track, I kept thinking about this person over the 2 months I was there.
DH: And is that where the blue images came from, and the baton torch in Icarus?
MB: One day I was cycling on my bike and came to a level crossing, and looking at the track, it just hit me that that was the sort of view that someone would be seeing when they were ready and about to jump, and that really affected me. And that was the reason I took the photograph, and changed the colour to blue, to give a context of location.
DH: When you were creating on this body of work, was your working process similar to your past practice?
MB: Yes, I didn’t realize I even had enough for a show, because I had a solo show when I was in Tokyo. I collect bits and piece, and photographs, and video footage, and found objects. I don’t come up with a set idea; it usually comes from gathering things.
For ‘Human Body’ Accident there were things that actually pre-dated the exhibition. The film piece By the wind comes from Malta, where I was a few months before. I had seen this beautiful blue floating and I recorded it, not knowing what it was. It wasn’t until some time later that I found they were small creatures called by-the-wind sailors. They’re born in the south pacific, have a little sail, and drift at the mercy of the wind. And what I was filming was moments before they wash up on the shore, and subsequently die.
And so after time, there was an added poetry to what I had recorded. I had these pieces for the show, and I looked at this piece from a different perspective. Originally it was just a piece of footage, but I thought that it then fitted into the context of the exhibition.
DH: It’s interesting that you worked across two different places, and translocated them both to Belfast. I feel that there’s definitely a lot of your experience in the show, but you can see the disengagement of an individual as well, for example in the air mattress in Jiyūka, taking away the bodily component, and in the found photographs of Lucky Dip. Given the nature of the work, did you find any difficulty in occupying the space of temporary observer?
MB: No, I think that that’s exactly what I was. It’s about me, and my experience. And part of that, especially in the solo show I finished my residency with in Tokyo, was about not having the complete picture – trying to make up a full image, when you only had a part of the information. It’s particularly apparent in a place like Tokyo, where you rely on visuals to try to understand. There was very much an absence of language – it’s not like you can try and decipher words, so you were purely negotiating visually, and drawing conclusions. I’d never been somewhere where I found the culture so very different.
DH: During your residency did you gain any impression of how personhood and individuality related to materials and consumer objects?
MB: Japan is interesting, because everything is marketed toward themselves. We may be European, but things we produce here are really marketed in a global sense, whereas in Japan the market very much focuses on itself. Things to us look like a spectacle, falling into that category of weird Japanese inventions, but these things are designed potentially to make Japanese life more efficient, but is again just more things piling up.
DH: You’re going to produce work for Household in September, which involves an element of site specificity. How would you go about approaching that as a resident of Belfast? Do you work intuitively in site-specific work, or would you take a more research-based route when working with a place you’re already familiar with?
MB: I think it’s intuitive, I’m constantly collecting images and objects, long before any conceptual ideas have been worked out. The work for Household has been based on photographs that I had been taking of the makeup of the city. So when Household asked me then it naturally led to looking through images, and seeing what I have and where to take it – it’s great to be asked to do something because it makes me think of things that I wouldn’t necessarily have, puts a different framework in, and leads me to develop things that I may not have done had I not been asked.