With projected jellyfish and DNA samples, CHRISTINE BORLAND examines the borderline between art and science. Her first Scottish show for five years is an investigation into the mystery OT nature. Words: Susanna Beaumont
IN 1997 CHRISTINE BORLAND BECAME pregnant. A far from insignificant event in anyone‘s life but. for Borland. it put previously abstract issues into sharp focus. She had recently completed a project that looked at the work of Josef Mengele. the notorious Nazi doctor who experimented in eugenics. Questions of genetics and ethics fast became relevant to the artist.
On display in Borland's first major exhibition in Scotland since 1994 is a small vial of her blood. Used in a routine screening for congenital abnormalities in the early stages of her pregnancy. it is a poignant reminder of how ‘playing God’ is a seemingly easy game that we all want to take part in. News that a biotechnology company in the States has attempted to patent the make-up of the human gene again makes medical advances and ethics somewhat incompatible bedfellows. not to mention commercial concerns. It all adds up to a problematic ménage a trois. Against this setting. Borland‘s work offers pause for thought. As she says: 'The more and more choices the individual has. the more and more dilemmas we have. Things are no longer cut and dried.‘
Borland is one of Scotland‘s most important artists. Now in her early 30s. she trained at Glasgow School Of Art. has shown her work at some of the world's most prestigious art venues and was shortlisted in 1997 for the attention-grabbing Turner Prize. But while other artists command column inches on the virtues of soiled underpants or the use of elephant dung. Borland quietly
18 THE “ST 18 Nov—2 Dec 1999
'The more and more choices the individual has, the more and more dilemmas we have!
investigates some of today‘s most contentious issues. In many ways her work is propelled by curiosity: be it her Blue/t .l/Iuseimz. housed in a Portakabin during the I996 British Art Show. or her bust of Mengele. she kickstarts the mind into question mode. In the same way as some writers are dubbed investigative journalists. Borland could be described as an investigative artist.
Borland‘s Dundee show is. however. no dry reinactment of life in the lab. The look of things is essential to her. ‘The aesthetics are important.‘ she says. ‘It is the fundamental hook to a work. to draw the viewer in. Something can be beautiful and intriguing and be based on a criteria of an idea.’
Strangely seductive in their looks are moon jellyfish. which Borland will show in full wobbly glory in a vast projection. But why has she included these boneless. brainless and muscleless blobs? Is it a retreat into Jacques C (msteau's Undersea librld'.’ Far from it. Six years ago. while visiting a zoo in Berlin. the Ayrshire-born Borland found herself being curious about jellyﬁsh. And she is in good company: Pliny the Elder studied the jellyfish in the Bay of Naples in the lst century AD. What‘s more. the jellyfish has recently enabled scientists to revolutionise biotechnology. as its green fluorescent protein can be spliced into other cells. giving them a dayglo green under the microscope. ‘The jellyfish is like a light switch for genetic research.’ reckons Borland.
In some ways she is reinvesting nature with a sense of mystery. As endoscopic cameras probe the human insides and fertility clinics do mail-out campaigns. Borland — along with artists like Mona Hatoum and the late Helen Chadwick — do not so much ignore contemporary science as harness it to create artworks. It is not often that the thoughts of Albert Einstein appear on a press release. but advance notes for Borland‘s show are headed by the genius‘s words: ‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.'
Christine Borland: New Work is at Dundee Contemporary Arts, Sat 20 Nov-Sun 23 Jan.