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In Production: Christine Borland

Dominic Paterson finds the artist in production at Glasgow Sculpture Studios

It is now 16 years since Borland’s last solo show in Glasgow, the justly renowned From Life at Tramway. There, a series of Portakabins took the viewer through a painstaking forensic reconstruction of a complete human skeleton bought by the artist from a supplier providing bones to medical schools. Amongst the elements of this reconstruction was a bronze head, cast from a model which attempted to figure the features of the woman whose life had once animated those bones. This conventional aesthetic artefact, serene in appearance and subjectively rendered according to aesthetic as well as empirical prerogatives, was in palpable tension with the box of bones with which the viewer (and Borland before them) began their journey through the exhibition, and in tension too with the complex social realities which made possible the skeleton’s transition from life to death, and from there to commodification and reconstruction. From Life, then, as with much of Borland’s subsequent work, investigated relations between the material processes and visual rhetorics of sculpture, and a much wider field of body politics which shape the possibilities we have for self-understanding.

 

Unsurprisingly for anyone attentive to Borland’s practice, her Glasgow Sculpture Studios project has a strong link to medical uses and representations of the body. It also continues her interest in negotiating a path between a sculptural language which freezes and aestheticises the body, and a forensic practice of investigation which operates in a countervailing way. ‘Cast From Nature’s’ point of departure comes in the form of an astonishing 19th century plaster cast of a dissected body, which the artist found abandoned and unloved in the Anatomy Department of Edinburgh University, with parts broken and missing (a more recent, and complete, replica is on permanent display in the Royal College of Surgeons). The piece, ‘From Nature’ is attributed to the surgeon John Goodsir, and it speaks to the centuries-long history of opening up the human body in order to gain knowledge by detailed observation. It also, in its quotation of the pose of Christ in Michelangelo’s famous Vatican 'Pietà' of 1499, plays on an artistic tradition of representing the (dead) body as beautiful. This entwining of aesthetic, epistemological and ethical dimensions in one object makes it ideal material for Borland, who has again and again investigated such issues in her work.

 

What makes this particular project so intriguing, and groundbreaking within Borland’s practice, is the imaginative way in which the exhibition itself plays out. Throughout the duration of the show, Borland is casting from ‘From Nature’—both restoring and reproducing it. This process, taking place in public, thus relates the gallery space to the theatres in which, from the 13th century, anatomy was performed. As well as being a canny solution to the problem of keeping a 5-month exhibition ‘live’, this approach opens up fundamental questions about how we view sculpture and the body, questions which resonate with the most interesting historical and critical accounts of both.

 

In a study of the Renaissance anatomy as performance, Luke Wilson notes that various procedures were used to give distinct places to the dissected body, the spectators of a dissection, and the anatomist who remade the cadaver into a body of knowledge. He also shows how such distinctions could be undone by the very procedure that they attempted to regulate—thus, the more the cadaver is the privileged source of empirical knowledge, the more it becomes a subject, and not just an object, of the performance. 'The cadaver', Wilson writes, 'is in a peculiar way a living body and an agent, and the anatomist, who has offered himself as a rival object of the spectators’ gaze—and who has spoken of his own body, which he presents to that gaze, as analogous to the one he is dissecting—is himself, like the cadaver, at once dead and alive, body and mind, agent and patient.” [1] The dissection is mortifying, the anatomical demonstration reanimating, and thus spectatorial identifications are possible with both bodily coherence (life) and with the body-in-pieces (death). Susan Buck-Morss has brilliantly argued that such embodied identifications are precisely what are disavowed in modern aesthetics, which turns away from the original sensory emphasis of the aesthetic, and offers in its place a disinterested and disembodied aesthetics as ‘anaesthetics,’ the preserve of unfeeling, autotelic, autonomous subjects. As one figure of this anaesthetics, Buck-Morss offers the modern form of literally anaestheticised surgery-as-spectacle, in which the roles of agent, object (body), and viewer were ever more sharply delineated. 'At the Tenth International Medical Congress in 1890, J Baladin of St Petersburg described the first use of a glass partition to separate students and visitors from the operating arena. The glass window became a projection screen: a series of mirrors provided an informative image of the procedure. here the tripartite division of perceptual experience… paralleled the brand new, contemporary experience of the cinema.' [2] Fittingly, Borland’s ‘Cast From Nature’ will partake of this mediation and partition of experience through the use of live feeds and monitors to convey the ongoing casting process, and ultimately by recording its completion on film.

 

It is a nice irony that much art historical dispute has centred around the fact that it seems Michelangelo deliberately damaged his Florentine 'Pietà', c 1550, by removing one of Christ’s legs, which in the original scheme had hung over Mary’s thigh. Leo steinberg suggested—to much disquiet—that it was the artist’s recognition that this implied more carnality than could be metaphorised into divine love that prompted him to break it. [3] 'The Pietà' is, then, fundamentally ambivalent, in a state of permanent incompletion, and arguably caught between aesthetic or religious transcendence and the prosaic materiality of the body. Borland’s response to Goodsir’s ‘From Nature’—an anatomical specimen posed like a Pietà—points to rather than resolves such ambiguity. Her castings cannot, after all, offer a complete restitution of this figure, which at origin is the product of the breaking apart and splitting open of the body. Nor can either of its points of origin—in the dead body of an anonymous man who gave it its form, and in the famous artwork which that body was posed after—efface the other. Just as ‘Cast From Nature’ recalls both the theatrical public space of 16th century anatomy and the space of modern partitioned anaesthetics, so Borland’s treatment of Goodsir’s sculpture evokes the real body and the reproduction in equal measure.

 

The performance of casting Borland will make at Glasgow Sculpture Studios is properly performative in that it involves an ongoing series of constitutive reiterations. It is a fitting response to the questions of body, knowledge and art that she has been addressing in the rich vein of work since From Life. Perhaps one of Borland’s signal achievements has been to acknowledge through her work that there is no ‘the’ body, but instead many bodies, remade and recast through history, systems of knowledge, and modes of representation. This critical awareness is always balanced by the sensory qualities of the work and its subject matter—an invitation to aesthetics as feeling and experience, as well as to the pleasures of distanced spectatorship.

 


[1] Luke Wilson, 'William Harvey’s Prelectiones: The Performance of the Body in the Renaissance Theater of Anatomy', Representations, No. 17, (Winter 1987), p. 88
[2] Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’, October, Vol. 62 (Autumn 1992), p. 32
[3] Leo Steinberg, ‘Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Sep., 1989), pp. 480–505