A por­trait of Polly Bor­land

Esquire (Singapore) - - ART -

As one of Australia’s most suc­cess­ful artists, Polly Bor­land has worked with a star-stud­ded cast that in­cludes Nick Cave, Cate Blanchett, Her Majesty Queen El­iz­a­beth II and even Don­ald Trump in the 1990s. Now, The Na­tional Gallery Of Vic­to­ria is pay­ing trib­ute to her in Poly­verse.

She is one of Australia’s lead­ing con­tem­po­rary por­trait and pho­to­graphic artists, but in 1989, Polly Bor­land turned her back on her city of Mel­bourne to pur­sue a ca­reer in Lon­don.

Now, the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria will hon­our her in an ex­hi­bi­tion of new and re­cent work ti­tled Poly­verse.

For some­one who has spent al­most half of her life liv­ing abroad, Bor­land’s ac­cent is still crisply Aus­tralian with plenty of twang over a nasally Lon­don pitch. She now lives in Los An­ge­les with her movie di­rec­tor hus­band John HIll­coat and their son Louie.

Best known for her por­traits of Nick Cave—her friend for more than 30 years—Kylie Minogue and Her Majesty Queen El­iz­a­beth II who man­aged to crack a smile in the stu­dio with Bor­land in 2002, she is the anti-the­sis of celebrity gush­ing— pre­fer­ring to put her sub­jects in the spot­light with a hint of the sur­real in the fi­nal com­po­si­tion.

There’s a dreamy fa­nati­cism that’s oddly ro­man­tic in her work too. It’s ex­actly this jux­ta­po­si­tion that sees Bor­land hit the cre­ative jack­pot—she’s about tak­ing you out of your com­fort zone when you see some­one fa­mous in her work.

When she ar­rived in Lon­don with her then boyfriend Hill­coat, she left be­hind a ca­reer as a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher for Vogue Australia in search of some­thing greater. It was the era of post-punk dream­ing, a time when new wave chris­tened

the dance floor and art stu­dents pegged their cre­ative soul on fash­ion bibles like The Face and mu­sic pub­li­ca­tions like NME and Melody Maker.

It was also the peak of Bri­tish fash­ion—when Vivienne West­wood and Mal­colm McLaren’s World’s End bou­tique ruled the late ’70s and ’80s and the high street felt the reper­cus­sions of its punk angst call­ing. Bor­land was keen to hitch a ride, but didn’t ex­pect to live in a squat in the name of art and free­dom.

“I was frus­trated cre­atively and I didn’t feel I would be ap­pre­ci­ated in Australia, that’s sort of why I left,” says Bor­land, who joined Hill­coat on an in­vi­ta­tion to at­tend Lon­don and Venice Film Fes­ti­vals for his movie Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (a script he co-wrote with Cave and Hugo Race).

“I was work­ing for Vogue Australia and try­ing to be a fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher at that point. I got a huge over­draft loan—which in those days was around A$20,000—it was huge—and that’s how we left,” she ex­plains. “With the film fes­ti­val show­ing John’s movie, it gave us an ex­cuse to leave, but I hadn’t for­mu­lated I would be gone for a long time.”

Bor­land re­mem­bers the day she landed in Lon­don like it was yes­ter­day.

“Lon­don was very bleak. Mar­garet Thatcher was the prime min­is­ter, it was the mid­dle of win­ter, the skies were grey and over­cast and I was squat­ting in a hous­ing es­tate in Ken­ning­ton (South Lon­don) think­ing to my­self, what have I done,” she re­flects.

“What is this place? Where am I? I quickly dropped the misery. I had no time to waste and quickly got ap­point­ments to see mag­a­zines. This was the land of The Face and we ( the Aussies who left the coun­try for Lon­don) sort of idolised Lon­don and all it of­fered,” says Bor­land.

Poly­verse in­cludes more than 60 of Bor­land’s works which stem from var­i­ous se­ries in­clud­ing ‘Bunny’ (2008)—in which ac­tress Gwen­do­line Christie’s dis­torted fig­ure sub­verts the idea of a Play­boy bunny girl—while her fa­mous ‘Smudge’ se­ries (2011) fea­tures Cave dis­guised in a blue wig, face stock­ing and red lip­stick. This is Bor­land at her best—a sleazy mix of mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine, where fan­tasy and re­al­ity are blurred in the name of art. A cel­e­bra­tion of her work over a 10-year pe­riod is a high­light at Poly­verse. “I feel all of my work is very in­ter­con­nected,” says Bor­land. “Each se­ries I do in­forms the last one and the next one and so on. It’s like a de­vel­op­ment, a step to­wards some­thing but I don’t know what that is en­tirely,” she rea­sons.

“I feel I am now work­ing from a place of con­cep­tual and vis­ual clar­ity. For the first time since the ‘Smudge’ work I have a clearer idea of what I am do­ing. I think you can see that in the work. I am re­ally in­ter­ested in the myth­i­cal, the emo­tional, in mod­ernism. The newer work re­flects my in­ter­est in the re­duc­tion of vis­ual lan­guage. I feel I am fi­nally hon­ing in and have more control over my work than ever be­fore.”

Her pho­to­graphic work has ap­peared in in­ter­na­tional mag­a­zines like Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The In­de­pen­dent and Dazed & Con­fused. She has pho­tographed al­bum cov­ers for Gold­frapp and al­lowed Cave to use her im­ages for the cover of his book The Death of Bunny Munro.

Her se­ries ‘Aus­tralians’ was ex­hib­ited in 2000 at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery (Lon­don and Can­berra) and while liv­ing in Lon­don, she re­ceived the John Kobal Pho­to­graphic Por­trait Award in 1994.

But she quit tak­ing por­traits after her time with the Queen, if merely to fo­cus on her work as a pho­to­graphic artist in­stead.

“If I was tak­ing pho­to­graphs now it would be pho­tog­ra­phy by com­mit­tee,” she says of ev­ery­one’s in­put in the cre­ative process.

“I loved do­ing por­traits of celebri­ties and politi­cians. I wish I would have had a chance to pho­to­graph Barack Obama, but I felt I had done my time with tak­ing pho­tos in that way,” she says.

But Bor­land did a back­flip and agreed to pho­to­graph her good friends Cave and his de­signer wife Susie Bicks for the cover of Bri­tish Vogue at the singer’s re­quest just last Septem­ber.

“I did that for Nick and Susie and it was re­ally ex­cit­ing to do the magazine shoot for them. I guess what was dif­fer­ent is I know the sub­jects very closely,” she says.

“I have known Nick since our Mel­bourne days and hang­ing out at the Crys­tal Ball­room. While I wasn’t in the mid­dle of that scene, I was on the pe­riph­ery and we all went to Lon­don around the same time,” says Bor­land.

“It took Nick many years to trust me, but that was be­cause he had a strange re­la­tion­ship with the cam­era, and the way he thought he looked was kind of com­pli­cated. But tak­ing those pho­tos for Bri­tish Vogue is some­thing I re­ally loved do­ing and we got the re­sults. It was great. Then Susie has asked me to do stuff for her and it’s been a slow waltz back in that space again.”

In­spired by Diane Ar­bus and Larry Clarke, Bor­land says she loved the pho­to­graphic works of those who take you away from re­al­ity.

“I did like the way in which Diane Ar­bus’s pho­tos were dis­turb­ing re­flec­tions of re­al­ity. I dis­cov­ered her in the late ’70s—when she was con­sid­ered re­ally rad­i­cal. I re­sponded to her be­cause I was in­ter­ested in the peo­ple was pho­tograph­ing—her di­rect­ness and simplicity of her pho­tos is what I loved,” she says.

“And then there’s Larry Clarke who took pho­tos of drug ad­dicts—it was dis­turb­ing. I found that re­ally sur­real in the sense it was con­fronting,” she says. But it was also the works of Man Ray and Euro­pean film­mak­ers like Pier Paolo Pa­solini and Robert Bres­son that caught her cre­ative at­ten­tion.

She counts some of Australia’s coolest cul­tural movers and shak­ers as close friends but doesn’t harp on the con­nec­tions. From Mel­bourne-born and Paris-based fash­ion de­signer Martin Grant—who she re­calls was in­ter­ested in fash­ion at the age of 15—to rock pho­tog­ra­pher Peter Milne, who cap­tured Australia’s cul­tural he­roes over 40 years in­clud­ing the late Row­land S Howard (of Boys Next Door/ Birth­day Party fame) and Cave, her mem­o­ries of the ’80s in Mel­bourne stand out as a very cre­ative time.

An op­por­tu­nity to as­sist Aus­tralian film­maker Richard Lowen­stein in the late ’90s (by way of hold­ing the cam­era) while film­ing INXS’s ‘What You Need’ video clip led her to Michael Hutchence. Many years later Bor­land hung out with Hutchence again when he took part in her ‘Aus­tralians’ por­traits show—a time she re­calls as sur­real and a lit­tle in­tense.

“I re­mem­ber Michael be­ing re­ally ag­i­tated about the whole tabloid chase. He and Paula (Yates) had just had a baby and the me­dia was after them. I don’t know if Bob (Geldof) was her ex-hus­band or not at the time, but Michael only wanted to talk about that,” she says of be­ing caught in the cross­fire mo­men­tar­ily.

“As a pho­tog­ra­pher, I just try to make peo­ple feel com­fort­able when I am hold­ing a cam­era,” ex­plains Bor­land, who cap­tures Hutchence as an arm­less torso with a cig­a­rette hang­ing from his lip.

“I re­ally felt for Michael. He was in a siege men­tal­ity and hav­ing a ter­ri­ble time, but all I can do is make them feel at ease by talk­ing, that is the very least you can do.”

Polly Bor­land: Poly­verse is on dis­play from 28 Septem­ber to 3 Fe­bru­ary 2019 on Fed­er­a­tion Square in Mel­bourne. En­try is free. Fur­ther in­for­ma­tion is avail­able from the NGV web­site, ngv.mel­bourne

“Each se­ries I do in­forms the last one and the next one and so on. It’s like a de­vel­op­ment, a step to­wards some­thing but I don’t know what that is en­tirely.”

‘Gag’, 2017.

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