The Aus­tralian pho­to­graphic artist’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores life’s seed­ier side

VOGUE Living Australia - - CONTENTS - By An­nemarie Kiely Pho­tographed by Sharyn Cairns

With the un­furl­ing of Polly

Bor­land: Poly­verse — the nom­i­na­tive ex­hi­bi­tion of new and sem­i­nal work now show­ing at the Ian Pot­ter Cen­tre: NGV Aus­tralia — the ex­pat Aussie artist has an op­por­tu­nity to re­flect on her past lives. She does so from the long dis­tance of Los An­ge­les, “the toxic town” to which she claims to have un­will­ingly re­lo­cated six years ago for the sake of her film di­rec­tor hus­band, John Hill­coat (crafter of such dark cine-clas­sics as 2005’s The Propo­si­tion and 2009’s The Road).

Age is soft­en­ing the fo­cus of hind­sight, ad­vises the fiftysome­thing artist, whose sig­na­ture round spec­ta­cles im­part the wis­dom and noc­tur­nal wiles of an owl. No sur­prise there. It’s been nearly three decades since artist Polly Bor­land high­tailed it out of Mel­bourne and headed for Old Blighty, where her sly shift of the cul­tural co­or­di­nates for pho­to­graphic por­trai­ture and reportage were re­warded in 2001 with a right royal com­mis­sion to cap­ture Queen Elizabeth II on the oc­ca­sion of her Golden Ju­bilee. She can still vividly re­call that stress-filled scene at Buck­ing­ham Palace and the five-minute por­trait slot dur­ing which nerves re­sulted in the loss of all bear­ings and the near-grab of HRH’s an­kles to re­po­si­tion her in a dif­fer­ent spot. Thank­fully, Bor­land’s hus­band, as­sist­ing on the day, in­ter­ceded with po­lite ver­bal in­struc­tion to the Queen, free­ing Bor­land to fa­mously cap­ture the reign­ing monarch “flat­tened” against a field of Marimekko flow­ers and flashy gold lamé.

Those de-fa­mil­iari­sa­tions of the fa­mil­iar (caught on only two rolls of film) shot Bor­land from con­sid­er­able renown into a rar­efied strato­sphere and set her on the path of full-time art prac­tice. “Un­til then, I was just a tourist in other peo­ple’s lives,” she says of her long-time con­fine­ment to the bound­aries of pop­ulist press. “Ul­ti­mately I found that cre­atively in­hibit­ing, and that’s when I de­cided to fo­cus 100 per cent on my own work.”

That de­ter­mi­na­tion soon man­i­fest in Ba­bies, the 2001 series that spawned from Bor­land’s pho­to­jour­nal­ism on Para­philic In­fan­til­ism (the sex­ual fetish that finds adults re­gress­ing to ba­bies) for The In­de­pen­dent Mag­a­zine in Lon­don. She fleshed its im­ages of the Hush-a-Bye-Baby Club in Kent, where di­a­per-wear­ing men crawled around cots, into a five-year pro­ject that doc­u­mented the world’s covert playpens. It was an ex­co­ri­at­ing study into the multi-sided self, with­out a hint of leer­ing ex­cess, and it ul­ti­mately bound into The Ba­bies, an art-house book for which fierce Amer­i­can in­tel­lect Su­san Son­tag penned the fore­word. “Close is ugly,” Son­tag wrote. “And adult is ugly, when com­pared with the per­fec­tion of the re­cently born.”

Bor­land si­phoned Son­tag’s mus­ings into Bunny (2008), a pho­to­graphic series fea­tur­ing stat­uesque Gwen­do­line Christie — pre-Game of Thrones fame — poured into face-ob­scur­ing, flesh-pink tights to pro­ject a puerile idyll of the Play­boy bunny. Pos­tur­ing into sub­mis­sion, Christie lost all iden­tity within the ny­lon gauze, the use of which Bor­land notched up in Smudge (2010) — the series dis­guis­ing celebrity friends, in­clud­ing Nick Cave, in a fright-night of wigs, masks and fes­ter­ing stock­ings — and fully un­leashed in Mon­ster (2017). These “anti-por­traits”, cap­tured en­tirely on film, were later hand­stitched into ta­pes­tries by English in­mates for the char­ity Fine Cell, the pris­oner ad­vo­cacy group that re­cently re­alised Bor­land’s Ju­bilee por­trait of the Queen as large em­broi­dery. Ex­hibit­ing in Poly­verse, this stitch­ing of Bor­land’s orig­i­nal work is bril­liantly anal­o­gous to the messy back­story that brings a crim­i­nal un­done and the con­se­quence that re­sults in ‘do­ing time at her majesty’s plea­sure’. With­out a hint of moral­is­ing, it man­i­fests Bor­land’s abid­ing in­ter­est in the un­der­belly of things: the seedy side of life that in her lat­est vis­ual lan­guage (re­vealed in new works com­mis­sioned by the NGV) looks to be re­duc­ing down to bloody vis­cera — bodies to­tally dis­ap­pear­ing in a tumes­cence of stock­ings.

Though Bor­land no longer iden­ti­fies as a lo­cal, her work un­de­ni­ably threads with the sex­u­ally charged fer­ment of late-1980s Mel­bourne. “It was a mo­ment of ex­plod­ing cre­ativ­ity, just an in­cred­i­ble group of col­lab­o­ra­tive peo­ple all par­ty­ing hard,” she says. “There were a lot of ca­su­al­ties and even though we thought we were hav­ing a good time, I knew at some point I would have to leave — not only for ››

“Los An­ge­les seized me like a rabbit in the head­lights... but in the end it made me braver”

‹‹ my cre­ative sur­vival, but my phys­i­cal sur­vival.”

Part cred­it­ing her fa­ther Kevin Bor­land, the renowned Mel­bourne ar­chi­tect (de­signer of both her child­hood home and the free-range school, Preshil), with her dark modernism, Bor­land iden­ti­fies Hill­coat as the one who opened her up to be­ing an ex­plorer and “go­ing where oth­ers fear to tread. Lon­don made [the ad­ven­ture] per­mis­si­ble. But Los An­ge­les seized me like a rabbit in the head­lights. I’ve seen prob­a­bly the worst of hu­man­ity in this town, but I think that in the end, it ac­tu­ally gave me a free­dom… made me braver”.

As the city that ger­mi­nated the sem­i­nal contemporary art tal­ents of Bor­land favourites Paul McCarthy and Mike Kel­ley — two like di­vin­ers of Amer­ica’s darker side — LA has, she ad­mits, slowly leached into her psy­che.

“I re­mem­ber when Su­san Son­tag was writ­ing the fore­word for Ba­bies, she said: ‘We are what we love’, and I think that we are — but I also think we are pos­si­bly a lit­tle bit of what we hate.” VL

Polly Bor­land: Poly­verse runs un­til 3 Fe­bru­ary, 2019, at The Ian Pot­ter Cen­tre: NGV Aus­tralia at Fed­er­a­tion Square. ngv.vic.gov.au; polly­bor­land.com @pol­ly_bor­land

CLOCK­WISE FROM ABOVE Un­ti­tled XXXII from Smudge (2010). Un­ti­tled (Nick Cave in a blue wig) (2010). Bor­land’s Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (2001). Polly Bor­land.

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