Christine Borland presents a wondrous set of conundrums
THE Power of Twelve currently lurks around every crevice of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. Not only has Turner Prize-nominated artist Christine Borland titled her new exhibition in this neo-Gothic mansion around the number, she has created a dozen artworks as a response to a portion of the building’s history during which it served as a naval hospital during the First World War.
The Argyll-based artist is currently deeply embedded in the process of remembering the “war to end all wars” as we head towards the centenary of Armistice Day in November. As well as this new work at Mount Stuart, a major commission for Glasgow Museums as part of the UK-wide 14-18 Now programme will be unveiled in October. Part of the research for this commission, which has given Borland unprecedented access to Glasgow Museums’ First World War collection, has spilled into her new work on Bute.
Borland has form in Mount Stuart. In 2003, two years into the Mount Stuart Trust’s rolling visual arts programme, she was one of the first artists invited to respond to the house and its collections. Since then, her work has developed and matured, but beauty coupled with underlying layers of meaning waiting to be discovered by the viewer remain a fixture of her art.
The first Borland artwork encountered by visitors to Mount Stuart is called to The Power of Twelve, with Moss Pillow. This beautiful work is nestled in the Marble Hall, the domed centrepiece of Mount Stuart.
Superficially, without a back story, it is a beautiful thing to behold. We see a large circle, framed by a pink “pillow”. Inside this space there’s a host of glass spheres of varying sizes. Light from 12 stained glass windows depicting the signs of the zodiac refracts onto 144 glass balls. Sweep up the grand staircase where the house’s bedrooms are nestled around vaulted Gothic arches which soar some 80ft into the air and you can look down on the work, which changes as the summer sun moves its position.
You do not need to know the background to the work, but once you do know, it sheds light on so many aspects of both the building and the First World War.
Delve into 12 and you realise the number influences not only influences the structure of this building, but our culture, our lives, our religious calendars and our superstitions. Our bodies have 12 pairs of ribs and the old imperial measurements have 12 inches to a foot.
In this work alone, the pool of glass spheres is based on a 12metre deep crater made by a series of mines exploded on the Messines Ridge in Flanders in 1917. Borland has created a pool here which is one-twelfth the scale of the surviving crater, now filled with rainwater and preserved as a peace memorial.
The 144 (12x12) glass buoys make you think of the wounded sailors who were once tended in the marble hall. From October 1914, it served as Mount Stuart Auxiliary Hospital’s Middle Ward, accommodating 50 beds for injured seamen.
What must these men, most of whom were from humble backgrounds, have made of the opulent surroundings in which they found themselves? I have a vision of a sick sailor coming to and gazing up at the domed roof and the beautiful stained glass thinking possibly he had died and gone to Heaven.
Like every piece of art I have seen made by Borland, there is beauty and a deeper meaning wrapped around the
Main image: Borland’s China Harvest. Far left: Witness Board and to The power of Twelve, with Moss Pillow. Pics: Keith Hunter