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