As a featured artist at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and with a major commission to mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for Christine Borland, writes Susan Mansfield
Christine Borland lowers her voice: “I’m always talking about things like this in cafes,” she says. Things, that is, like attending a week-long workshop at which trainee surgeons from all over the world practised transplant surgery on cadavers. She glances nervously towards the family with small children seated at the next table. Art has taken Borland to some interesting places.
Her work always begins with a period of rigorous research, often medical or scientific: the transplant workshop was part of a commission for the Institute of Transplantation at Newcastle University. “It’s not without anxiety that I go into these situations,” she says. “But it does seem important somehow, as these are the subjects I’m dealing with, that I try to face them, look at them, speak to people who are involved in them. I wouldn’t feel as if I was doing my job if I didn’t choose to go that far. It often feels like I’m hanging on to a table for part of it, but it’s always valuable.”
While the research might be macabre at times, the work rarely is. The research is processed in the studio, emerging in delicate, thoughtful, often surprising forms. “I’m not depicting something graphically, it’s an imaginative interpretation of a situation. I do believe that that kind of thinking can help in these kinds of situations, can help comment on them.”
This year will bring a rare chance to see several new works by Borland in Scotland. An edition of Positive Pattern, the work made for the Institute of Transplantation, will be shown at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in NOW (opening 24 March), the next in the NGS’s series of contemporary group shows. In October she will complete a major commission to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, co-commissioned by Glasgow Museums and 14-18Now and supported by the Art Fund, which will be unveiled at Kelvingrove Museum. Discussions are underway about a further war-related project in the summer at Mount Stuart, the stately home on the Isle of Bute which was used during the First World War as a naval hospital.
Our sotto voce conversation is happening just under the balcony at Kelvingrove where the First World War centenary commission will be installed. Borland is clearly delighted about showing in the museum, which occupies a place in the hearts of so many in the west of Scotland. “There’s so much love about Kelvingrove. I think it’s there in the DNA of so many Scottish school children. I’m of the generation where, if you were good at art, you were brought here to draw. And then on to the next generation of bringing my kids here (she has three daughters with her partner, artist Ross Sinclair), and passing on the love of Kelvingrove.”
It was here she installed one of her first commissions, part of a 1990 city-wide contemporary art project called Sites/Positions, in which she placed bales of rubbish from the Summerston landfill site in the archaeology gallery and sculpture court. We both marvel for a moment at a major city museum being open to the prospect. “I did an all-nighter to install it,” she remembers. “It was absolutely fascinating.”
It was a vibrant time, and Borland was part of a new generation of artists coming to the fore. She studied at Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1980s with Douglas Gordon, Sinclair, Roddy Buchanan, Jackie Donachie et al in the fledgling days of the Environmental Art department, then did a Masters in Belfast under influential performance artist Alastair MacLennan. She was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1997. In the last two decades, these artists have matured from hot young talents into mid-career heavyweights and teachers of the next generation (Borland is Professor of Contemporary Art at Northumbria University).
Her work is characterised by a fascination with medicine, past and present, the body, history, museums and objects. She likes to bring to light hidden stories, make invisible ideas and processes a little more visible. A formative work, From Life, shown at Tramway in 1994, saw her tracing the origins of a human skeleton she had bought by mail order. “There is a meandering thread that runs through everything. I guess by this point in time, you know what you’re interested in, but it’s not closed, it’s always reaching out, pushing the parameters of these things.”
Positive Pattern had its genesis in a work she made for a show at the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney in 2012, responding to Barbara Hepworth’s Oval Sculpture, a block of wood hollowed out in a series of chambers. Borland, always interested in the unseen, decided to make a positive image of the sculpture’s interior space using laser scanning. “The shape was just mind-boggling. It was the kind of form you really couldn’t imagine making in positive. It was very physical – definitely has body resonances.”
She completed a series of five sculptures of the interiors of Hepworth forms for the Institute of Transplantation. Pale and mysterious, raised on clear perspex blocks to the exact position they would sit within the Hepworths, they speak of absence, mysteries, what lies beneath. “I’m showing an integral component of something, one thing which couldn’t exist without the other, but the supporting structure is absent. That duality, coexistence, seemed really appropriate.”
For an artist who loves museums, there can be little better than a year-long residency in Glasgow Museums Research Centre, which stores much of the city’s collection. Borland has been looking at objects associated with the First World War, but also thinking outside the box. “I was able to be really open and loose with my reasons for what I looked at, which was a luxury. Some things were so strange – when you see something like ‘three mules’ hooves’ on a list, you can’t not look at it.
There were ethnographic objects brought back from the East African campaign, objects relating to conscientious objectors in Scotland. Some of the objects have medical associations – I couldn’t help myself – because as well as being linked to slaughter, wars are linked to medical advances. That duality is always there: destruction and healing.” From lists of over 2,000 objects, she looked at several hundred, finally narrowing down her selection to about half a dozen which will inform the work, the nature of which is a closely guarded secret.
She is now beginning a period of “pretty traditional [work], taking all that information back to the studio, working with materials”, but her thinking is ranging widely, beyond Glasgow, and even beyond the war itself. “Although we’re talking about local things, these are truly international objects, which is really important to me. They’ve got a label of being World War I objects, but many of them were in use pre-war and post-war as well. It gives me a wee bit of freedom to be thinking about the war, but also what came after, up to where we are now and beyond.”
Christine Borland is a featured artist in the next NOW exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, opening 24 March. Details of her Kelvingrove commission will be announced on 22 January.