Polly Borland

Everything I want to be when I grow up
University of Queensland Art Museum, Brisbane
1 September – 25 November 2012

Polly Borland is best known for her celebrity photographs, but visitors to ‘Everything I want to be when I grow up’ are likely to be disappointed if that is what they are after. Certainly there are two portraits of Queen Elizabeth and one of Cate Blanchett, as well as many shots of Nick Cave and Guy Pearce, but that is not what the show is about. Pearce is present only on a contact sheet of shots taken during the shooting of The Proposition, and Nick Cave is thoroughly disguised across a selection of Untitled works from the ‘Smudge’ series. We know he is there because, hidden behind a blue nylon wig and bright red lipstick, he is one of the key images promoting the exhibition and this is the only one subtitled with an identifying name.

Disguise is the point, though perhaps also play, even a play with disguise and identity, which could then integrate the celebrity gestures, including the Queen’s portraits, which otherwise stand outside the titular theme (unless Borland does hanker for majesty). Blanchett bridges the gap more, because the postural contortions which make her all hands, nose and cheeks, link her to the Bunny series’ twisted bodies and pinkness, rather more than do curator Alison Kubler’s assertions that she has played a previous Elizabeth, though that also works, given she is placed alongside Elizabeth II (x 2).

This survey from the most recent twelve years of Borland’s work focuses on her fine art practice, though it depends on her documentary series ‘The Babies’, which started as a newspaper commission, for a through-line to be evident. Apart from Blanchett, whose portrait (2000) comes from Borland’s commission from the National Portrait Gallery in London to document expatriate Australians, the 2001 ‘Babies’ start the exhibition chronologically, even if the most probable viewer entry brings the visitor to the four named portraits first. The subject of ‘Babies’ is infantilism, the fetish of grown men (mostly? totally?) dressing up as female toddlers and acting out infantile activities. The photographs are fascinating both for their insight into an otherwise hidden world and for their technical quality. At a talk before the opening, Borland admitted this had not been a commercially successful exercise and that the book, despite an introduction by an impressed Susan Sontag, had not sold many copies at all. It would not be a comfortable object to have on a coffee table, nor would the studies suit most domestic environments, but they work very well in a gallery. The unfamiliar sights of grown men in pastel and white sateen and nylon lace and ribbons or plastic pants and soap-suds, combine a suburban sensibility with an almost abstract quality of age-inappropriate everydayness. After this, the world recedes and Borland moves determinedly into the studio.

Keith Broadfoot’s recent article about Rosemary Laing (Eyeline #75) positions her work as part of a ‘regime of the tableau form’. Without in any other way equating Borland and Laing, they share this quality of size and frontality, but then how many contemporary photographers do not? Size is key to all the photographs in the exhibition, except for a few in the ‘Bunny’ series, arguably Borland’s most successful so far. ‘Bunny’ shows Borland working through the dressing up and games of pretend from ‘Babies’, with a (usually) single model and limited props of tights, makeup and briefly a wig and a papier-mâché horse’s head. While the men in ‘Babies’ disguise their adult bodies in oversized child’s clothes to render themselves small, Borland plays with her model, the very tall Brighton habitué, Gwen, stressing and stretching her height and long limbs. While Gwen may be the height and something of the shape of the models who dominate fashion and beauty photography, Borland takes another route and shows us her model’s scars and bruises, uses make-up to paint on spots, and disguises her face under stretched tights and padded extensions. The referent of the usual glossy photographs of tall young women is there in some of the poses, but rejected by the laddered tights, the blemished skin and the first appearances of the abject extensions of the body. The two shots where Gwen wears the horse’s head may even be intended to evoke the conventional term for those highly paid others: ‘clothes horses’.

This defiant refusal of convention and recognisability is extended with ‘Smudge’, as a small number of Borland’s Brighton friends, including Nick Cave and fashion designer Martin Grant, are placed in stockinette bodysuits with their faces obscured by cheap nylon wigs, plastic noses and masks; the lipstick spots covering Gwen’s body and tights are replaced by ping pong balls under the fabric, evoking the even more abject images of boils. Six images from ‘Smudge’ had been transformed into tapestries, produced by a scheme employing British prison inmates, a sub-series heading well into kitsch and revealing how key the high sheen of the photographs is.

Visitors playing ‘spot Nick Cave’, as many seemed to be, argued furiously about which identifying features they believed allowed identification still to be made. Celebrity remains a key to pleasure with Borland’s work, as it does with the two photographs in ‘Pupa’, in which the obscured figure, a neighbour in Hollywood following Borland’s move there with her husband, the director John Hillcoat, was the wronged wife in a contemporary celebrity scandal.

Three of the five photographs of the ‘Pupa’ series had abandoned the human body for subjects formed from tights and padding, protean beings resting on mirrors awaiting an unknown future transformation. These three reveal a shift to a more complex reliance on lighting to animate the image/imago and perhaps a more relaxed acceptance that bodies do not have to be the constant touchstone.

Polly Borland, Snuggles in Mummy Hazel's Garden, 2001. From the series The Babies. Type C photograph, 121 x 181.5cm. Courtesy the artist and Murray White Room, Melbourne. © Polly Borland. 

Polly Borland, Untitled III, 2010. From the series Smudge. Chromogenic print, 147.5 x 122cm. Courtesy the artist and Murray White Room, Melbourne. © Polly Borland. 

Polly Borland, Untitled (Nick Cave in a blue wig), 2010. Type C photograph, 210 x 160cm approx. Courtesy the artist and Daydreaming Projects, London. © Polly Borland. 

Polly Borland, Untitled XXI, 2010. From the series Smudge. Chromogenic print, 76 x 65cm. Courtesy the artist and Murray White Room, Melbourne. © Polly Borland.