Art: Science’s Counterpart

by Molly McNerney for Professor Pearce's Rhetoric course

Often artists’ works speaks more to the human condition when they have a deep understanding of the human body’s physical makeup and how it relates to the mind and soul. Christine Borland, for instance, combines both scientific thought and medical research into her art in order to examine the ethics behind modern science. As both an artist and an apprentice to forensic scientists, she epitomizes the nexus between science and art; her work with medical institutions like the Medical Research Council’s Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at Glasgow University enables her to approach her art from a scientist’s standpoint. Her main concern is how the individual is “depersonalized” through modern social institutions (like medicine and science), and so she creates art that “re-personalizes” the human body. Her art is characteristically morbid and visually shocking for its viewer, but at the heart of her pieces is the portrayal of the beauty of human body. She merges her understanding of medical sciences and conceptual art –art that focuses on the inherent message in the artwork rather than aesthetics—in producing works that examine how the humanity of individuals is lost through medical processes.

Borland was born in Darvel, Scotland in 1965 and is included among the “Young British Artists”, the name given to the group of British artists who go above and beyond the standards of modern art –trying to seek the shock tactics that might attract public attention to their art. Some of the “Young British Artists” have been accused of creating meaningless, over- the-top art, but Borland is more concerned with the enduring thoughts that her artwork invokes in the viewers’ minds than mere (and inevitably short-lived) shock value. For example, one of her most famous pieces, “Five Set Conversation Pieces” (1998) is a sculpture of five female pelvises encrusted in Chinese porcelain. In each pelvis, the skulls of the fetuses are positioned in various positions based on Borland’s work with obstetrical models. To visually and physically connect the pelvis of the woman to the skull of the fetus, Borland paints similar images on them with blue paint. The images depict ships carrying goods from Liverpool to other major trading ports as they did in the 18th century. The upper bones of the pelvis in “Five Set Conversation Pieces” are painted in the style of Ancient Chinese porcelain designs to show how something clearly corporeal (bone ash from female pelvises) has been used as art in the past. She is, in reality, calling attention to the old customs of Ancient Chinese Culture because China used to incorporate grounded up human bones in their porcelain. According to Borland, artists and art institutions of the past (like a large commercial pottery shop in Ancient China) have clearly violated the value of the human body and have used its material as mere tools for creating every day, “conversation pieces” that might sit in someone’s home. By mimicking Ancient Chinese Art in a more in-your-face way, Borland is questioning her viewers’ morality and asking them to have more respect for the human body, particularly of the female form and baby fetus.

In order to reach her viewers on a personal level, Borland makes very deliberate decisions in her art that contribute to its depth and morbidity. She plans out and analyzes every aspect of her artworks so that her message is easily (or perhaps not-so-easily) understood by her viewers. The attention that she pays to the human form through her art is, in a way, making up for the lack of respect that many people have paid to corpses in the past; she clearly feels a moral obligation to hold past violators in contempt as she encourages modern society to alter its perception of the body’s transition from life to death. One of the ways that Borland conveys the importance of her message is her use of various textures and tools, both of which lend just as much to the message of the artwork as the physical representation. For instance, in “Five Set Conversational Pieces” the majority of the piece consists of china while in many of her other artworks she uses bronze glass and spider dragline filament. The juxtaposition of the materials and the message in her artworks adds drama and intensity to the pieces. By using fragile material such as china, Borland is displaying the fragile nature of the human condition by showing the fragile nature of the human body; most of her art is based off of people who have died by chance and then have had their bodies disposed of in an inappropriate manner. Borland has also used other material objects -like shoes, blankets and slippers- in some of her other exhibitions to show the relation of the human body and the material world through art. By looking at Borland’s art, the viewer always feels a sense of moral obligation to appreciate the body more than history has and to think about how she might want her own body to be treated when she dies.

In “Second Class Male/Second Class Female” (1996), Borland again combines her scientific knowledge and her artistic inclination in reconstructing two heads from an unidentified male and female. Because she has worked with forensic scientists, Borland knows how to look for clues on a dead body that might reveal the cause of death or the type of death that the victim endured. Forensic scientists rely purely on evidence from the corpse and its surrounding environment to piece together a chain of events that ultimately ended in death. Borland’s motive in this piece of work especially, but in most of her art in general, is detection; she wants to find out what really happened to human bodies because they deserve their due sense of respect and value that science and medical practices clearly didn’t give them. Forensic knowledge can only take the detection process so far in conveying relatable information to the general public; Borland’s task is to do the background scientific information and then construct art pieces that resurrect the legacy of the deceased person. Borland is not just trying to detect the cause of dead of the victims, either; she is trying to detect the essence of the non-living part of the person. In “Second Class Male/Second Class Female”, the viewer gets to stare at the reconstructed heads just as she would stare at any living person. The victim of which the artwork is based may have died a horrible death, but Borland is giving their spirit a chance to live on through art and through contact with the living world. The actual skull sculptures are constructed of black, shiny material, and sit facing each other in the exhibit. In a way Borland is giving the spirits of the victims company which with to relate–company that has experienced the very same thing. As always, Borland wants to make her art represent actual people, so she exhibited them with their documentation that was sent with the skulls in the boxes in which they were delivered. By exposing the victims’ natural form to the material world even after their real bodies have vanished, Borland is suggesting that the soul and mind of a person have equal-if not more- value than the actual body.

Borland constructed another body derived from an unidentified Asian woman in her work entitled “From Life.” This work was a complete reconstruction of a woman from the legs to the head. Borland began the art piece working from the ground up; she first constructed the lower part of the skeleton and then the torso and then she ended with her entirely bronze cast of the woman’s head. Once again, her art is based on actual events gone wrong; the Asian woman of whom she was sculpting went missing and therefore did not get to have her body die with dignity. Borland wanted to “re-personalize” the body of the woman because it had been “de – personalized.” By carefully sculpting each arm and leg, and eventually the fragile head, Borland is paying respect to the woman’s body and to her memory; she is allowing a visual representation to portray the deeper thoughts and values of the unidentified and “depersonalized” woman. She constructs the head of “From Life” out of bronze because, perhaps, she considers the mind to be the most fruitful and powerful element of the body. Human intellect, in her view, has driven medical scientists to make decisions that jeopardize the nature of the physical body. Borland shows that there is more to the human body than just arms and limbs and physical matter; the mind is capable of greatness and has the power of reason that no other living animal possess. If humans were purely physical beings with no capacity to think and reason, then Borland and people alike would not have feel the urge to resurrect a missing woman. They would not want to search for the deeper meaning in life and evaluate the soul after the body has died. Borland is trying to get society as a whole to recognize that the human condition can be preserved by preserving the human body. Her works convey the message that the mind and body are interrelated and cannot (and should not be forced by modern medicine to) exist independently.

Clearly affected by her knowledge in the field of science and forensics, Christine Borland lets art pick up where science left off in explaining and exploring all components of the human condition. Her artworks show us that there is more to the human than just the physical components and that all efforts should be made to preserve the body in a way that preserves the mind and soul. She wants society to respect the deceased and appreciate the life and experiences that they had before their untimely deaths. For Borland, perhaps her art is a self expression of all her feelings and frustrations that she felt in her line of forensic work; we can only wonder what she saw and experienced in her science profession that aggravated her to point of seeking solace through art.

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