in Frieze | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Serious Play

Christine Borland

in Frieze | 01 SEP 96

A kind of calmness pervades Christine Borland's work of the last few years. The feeling arises in part from her preference for objective methods of display, although when one sees what is being displayed, the calmness of the end result comes as a surprise. Rectangular arrangements of shards and dust from shot crockery, for example, transform a single explosive moment of time into a minimal aesthetic whole, toying with violent events in which, of course, people are not always hurt. To incorporate disorder is to claim for sanity and for play a perfectly ordinary madness. Many

psychologists believe that in play we can explore violent impulses which would be worrying if actualised, but which in that transitional area can be laughed at and investigated in safety. 1 While Borland's work is not content to rest at the psychological level, the consistency of her sculptural concerns with soft materials against hard ones, of order versus the aleatory and the dispersed - these could all be seen as a moving out from psychological concerns towards collective ones, from play to society.

A recent series of photographs of places - the stairwell of a tenement block, an underpass, a car park, a bar room - examines one aspect of play, the small leap of imagination that makes one thing a substitute for another. The places, empty of persons, are animated instead by smashed watermelons, leaking juice and pulp. The effect is partly comic, but provokes nervous laughter. The melons act as an absurd form of human mess: they are the evidence of the crime that any documentary photograph can make us look for. But while the 'guiltiness' that can be found in ordinary settings derives in part from the influence of fiction and cinema on how we attend to things, it is as a form of serious play that the photographs are perhaps best described. These works parallel those moments when, standing on a bridge, for a split second, one imagines jumping off and falling through the air and hitting the water - the sensation of falling, the impact of the water. And then one realises what one was thinking of in this little exercise, this rehearsal of what would happen. It is a game we did not know we needed to play, and which cannot be planned, but which obliterates whatever we were thinking and which reminds us that on balance we would rather live. The inherent optimism of such thoughts is implied in the title of the first watermelon photographs, set in a tenement: Stairwell - Running, falling, and rising (1993).

The way one thing can pretend to be another has fascination for Borland, who has not only had things shot but has also made 'bullet holes' in a pair of shoes by hand, as well as crude papier mâché heads modelled on those sometimes made by escaping prisoners to resemble themselves lying in their beds. The viewer's imagination of attack or danger is more important that any actual moment of attack. Another series of works has used the idea of protection. Home-Made Bullet Proof Jacket (1992) was made from cotton wool (a material that provides good protection against bullets) and two pillow cases, and displayed on a mannequin. A later work made for Schloss Mosigkau in Eastern Germany provided a counterpart to the 9mm hole in the neat black shoes. Slippers were made, like those heavy felt ones that are worn over shoes wherever marble or wood flooring needs to be protected from the pressure of visitors' feet. They were made, however, from bullet-proof fabric. Protection provided where it is least needed renders disquieting the whole nature of the journey about to be undertaken. But one could not say if the journey implied is negative or positive, or how directly it may be a rehearsal, an attempt to bring into life the point of death itself, that moment we are not given to experience: the negative we tarry with and live by.

The poetic associations of the slippers, of journeying in unfamiliar surroundings and strange footwear within a hushed, communal hall were balanced by an accompanying work for the castle garden. While Borland has often worked with guns, the presentation of the gun itself has taken a long time. Characteristically, she made it vanish even as she used it. Somewhat apart from the formal garden could be found a secluded patch of grass between trees and shrubs. To reach it, one crossed a flower border by means of a simple wooden bridge used by the gardeners, rising slightly out of direct contact with the ground, as with the slippers. One encountered a sign which indicated that a Sturmgewehr AK-47, a gun of historical note in those Länder, had been buried nearby. Whether it had been ritually put to rest - which seems optimistic - or left to be returned to in time of need, the combination of stillness and disquiet that this patch of disturbed turf evoked was entirely characteristic of Borland's work. It operates on the intellect and the historical understanding, on the psychological complexity of games of absence and presence, and, not least, on the hairs on the back of the neck or even the urge to laugh in a tight spot. Together, these two works impress and excite with an extraordinary quirky power wrought from the simplest of elements: the imagination can revisit these works and find more in them on each journey.

Contemplating the disappearance of some objects reminds us of their value; or makes clear that we already carry images of them inside us that cannot disappear. (Borland has drawn attention to the story of the judgement of Solomon: the true mother is of course the one who would rather relinquish her child than see him sliced in half, and who in losing, wins him back.) But 'destruction' is not a game that we play lightly, and neither can reparation be. From the beginning, there has been a directly reparative urge in Borland's work. It comes as no surprise that she should take a blanket used on a Berlin police firing range - a strange object to find in such circumstances - and repair the holes in it. The good intentions of Borland's work are clear. But the urge to repair, to revisit the past and make good, is not in itself straightforwardly positive.

From Life (1994), a complex work in which Borland, with the help of various specialists, recreated the features of a young woman from a skeleton, was unsettling because this elaborate work of sculptural recovery threatened to prove nothing, to bring back nothing: to bring back only loss. This worry was registered by the artist in the way she controlled the viewer's progress to the reconstructed head. At the last stage of the journey, in one of the prefabricated rooms that Borland often uses to establish a neutral space in which to present her work, the head appeared facing away. You had to walk up deliberately to the other end of the room in which it was held and turn round to face it. As you did so you saw a brief description on the opposite wall, in the direction from which you had come: 'Female. Asian. 5ft 2in tall. Age 25. At least one advanced pregnancy.'

The choreography of your final approach was perfect, and acknowledged fully the failure of science to 'save' anyone from their fate, while underlining the inadequacy of police report statistics to particularise or understand what being a person means. And yet without police reports, court records, insurance claims and landlords' cashbooks, the social historian's work would be impossible. While the attraction of much of Borland's work is of a game that, in being lost, is won, with From Life the critic and historian cannot make his report in such unambiguous terms. The implications of 'saving a life', it needs to be said, go beyond those of historical method: the work was made at a time when a popular way of understanding foreign wars was for a single wounded child to be airlifted to a British hospital, with the full attention of newspapers and television. Debates around fairness in the provision of healthcare are likewise often conducted within the terms set by the haphazard emotional impact of particular cases.

From Life was not a psychological game, but one for which still more serious reflection was needed: as one was forced to examine one's feelings towards a resurrected statistic, Borland calmly reasserted the value of certain brutal forms of objectivity. While her work's openness to feeling and to psychological patterns that are never fully complete is a strength, it is clear that this openness is no gush of sentiment. It has within it the ability to provoke reflection on the economy of compassion and projection, and on their continuing part in our understandings and misunderstandings of our experience and perception of the most diverse phenomena.

1. In particular, the work of D. W. Winnicott, for whom the infant's understanding of its violent impulses is a primary developmental stage.