Responding to the idea of the exhibition, artist Christine Borland noted the following:
Lindsay Mylet (LM): The sub-title of the exhibition is ‘The Dead Teach the Living’. When it was first thought of as relevant to the exhibition, we were aware it was phrase that you’d used to title an artwork. Can you give a bit of background to your work, The Dead Teach the Living?
Christine Borland (CB): It was a piece of sculptural work made for the 1997 Skulptur Projekte Münster, Germany. A series of seven portrait busts were exhibited, in a grassy area, on the site of a former University anatomy dissection room. The title was actually the translation of the latin inscription mortui vivos docent, which I saw painted on the wall of a contemporary dissection laboratory in the medical department in the University of Münster. I subsequently learned that the phrase had been inscribed on the walls of early anatomy theatres, to remind all who witnessed or practiced dissection, to respect the bodies and to aspire to ‘higher thoughts’.
The old anatomy dissection room had been part of the university buildings destroyed during the war. The World War II context quickly became important as a very direct historical reference, but also for the complexity it introduced to the simple sculptural process. It quickly became clear that, throughout the war years, the Anatomy Faculty retained it’s position as one of the most important in Germany by insuring that the majority of the Professors were members of the NSDAP. ‘The Hygiene Institute’ within the medical school, became increasingly concerned with the study of Rassenhygiene (racial hygiene) and Eugenics, in accordance with the developing National Socialist doctrine. The idea of the dead teaching the living in that context was problematic not least because of the links between the subject for study and the concentration camps. The seven portrait busts I re-made were from the Anatomical Institute’s historical collection, most of which hadn’t survived the war. Recovering their lost provenance became a part of the project, though ultimately very little could be found out. The production of the work was very intentionally hands off, the sculptures were not cast, but laser scanned and produced in ABS plastic.
LM: You have experience of working in collaboration with scientists. Can you describe this please?
CB: I think true cross-disciplinary collaboration is difficult, and most interactions get wrongly labelled. It is hard for each discipline to get past using the other discipline in an instrumentalised way. Usually the people involved have a very clear agenda for the ‘collaboration.’ Going back to the 16th century, artists were being commissioned, by anatomists for the very specific illustrative purpose of making the anatomical drawings, the power balance is very clear.
Personally, I have certainly operated both ways, sometimes with something that just needs to get done, but much more exciting are the one or two occasions when very open collaborators within the anatomy discipline are willing to embrace experimentation and artistic research within the space of the anatomy laboratory, almost allowing it to function as a kind of studio. My most recent projects try to assert that scientific research and artistic research have equal status in that context. Obviously the scientific research is held to very strict ethical codes, but also by its very nature it is experimental. Circles of Focus, developed with Brody Condon, was presented at CCA, Glasgow in 2015 and deals with collaboration very directly, I’ll talk about it at The Two Cultures event connected with your exhibition.
LM: In a number of instances the exhibition has co-opted objects that display artistry and skill in their making, but their primary use was for other purposes. I’m thinking of the birth casts William Hunter commissioned around 1770; Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s hand drawn illustrations of his neurological research published in 1895, but also Scott Rogers’ borrowing of specimens from the University’s Anatomy Museum. By curating them into an exhibition, me as a curator and Scott as an artist, are inviting audiences to re-consider these objects. Generally, do you think this approach works?
CB: Again, it is a difficult thing to get right. I have seen it done both by curators and by artists, which are two different things. When it is built fundamentally into the development of an artists’ work, and it becomes an integrated part of the exhibition, it can work really well. More and more often interventions, are being made by artists directly into collections, though its difficult when the art tries to ‘compete’. The good interventions reflect the time and care spent by the artist and those responsible for the collection working to together to really take the project on. As a strategy, I’ve actually tried to take the public behind the scenes to the objects in their museum context, rather than put the objects in the exhibition context, this is the way I have got round it myself – that only works for a very small audience due to practical reasons, but the intimacy plays an important part. If its what you do, then its all worth trying. I very much look forward to seeing your exhibition.