Memorial for Anonymous: An Interview with Christine Borland

English Family China (detail), 1998. Bone china, 5 groups consisting of 2 to 5 pieces, dimensions variable.

A prominent member of the group of artists frequently described as “Young British Artists” (YBAs), Scottish-born Christine Borland lives and works in Glasgow. Her work, influenced by archaeology and forensics, focuses on the very real facts and horrors of human existence: life, violence, abuse, and death. Although her installations are direct and realistic, their formal elegance and beauty balance the frequently disturbing subject matter. A Turner Prize finalist in 1997, Borland has a new exhibition opening at the Dundee Contemporary Art Centre in Scotland in November. Anne Barclay Morgan speaks with Borland about some of her most significant installations, her working methods, and her attitude toward her subject matter.

Anne Barclay Morgan: Was your exhibition in Montpellier a collaboration with the museum there?

Christine Borland: The show was distilled from what I did in Montpellier in ’94 and ’95, in reference to a very famous anatomical museum there—it was one of the first ones. My site visit there was meant to reference the collection in the same way that I’ve done before, but before I even had a chance to develop that, the blinds were drawn—they absolutely were not keen on working with people from outside; they were very closed. The museum had been open by appointment before, but they said that it was closed because they were doing renovation work on the roof, which just wasn’t true. In the end I did get access, but only because myself and the curator, who was very persistent, appealed to the dean of the whole school, so that the anatomy faculty’s decision was overruled—on one condition, that I was there only to draw. I went there armed with some pre-made drawings, which actually came from an anatomy book, and I had a spy camera with me—so I took a series of photographs covertly, while I pretended to draw. The thing about their very early anatomy collection is that formaldehyde was not much in use, so most of the specimens are dried and flayed. That very real horror was my focus. The show was a presentation of a duality between my traced drawings and the photographs taken covertly with the spy camera.

Bison-Bison (Chapter I, Grayís Anatomy), 1997. Bison vertebrae and ribs, mineral compounds, and organic compounds.

ABM: How did the work you did for the Turner Prize finalists’ exhibition in 1997 at the Tate Gallery relate to what you did at Montpellier?

CB: They were really two different exhibitions. The work installed in the Turner Prize show was called Phantom Twins; it could be seen as an extension of the work I made at Montpellier. There were two dolls, based on 18th-century models. A friend of mine, who’s a researcher, and I discovered the originals hidden in a cupboard at a surgeon’s institute in Edinburgh. They were made from real fetal skeletons covered in sawdust and leather. There was a horror about their character and nature that really caught me, so I made replicas of them using plastic bones, but otherwise using the same techniques—handsewn leather and so forth. They were made with a lot of loving care.

There were two other pieces in the Turner show—one was brand new and one was from the Sculpture Project in Münster, from the previous year. The Münster work was an installation called The Dead Teach The Living, and what you saw in the exhibition was seven heads in white plastic, though you did not at once recognize or understand what they were. That installation began with a visit to Münster, to the anatomy department there. They had collections which were mostly modern, but there was one case full of things which had lost their history because the department had been bombed during the war and most of the historical artifacts had been destroyed. There was a collection of things that they couldn’t trace a history for. One was a case of heads, plaster casts of death masks and clay heads, very strange things which I was immediately interested in. A lot of them seemed to reference different ethnic groups. So I did a little bit of research and found out that during the war, the department did have a terrible eugenics research program, and indeed quite a few of the professors who worked there were sent to the camps to get material to send back. I asked them about that history, but they didn’t really know how to deal with it. They were willing to help me even though they knew that I would want to reference this somehow and that it was obviously going to come across that these heads were from that time, from that study. So I found out some information about each one, but really the information was quite pathetic—one or two lines—not very much. But in terms of what I wanted to do in the installation, I wanted to make replicas of the originals, but not by using a traditional casting method or something which had a historical reference or weight to it. I wanted something that did the same job as a monument or a memorial but somehow it had to be more forward-looking in the nature of the materials. So I used a new process to scan the heads with a laser and build up information which was given to people who make prototypes for industrial plastics. The material was built up in molten plastic according to the data. It was very hands-off; they didn’t have that hand-of-the-artist thing about them.

The piece that was created for the Turner show was called After a true story—Giant and Fairy Tales. It was also based on things I’ve seen over the years in anatomy collections, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries—in this case people who were freaks and have ended in up in these collections even though they really don’t fit into a strict academic study of anatomy; they were there as trophies, no doubt about it. The two people who I made particular reference to are in a London museum. They were a giant, the Irish giant called Charles O’Brien, and a dwarf, she was a very, very small person, about 40 inches high. Both of them have very sad tales related to their lives and deaths, and both of their bodies were anatomized against their will. They were exhibited in life and exhibited in death. I made replica bones of the giant and the “fairy” by referencing the originals and scaling up and down from a normal skeleton. They were placed on glass shelves and then dusted, and then they were taken away, so that what was shown was a dust trace, just a memory of them, and two veiled books (a compilation of fairy tales open at the stories of the giant and the fairy). It was a reminder that we have an idea of what a fairy tale or a giant story might be, but there are also people behind the labels.

ABM: In some of your work it seems as if there’s a moment of justice, a bringing to light of injustice. Do you feel that when you’re doing the work?

CB: I’m not looking at it self-righteously, because I have to acknowledge that it could be said that, by using the material again, to a certain extent I’m making the problem worse by going over the same ground. That’s something which I’m aware of and try to deal with as part of the work. But at the same time, I think these things need to be dragged out of the closet of history. The way that I try to present them or deal with them is not by attempting to achieve justice, it’s even simpler than that; I attempt to create a reminder of all these people who end up in museums and medical collections. It’s not only historical of course; today there are many ongoing ethical issues in medicine which I think the work touches upon, which have to do with developments in genetics and so forth. So it’s something that’s ongoing; in the face of scientific discovery and great trumpet blowing, there’s always the fact that the material used is, of course, people who were once alive and who had an identity; that fact should be somehow referenced as far as possible. I’m always trying to point the finger to show that can happen. In Münster, the information that I found was very little, so it’s not like I’m going on a proper investigation, within the structures that are in place with the justice system; that is not really what I’m doing, although I have referenced those things as well—it’s not necessarily a linear inquiry, it’s trying to find a new way through art, I suppose, to present the problem or ask the question, or remind us to think.

ABM: It’s interesting to think about the work as a memorial for people who are anonymous, who never had any kind of monumental recognition. In some ways you’re doing that for them.

CB: That’s right. That’s very much part of it, definitely. I’m acknowledging in the Münster piece that the problems that were present during the National Socialist time in Germany haven’t necessarily gone away—they’re something that we need to keep taking with us into the future. That’s why I avoided this kind of “oh yes as long as it’s cast in bronze it’s nice and safe, it happened in the past, the event has been marked and now we can leave it alone.” But the first time I used a skeleton, the piece referred to a reconstruction technique used with the body of an Indian woman who was just a commodity of bones, which were bought from an osteological supplier. In that instance it did seem very appropriate to use the form of memorial which is so often only reserved for so-called greats—mostly male, mostly well-to-do, we know who they are, they’re all around us in public monuments. That material was appropriate for that work’s contradictoriness—it would be so unusual to see a young Indian woman marked in this kind of memorial way, using monumental materials.

After a true story– Giant and Fairy Tales (detail), 1997. Glass, dust, and lights, 2 parts, dimensions variable.

ABM: How does your medical research fit into your work as a whole?

CB: It tackles lots of broader issues. It’s part of my work. I suppose I would see it as the way that I become more familiar with techniques, say forensic techniques or medical techniques, or gain access to the institutions to explore further. Something like you do with a shooting, working with people from ballistics and forensic medicine who are going to tell the story of how you can reconstruct a picture from these fragments or traces. The work began with that vein of inquiry for me.

ABM: Do you see yourself as a feminist artist?

CB: Well, it’s not something that I feel shy of, but at the same time, it’s probably not a term that I would take on board voluntarily, either. It’s probably a terrible ’90s thing of being wary of labels doing any good at all. The feminist tradition really helped me get where I am today. When I was a student, I was looking at the work of women artists, all basically American women, and it really meant a lot. There weren’t that many other examples around if you wanted to look at strong, successful women artists who were actually dealing with something. So in terms of where I am today, it did have a bit of an influence. People bring things to the work definitely, and I think that’s OK, and when I’m making the work, I try to be aware that that’s happening, but no more than that.

ABM: I think that many of us don’t like the idea of wearing labels.

CB: I feel grateful to first- and second-wave feminism. It’s not a denial or a distancing thing for me; it’s just, as you say, you feel as if you know that there’s something out there which is far beyond labels of any kind, and you want to strive for that but not forget where you stand.

Phantom Twins (detail), 1997. Leather, sawdust, replica fetal skulls, and 2 wooden shelves, dimensions variable.

ABM: It was quite extraordinary that, for the first time in the history of the award, four women were up for the Turner Prize in 1997.

CB: I really hoped that this meant that things were not going to regress. I hoped it was something which meant that it will never be unquestioningly for men again; that was what I would like to feel is the most positive thing that came out of this. I genuinely think that it was representative of the field—there are a lot more women artists out there working now—and that it might be one of the results of all the women who did struggle through art, during the ’70s and ’80s, and that maybe my generation is the one that finally is achieving the numbers, in terms of people who have been able to keep going long enough to get some acknowledgment. But no one was asked the previous year (in 1996) how they felt being four men; it just wouldn’t happen.

ABM: Since your exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London for the Turner prize in 1997, how has your work evolved?

CB: During 1998 I had a baby and made the first two in a tour of three large museum shows, which included around 10 major works and installations from the last eight years as well as a new work made for each venue. Both of these endeavors took more energy than I anticipated. The baby meant it was more difficult than usual to get the quality time to spend generating new work, and the tour made me so sick of my old work that I never want to see it again. In the last month, since the museum tour ended and the baby approaches a year old, I’ve begun a new body of work which will be exhibited this winter.

ABM: Could you describe these three new works you made in 1998?

CB: As I mentioned, they were all in response to the venues of my touring exhibition. In Amsterdam, The Giant & The Dwarf took as its starting points the heights of two people who were famous local “freak show” acts in the 19th century. Their heights are also inscribed on a column in the cathedral in nearby Haarlem. Twenty-one glass shelves were installed around a room; then, using a technique I’ve used previously, replica bones, made according to the approximate sizes of all the bones in the two bodies, were laid on the shelves. The shelves were then dusted with powder, the bones removed, and a light projected through the shelves, which left a negative shadow of the bone below each one.

In Zurich I made a simple piece with an installation of handmade books. Half of the books contained an excerpt from the first German edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster’s monologue in which he confronts his creator on the slopes of Mont Blanc. The other books contained a monster’s monologue of a different kind—the Diaries of the anatomist Herman Voss, who achieved recognition during the ’30s and ’40s for his investigations, carried out mostly on the exterminated bodies of Polish Resistance fighters. All of the books carried a cover drawing which was a copy from the chapter on the skull from the anatomy textbook published by Voss, which was a standard reference text for anatomy students until 1978.

The piece in Portugal was an installation of two video monitors. Facing you as you entered the room was a still image of a slightly disturbed patch of grass on the lawn outside. (This room was blacked out, but one was very aware of the obscured view of the formal gardens from the large windows in the accompanying rooms.) Birds were singing and everything was tranquil. The other monitor, which was turned away, was a 20-minute loop of the furtive, chaotic burying of a gun carried out at night by torchlight. The gun was a very distinctive G3 submachine gun, made in Portugal and a symbol of the revolutionaries when Portugal became a democracy in the ’70s. (In fact it was the 20-year anniversary while I was there.) The gun is contentious today as it continues to be exported to military dictatorships around the world.

ABM: Where and when will this new body of work that you are currently working on be exhibited?

CB: In the new Dundee Contemporary Art Centre, Scotland, in November of this year.

The Dead Teach the Living (detail), 1997. Color dye sublimation prints mounted on foam board, 14-part installation, dimensions variable.

ABM: How would you compare your shows at the Tate in Liverpool and at Manifesta?

CB: The works in both shows arose from the same period of research. Manifesta came second so perhaps that piece has more complexity, both in the technical use of the material and in the ideas. I suppose both are understandably concerned with the physicalities of birth and death and the fragility of family relationships as well as, more obviously, with the exploitation of another culture to service the needs of the 19th-century British upper middle classes.

ABM: What projects are you currently working on?

CB: Exploring my interest in the ethics of developing new genetic technologies; particularly the ability to detect genetic anomalies which lead to congenital abnormalities in newborns and later adult-onset diseases. With particular reference to prenatal screening programs, I would like to explore how this biomedical intervention into family reproduction immediately affects the individuals concerned as well as its implications for society in the future.

Ultimately, the work tries to touch on individual and societal conceptions of identity and in particular to explore the concept of the “normal and the pathological.” How, in the future will society deal with disability when it becomes increasingly possible to detect a wide spectrum of abnormalities by prenatal testing and termination? Will society continue to provide healthcare and support for those individuals whose parents “chose” for them to be born with a disability? The specter of eugenics within this contemporary debate is inevitable.

ABM: Do you see your current and future projects involved in the covert discovery of materials normally hidden from view, as in Montpellier?

CB: Yes, it continues to be an important objective for the work, although the way I access the issues or material hidden from our day-to-day gaze depends on each particular situation. It is more often through negotiation and collaboration than through subterfuge.

ABM: Over the last year and a half since your show at the Tate in London, have you seen an evolution in the art scenes in Glasgow, in London, and in Europe that affects both how and when you make and show new work?

CB: The Brit Art bubble seems to have burst, which is healthy. Being based in Glasgow, “British” (i.e., London) trends don’t affect me very much. The natural evolution of the scene here with a younger generation of artists making exciting work and opening new spaces means Glasgow remains a vital place to live and work.

ABM: Your career has progressed very quickly since 1991, the year of your very first exhibition.

CB: I attribute that to being part of a really special and supportive group of friends and artists who are working in Glasgow, and to having a network of support that didn’t necessarily rely on institutions or structures or commercial galleries—it just relied on people, peer groups, and a lot of support, a lot of friendship, and a lot of really good artists keeping each other going. It wasn’t that we were going into a private gallery structure, nothing like that.

So anything that you wanted to make, you made it on your own and there’s a hell of a lot of skills picked up along the way when you do that, which will add to the group in the end. I think the Transmission Gallery is a key part, and it continues to be. It’s a gallery, so of course it’s structured, but really it’s about empowerment of artists; they’re working and curating shows, going abroad, having exhibitions, telling people about Transmission in Glasgow, asking people to come over—just spreading the wave, spreading the circle of friends wider and wider. No doubt about it, that’s what’s kept me going.

LíHomme Double, 1997. 6 clay heads on plinths, and framed documents, heads approximately 36 x 30 x 26 cm. each.

ABM: One thing that strikes me about the Glasgow contemporary art scene is that it doesn’t feel as competitive. Everybody seems to support each other in some way.

CB: People are ambitious, and when someone gets something then no doubt other people, if they are sitting on their butt, get up and off it. But by now people’s individual practices are so particular that it’s obvious that everyone’s not going to fit into a similar way of doing things, a path followed by one person just is not appropriate to the next. It has become much more individualized, and people are finding their own meaning and finding their own ways to do what they do. Someone winning a prize makes people proud, and it does empower new people to think, “Now I can do my equivalent.”

And I think that people have the confidence to make their own paths because of what I mentioned about the early days. That’s probably what accounts for the lack of direct competition, and there have always been so few opportunities in Glasgow itself, in terms of galleries, that it’s always been much more outward-looking than that—the whole world’s your ballpark.

ABM: How do you like the notion of the YBAs, the Young British Artists? Do you feel yourself part of that?

CB: It’s a media construct, that’s all. And I know these things are useful for some people, and I’ve been in some very nice shows, I suppose, on the back of that, and been able to produce work on the back of that, so I’m not about to say that I think it’s absolutely terrible or that I want nothing to do with it. I’m sure whatever happens with the YBA phenomenon, I’ll just keep on doing the same thing; I won’t have identifiably changed to fit into anything or fall out of anything.

English Family China, 1998. Installation view, dimensions variable.

ABM: Do you feel that going to school in Glasgow and then in Belfast and coming back to Glasgow, that there’s a sense of place, that there’s something about Glasgow itself or Belfast that has influenced how you look at art or your own artmaking process?

CB: I’m sure there is an influence more in terms of content than of strategy. Being in Belfast you can’t help thinking very seriously about what’s happening around you. So that really did bring up a lot of stuff. I was a relatively youngish person; I hadn’t really thought of it in any really great depth before, so it affected me in the long term and raised a lot things that don’t and won’t go away. The experience of being in that place has very directly influenced my subject matter and my work. Being in Glasgow, I suppose there are all sorts of things you could say about the history of the place, but to be honest that seems like a bit of post-event analysis and I didn’t really feel anything like that at the time, it’s really much more of a getting on with the situation that you happen to be in, not measuring yourself up against Scottish cultural history. I do take that seriously and have pride in it, but probably because of seeing it firsthand and because of a group of artists who did deal with that very badly I think in their work, I wanted to avoid directly drawing from that. But I’m sure that it’s become a big part of me; it’s in there somewhere.

It’s much easier to look to Belfast because it’s such a particular situation; it definitely had a direct influence. Also because I just went there for a year and could get out of that situation, it’s easier to analyze. You lead a normal life day to day, a normal existence, but it just takes a small something to completely change it into a horror situation; it wasn’t all the terrible things that happened that made living there an influence, it was also the fact that people for generations have had to keep living their lives adapting—talking to them was part of taking it all up.

ABM: What you observed and felt must have created a sense of wanting to rectify or call attention to the situation in some way.

CB: It seems that the only answers were in people’s individual ways of dealing with the situation, to use their own brains and hearts and experiences to form an ultimate conclusion if there is one, rather than having a very simplified message or answer—that was the overwhelming thing. It made my work very, very difficult, because you’re sitting in your studio twiddling away with the materials and a paintbrush when there’s a whole lot of stuff happening out there.

Anne Barclay Morgan is a writer and a regular contributor to Sculpture. She lives in Florida.