A portrait of Polly Borland
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.”