Image of Support Work by Christine Borland
Christine Borland, Support Work. Photo © Dr Jim Roseblade

Christine Borland

Work exhibited: Support Work.

The work of Christine Borland has shown a continuous preoccupation with the history of medicine and how it has influenced the way we see and understand the human body, especially in its relation to the way we conceive of the self.

She has been concerned variously with the principles and practices involved in collecting anatomical specimens, in forensic reconstruction, in prenatal screening, in a whole range of procedures that record the traces of human lives that nonetheless escape definition, categorisation, diagnosis. Humanity both is and is not contained by the individual body. Borland’s work has proceeded as a form of artistic research that explores the margin between physical and symbolic existence, between mortality and persistence.

In a previous exhibition, Fallen Spirits, Borland began to explore the symbolic scope of dead leaves that had been shed by an oriental plane tree growing in the grounds of the Glasgow University medical school. Bleached and preserved, these leaves had ceased both to decay and to perform an active role in the process of photosynthesis. Their physical relationship with humanity, involving an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, had been suspended, allowing the viewer to dwell on the symbolic properties of an organism linked both literally and metaphorically with the imagined origins of western medicine.

The tree from which the seven leaves had come had been grown from a seed produced by the ancient plane tree under which Hippocrates is supposed to have taught on the Dodecanese island of Kos. Hippocrates is both historical and mythical figure, the attributed author of the 5th century BC texts on which two millennia of medical practice were based, and the reputed son of the Greek god Aesculapius, believed capable of bringing the dead back to life.

Hippocrates’ tree remarkably still survives, although its massively extended branches require artificial support. The present sculpture, Support Work, reproduces that structure. The absence of the tree is merely incidental, in the sense that the centuries of meaning that have accrued to it exceed its physical form. The tree almost means less when present than it does when absent; or rather, it means very little more.

It is visited, photographed, made the source of souvenirs in the form of dead leaves, not because of the shade it offers on a hot day, or because it is aesthetically rewarding, but because of the symbolic freight it has acquired. That legacy is much more appropriately embodied in a structure that represents an ethics of care, a botanical prosthesis, a concretisation of the role of medicine, a form of treatment.

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