Christine Borland: Preserves
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 28 Jan 2007
In Kos, Greece, there is a tree that stands in front of the Castle of Knights. Apparently planted by eminent physician Hippocrates, the town’s locals optimistically put it at about 2400 years old, and its frailty has generated a reliance on a vast scaffold that resembles a monumental zimmerframe. For her carefully edited retrospective, artist Christine Borland has reconstructed this iron skeleton - tree absent - on the upper floor of the Fruitmarket, simply titled ‘Support Work (Hippocrates 1:075)’.
The artwork makes clear the scaffold’s own reliance on the presence of the ailing tree. Yet, instead of being made redundant without its primary function, the bald frame appears as a support to the building itself and forms part of a wider set of reconstructive narratives, which Borland uses to connect folklore or given histories to our far less certain present.
Peculiar, then, that the exhibition has been titled ‘Preserves’, when all around the gallery is art that seems to challenge the idea of preservation. The preservation of dignity, beauty, and truth is a suspect enterprise indeed; the kind of conservatism that begs artistic revaluation. And Borland’s art appears to embody the very act of scrutiny, wary of pickled singular histories and thus compelled towards representing plural histories.
In a similar ‘reframing’ of ‘Support Work’, ‘Second Class Male, Second Class Female’ stands in the soberly lit lower gallery. Borland acquired two skulls of ‘natural bone materials’ from an osteological company - second class medical specimens - and rebuilt their faces using pathologist’s reconstruction techniques for crime victims. Cast in bronze, the heads appear as a pair of classical busts, far removed from their initial delivery in a cardboard box. Borland’s subjects are not simply adapted with unruly creative licence, but with humanising curiosity.
Displayed with a self-conscious precision that verges on the clinical, her assembled works suggest an idle curiosity, an itching to pick at peeling layers of a supposedly complete history, only to reveal another. These skeleton starting points are not wiped of their pasts and replaced with some cheap artistic vision. Instead, Borland’s scrupulous research and imaginative endeavour is a restorative undertaking that infects us with self-inquiry.