It was the Victorians who were obsessed with classification. Flora and fauna, criminal personalities and sexual deviants; to categorise and collect was to tame and understand the world. This was the era of the great museums, of Kew Gardens, of the mapping of dark continents. For the 19th century thinker science provided the empirical means to do this, the rational discourse that stood in opposition to prevailing superstitions and orthodoxies - Darwin and evolution rather than the church and God. Science was modern, rational, ‘good’. It meant progress; the conquering and understanding of disease, the speeding up of travel, new methods of communication. At the beginning of the 20th century artists flirted with notions of modernity, exemplified most graphically by the Futurists love of technological science. Two World Wars dented such uncritical belief in its utopian benefits. By the turn of the century AIDS, BSE and genetic engineering have all done their bit to turn us into scientific sceptics. During the 20th century there had continued to be a division between art and science that had started in the Enlightenment. The argument basically went that artists would look after the soul and the imagination, whilst scientists would take care of the nitty-gritty, the nuts and bolts of the hows and whys.
Much of the Scottish artist Christine Borland’s work appropriates this 19th century obsession with collecting and classification. It is as if by accumulating enough bits and pieces she might be able to chart and make sense of this disparate modern world. Between 1991-99 she created an installation entitled Small Objects that Save Lives. These were items received by post after a letter sent out requesting a response to her project. The resulting objects: a packet of hair dye, a paper-back of W.B Yeats’s poetry, a finger stall and floppy disc, to name but a few, were the collected ephemera of modernity that told us in great detail about the specifics of contemporary life, without giving any sense of what it was actually like to live it. It is in these interstices between meaning and interpretation, between the organic and inorganic, fact and fiction that Christine Borland works.
In 1997 she re-examined a recipe taken from Gray’s Anatomy on how to reduce bones to their mineral components. By soaking them in a weak solution of nitric acid she extracted the compounds that made bone hard, leaving malleable yellowing objects that looked like dog-chews, which could then be bent into loops and knots. The bones were those of a bison, offered to her by the National History Museum in New York. Twisted and bent they were laid out in rows alongside the stone-like nuggets of vertebrae on trestle tables, in the manner that an archaeologist might lay out the remains of an excavated corpse. That they came from the nearly extinct bison, via a National History Museum, is a nicely ironic piece of synchronicity, which touches on essences, documentation and history. Arranged according to their size and colour, like the ephemera in Small Objects, the bones told us about the skeletal make-up of the bison (it might just have easily been a human being) without imparting any sense of what a bison is actually like. What we were left with was the trace of the bison, its mineral constituents, but nothing that could illuminate for us its essence. We could discern its physical make-up, but nothing of its ‘soul’. In this installation Borland created the perfect post-modern symbol; fragments that did not add up to an interpretable and perceivable whole, a work of poetic effect, rather than of simple observation, of philosophical discourse rather than of narrative explanation.
Her installation for the Turner Prize, 1998 continued this notion of the ‘trace’, the memory of the object rather than the thing itself. Two skeletons from the Huntarian Museum, one of a giant over eight foot long and one measuring only nineteen inches, were placed on glass shelves and then powdered with dust and removed, leaving only a ghostly imprint. Here again Borland’s concerns lay in the broken narratives that could be constructed between the normal and the freakish, between what is classified and unclassified, between fantasy, fact and fiction.
Much of her work over the years has been loosely collaborative, appropriating for her own ends the specialist knowledge of forensic and medical researchers. It has lead to many questioning whether what she does is really art, or whether it relies too heavily on its source material, not transforming it sufficiently into the realm of metaphor. But Christine Borland is an ‘investigative’ artist, the Sherlock Holmes of the art world. She looks for clues and signs to explain the complexity and fragility of human existence rather than presenting her audience with finite statements. For a number of years she has shot things; sheets of glass of roughly human height, crockery, tailor’s dummies dressed in homemade cotton-wool bullet-proof vests. (One that made reference to the assassination of the last Tsar’s family had jewels sown inside.) The exact meaning of these pieces is enigmatic, as is much of her work, but they construct discourses between such binaries as permanence and impermanence, fragility and solidity, life and death, subjects over which, at the beginning of the 21st century, we tend to hold rather slippery, fluid views. The bullet-pocked glass of Webs of Genetic Connectedness, 2000, for example, not only implies the vulnerability of the human body, but, with its fragile fractures and webs, creates a poetic map of apparent organic interconnectedness.
Genetics have been a long-running concern of Borland’s which have lead her to make works as disparate as L'Homme Double which included six sculpted busts of the Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, infamous for his experiments on concentration camp victims in the name of science, and a piece based on the skeleton of a murdered Indian woman whose cadaver had been sold for medical research. In the late 1990’s she collaborated with the geneticists of Glasgow’s Yorkhill Hospital. One of the controversial works to result from this was Hela Hot, 1999. Here a TV monitor showed the division of cells on a slide mounted on a microscope. These were provided by the Wellcome Institute and were the cells of a black woman who had died of cancer in the American south in the 1950s. Doctors had extracted the tumour and kept it growing in a cell depository to provide material for medical research. The woman’s family then subsequently launched a legal battle for a share of the profits. Borland’s piece sets up an uncomfortable discourse around notions of exploitation both by art and science of the human subject and asks questions about appropriation and the rights and dignity of the dead. Another piece, made at the same time, Spirit Collection: Hippocrates, 1999 took the leaves from a sapling growing in the grounds of the genetic department at Yorkhill, a gift from the Greek government. The seeds came from a 2000-year-old tree on the island of Kos, beneath which Hippocrates is said to have taught medicine. The bleached leaves, from which the chlorophyll had been removed – Victorian botanists were keen on this process as a way of seeing the structure of the leaf and preserving them as curiosities – were suspended in alcohol in tear-shaped glass vessels covered with foil, each one entrapping the ghostly presence of its individual leaf. Hung from the ceiling they had the poignancy of memento mori or those little iconic hearts made as offerings against disease in Orthodox churches. When these were originally shown at Dundee Contemporary Arts in 1999 Borland also included a phial in the exhibition, retrieved from thousands at the hospital, which contained liquid taken during a routine test for Down's Syndrome, which she underwent during her pregnancy with her daughter. It was then that it came home to her that work with genetics was something that affects us all and not just some arcane process confined to a laboratory. Working right at the edge of science she also made a video using moon jellyfish, having become fascinated with them on a visit to the zoo in Berlin. But it was the revolutionary biotechnology done with these creatures, whereby their dayglo green florescent protein can be spliced into other cells, that recently placed the little monkey with bright green finger-nails on the front pages of many morning newspapers, that really intrigued her.
For her new one person show at the Lisson Christine Borland has made a number of new works. A Treasury of Human Inheritance is a mobile based on the idea of a family tree which she uses as an image to investigate inherited disorders, specifically those depicted in a series of volumes published by the Galton Institute in the 30s showing Mynotic Dystrophy and Huntington’s Disease. Many of the family pedigrees were done during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Denmark. Each person involved is represented by a slice of agate; the different coloured agates relating to the differing symptoms of the individuals concerned.
In the main gallery she is showing a video projection of the large golden orb weaver spider being ‘silked’. The silk thread produced by the spider is one of the strongest materials known and is now being genetically cloned by scientists who intend to use it in the production of new bullet-proof vests. The whole process has the clinical air of a surgical procedure. The piece is accompanied by a soundtrack of the Tarantella – a dance that legend has it evolved in the Dark Ages in response to the bite of a tarantula (in fact, is was probably the bite of the more lethal Black Widow Spider.) Alongside this is a companion piece, an installation of ‘bronchial trees’ that have been wrapped in silk thread. Not only does this suggest an image of congestion and suffocation but it also makes reference to the protective padding of the artist’s on-going ‘homemade bullet proof jacket’ series. Her other installation of the ‘ebolic garden’ (ebolic means ‘inducing abortion’) develops some of the ideas of Spirit Collection: Hippocrates. On examing the records of the sixteenth century Apothecaries Garden of Glasgow, which was closely associated with the Cathedral, it was discovered that a large proportion of the plants grown, such as wild parsnip, tongue savoury, forking larkspur and penny royal, had an ebolic effect and were probably sold to local prostitutes. Today many of the same herbs are used in homeopathy for quite different conditions. Borland has taken a leaf from each plant, placed it in a glass vessel with bleach and an alcohol solution, so that the colour has been drained away and only the skeletal structure of the leaf left like some sort of ghostly presence.
It might be argued that some of Borland’s work is rather arcane and too dependent on a knowledge of the scientific data that it appropriates, too heavily laden with complex references and unable to cut free from its original source material and ‘be’ in its own right. Whilst this is occasionally a failing, Borland – like a number of other artists such as Mona Hatoum and the late Helen Chadwick who also worked in a similar area - sees science and the body as valid sites for investigating not only the mechanics of how we function, but also as an arena for a new metaphysics. In this Brave New world of genetics and cloning huge ethical questions are raised that go way beyond mere scientific debate. We stand on the brink of being able to decode and deconstruct the very essence of human existence. Perhaps, therefore, it is entirely appropriate that these huge issues are not left entirely in the hands of the scientists but are reflected back to us through the eyes of artists and the debates of philosophers. In this commitment to social issues, Borland is unusual among artists of her generation more usually addicted to easy irony. If her work has value beyond its formal artistic concerns and merits, it is in its insistence on asking difficult questions and probing areas that many are all too happy to leave to the experts.
Christine Borland at the Lisson Gallery, London from 27 March to 5 May 2001