High key, slightly hard and sharp, the ambient lighting signals objectivity, truth and clarity. The exhibition is still being installed and, from various spots within the gallery and at various times throughout this process, Christine Borland speaks directly to camera, offering information of one sort or another about the selection of ten works produced since 1990 that will feature in the show. It is a familiar enough item in major exhibitions these days: the short explanatory film. Few doubt the work of art’s reliance upon factors existing beyond the silence of its strict physical presence, and any ‘supplementary’ information is guaranteed to amplify its resonance. Equally, however, it can impose limitations. Such explanatory gloss may, in fact, be too glossy, a shiny veneer deflecting attention away from other layers of meaning. Beyond the busy light of information, the realm of affect remains in shadow.
It is no secret that Borland’s practice is research-driven and information-rich, and we would miss much of its intellectual and iconographic complexity were we dead to its sources and references. From the simple act of viewing ‘Bullet Proof Breath’, for example, I would not be able to know that I was looking at ‘the glass representation of the branching bronchia of a human lung, partially wrapped in spider silk extracted from a golden orb weaver spider’. Nor would I appreciate that the military had investigated the possibility of using such silk to form bullet-proof material. What I do see, however, is a striking object, fragile yet aggressively thorny, radiant and glinting within its shielding case. And I notice the ominous shadow that it casts on the wall nearby. In this moment, in this seemingly unmotivated event, an essential aspect of Borland’s work offers itself. Gradually it dawns: the specific manner in which these works have been presented encourages a kind of thoughtful response that exceeds the relatively simple task of matching factual information with objects.
Lighting is crucial here. The generally subdued lighting of the lower gallery allows illuminated objects a low glow and a cast shadow. In fact, a piece such as ‘Supported’, which incorporates the shadow of a human spine and hip bone into its very form and content, depends utterly upon such controlled conditions and their effects. But all the works benefit. The shadow itself (even if not present in every instance) seems to participate in a chain of associations and connotations that provides a kind of figurative skeletal structure for this whole group of works. Shadows, casts and castings, traces and deposits, lacunae, holes, vacant support structures, residues: both literally and metaphorically these elements recur throughout and suggest beyond doubt that doubt—that is to say, an absence of complete and quantifiable evidence—is a presence here. The paradox is vital, lifting Borland’s work above the plane of pointless tautology. These works are not finally answerable to the clusters of information (scientific, medical, botanical, historical, etc) that may have initiated them; on the contrary, they conspire to throw them into question.
John Calcutt is a writer and lecturer at Glasgow School of Art