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by Robert Mahoney
|Christine Borland, "Spirit Collection," Mar. 9-Apr. 15, 2000, at Sean Kelly Gallery, 43 Mercer Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
In 1997, Christine Borland was short-listed for the "all women" Turner Prize eventually won by Gillian Wearing (also nominated were Angela Bulloch and Cornelia Parker). In that Turner Prize exhibition, Borland presented From Life, a record of her forensic reconstruction of a missing person -- an Asian female, five feet two inches tall -- starting with the skeleton and ending up with a bronze cast of the head. Borland said that her work was concerned with how the body and individual are depersonalized by the health and medicine establishment. She tried to re-personalize the individual by rebuilding her from the skeleton up.
Her previous exhibition at Sean Kelly, "Second Class Male, Second Class Female" in November 1996, consisted of two reconstructed heads, also part of Borland's body of work on forensic retrieval of the individual. That show was so cerebral it made only a muted impression.
In her current exhibition, "Spirit Collection," Borland has expanded her discourse to include a hot topic -- genetic science -- that also happens to hit Borland close to home (She is from Scotland and it was a Scottish biotech firm that cloned Dolly the Sheep and cells for Millie the pig). Borland has also presented her work here with more care. This installation is both varied and engaging. Works include a video of an animated 19th-century drawing of a boy with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a sculpture consisting of several sets of painted porcelain female pelvises paired with baby's heads in birth positions, photography of bioluminescent jellyfish, and a microscope revealing the quickly-multiplying HeLa gene.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, however, is the eponymously titled Spirit Collection (1999). Numerous vaccum-sealed teardrop-shaped glass containers hang overhead, each filled with a combination of ethyl alcohol, preservative and water, and each containing a leaf. The leaves themselves look unreal, for Borland has bleached them white in the manner of makers of Victorian bell jar curios. But they are very real.
When the artist was working with geneticists at the University of Glasgow, she saw a tree outside the window of the Genetics department -- an undistinguished tree, in a not very prime spot over by the car park. She was told that the tree was grown from the seed of a Plane tree in Kos, Greece, under which Hippocrates, the father of medicine, first taught his students. While the locals knew little of the circumstances of the Glasgow seedling (more information was proffered after Borland's exhibition of Spirit Collection last year in Dundee, Scotland), Hippocrates' original tree is a famous, revered, ancient monstrosity, propped up on all sides -- a place of pilgrimage.
Borland harvested some leaves from the tree, and here they are. The leaves are preserved to emphasize their piece-of-the-true-cross "sanctity" as actual genetic material. Cherishing their origin, Borland defies the culture of cloning. But Borland's presentation of the leaves of a tree's "family tree" -- white, weird, spooky, afloat in the solution in a Frankenstein way -- also suggests that she fears that originals are being rendered ghostly in the age of the clone. The piece functions then as a sort of "burning bush," which fills the mind with all sorts of questions about the ambiguities of life after DNA research.
Five Set Conversation Pieces (1998) includes five female pelvises molded from obstetric models. Porcelain babies' heads are set in different positions by the pubis bone, while the upper bones are painted like old "china trade" china with blue ships, islands and trees. In those old days "bone china" meant wares actually made with ground-up human bones.
Borland implies that the birth process is a weak link in the saga of genetic material -- some positions, in the time before widespread C sections, led to still births -- yet DNA lived on in the china. Just think -- you could clone your great granddad from an old teapot. Not really, but its just the kind of startling thought that Christine Borland stirs up in this provocative exhibition.
ROBERT MAHONEY is a New York art critic.