Polly Borland’s x-ray vision
The Australian artist in conversation about ‘Polyverse’, Nick Cave and dress-ups
The photo is of Nick Cave. But it’s not the Nick Cave we’ve come to expect. Gone is the black-and-white aesthetic, the gothic melancholy and rock’n’roll cool. Instead it’s Nick Cave as perverse Snow White, in blue wig and sequined puffed-sleeve dress, smothered in a stocking that leaks blood-red lipstick. This is the photo being used to promote Polly Borland’s Polyverse exhibition (presented by the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, 2019) and it seems to encapsulate Borland’s predilections: a collaborative working relationship with Cave; a love of dress-ups and masks; the desire to blur the boundaries between body and object or child and adult; and a challenge to the idea of portraiture, exposing what it means to perform in the everyday.
Borland meets me at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre, and, like her latest lenticular images, she’s vibrant and sharp and disarmingly revealing. Studying art at Melbourne’s Prahran College in the early 1980s, Borland was a part of the Crystal Ballroom scene in St Kilda and surrounds. She remembers an era where anything was permissible, sex and drugs and music specifically. “There was a danger and experimental quality to it,” she says. “There was also a feeling that the sky was the limit, there were no boundaries and people weren’t afraid.” But the scene had a dark undertow. Poverty, heroin, alcoholism, disease: it took a toll on those around her. “Obviously people died along the way and I think all of that has influenced who I am as a person and also my work.” While her photography does occasionally reflect the DIY nature of the punk era, she says the aesthetic of the time didn’t really influence her. “It’s more an attitude, a mood, an awareness of human frailty.”
It was also an era of intense artistry and collaboration, “an incredibly creative and explosive period of time” that nurtured young artists: Nick Cave’s bands Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party, featuring Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, and artists, fashion designers and filmmakers like Jenny Watson, Howard Arkley, Tony Clark, Martin Grant, Fiona Scanlan, John Hillcoat (Borland’s husband) and Paul Goldman. Borland notes that her best friends remain from that period, and she’s gone on to collaborate with many of them over the years. “There was a communal feeling, a sense of community, which I think’s rare.”
By the time Borland reached her late 20s, though, she was searching for a wider view than Melbourne skies. Frustrated in her editorial photographic career, and realising she had more chance of success as an artist overseas, she got an overdraft from the bank and followed friends like Nick Cave to London. “In the ’80s we were all looking at world domination,” she says. “All our influences and references were international. New York and London. We weren’t Aussie rock people. We were looking at The Face, Italian Vogue, Andy Warhol.” When she left, Borland’s plane trip overseas was a one-way ticket.
Borland, who now lives in LA, dedicates the NGV exhibition and accompanying catalogue to Cave’s sons and her own, and she has photographed Cave many times over the years. Their collaboration was helped by proximity: she eventually lived around the corner in the UK. “We used to joke when we were living in Brighton that we had a little cottage industry.” For the Australian edition of his novel The Death of Bunny Munro (2009), Cave used as his cover shot a photograph by Borland of a giant woman, Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones): in Cave’s words, it was a “Playboy bunny crotch shot of a woman splay-legged on red sheets with red spotty underwear”. For her book, Bunny, about the same series of images (2004–5), Cave writes a short poem. A rare special edition of Borland’s book comes wrapped in a pair of tights; you rip them off to access the photographs. In the Smudge series (2010), Cave comes wrapped in a pair of tights too.
The intimacy of their friendship comes through in Untitled (Nick Cave in a blue wig) and her Smudge series more generally, where she dresses him in bodysuits and stuffs them with fluffy balls, rendering him unrecognisable. Rather than catering to Cave’s own knack for mythologising his rock star status, theatricality itself has become the subject. Despite the suffocation, there is something liberating about her representation of Cave; the masks and disguises turn Cave’s persona inside out: his vulnerability, his blurring of the line between the artificial and the authentic, and his need for control.
Cave admits to being uncomfortable in front of the camera, and Borland agrees. “He doesn’t like being photographed. Even though he’s incredibly charismatic, he’s not really photogenic,” she says. “It’s really hard to get good pictures of him, so I think he doubts the process.” But Borland found that this changed when Cave was being shot for the Smudge series. Pushed for time, Borland wanted him completely disguised, but she says his presence was still strong: his ambience came through the costume. “I think it’s energy and emotional response,” she says. “I mean, Nick loved it, he said he loved being anonymous and he loved the tactile feeling of it. He found it very erotic.”
What links all of Borland’s imagery is her love of dress-ups. Starting with The Babies series (2001) — her startling photographs of grown men who like to wear nappies and bonnets — her fascination for dressing others in costumes, wigs, masks and fabrics is mostly tender but occasionally confronting. When asked to select images for the exhibition, Borland felt that the Bunny series was a good place to start. “It showed the evolution of me starting to dress people up,” she says. Borland is clear that the photos are not portraits of the subjects. “The Bunny series is the first time I really put myself into the photos more.” When she puts costumes on a person, her focus is not on the person who’s in the costume — “They’re kind of a conduit” — but rather on a reflection of her own desires.
In the latest Morph series (2018), Borland’s subject was Sibylla, a young woman who originally approached her asking to be an intern. After Sybilla took her clothes off, Borland covered her eyes and dressed her in tight and transparent fabric, stuffed with white fluffy material. Sibylla never saw the costume she was being put into until afterwards. “She was blind because I used to always cover her eyes,” Borland says. “It was really sensory deprivation because it was quite hot, it was cushiony, I’d put her in some dark cave.” But what Borland seems to be reaching for is the moment when Sibylla transforms, when the boundaries of her skin are no longer there, when she inhabits the costume completely. “Without her even seeing what I put her in, she inhabited it,” Borland says. “She definitely became the costume. She became whatever I created that she was in.” In a beautiful essay in the exhibition catalogue, Sibylla describes this “sense that something raw is being given form”:
Inside my Gimp Suit I would feel my jaw tensing up and jutting out in a parody of aggression, and my fingernails left red marks on my palms. At other times my wrists were limp and my mouth slack. There was a freedom to being covered up and sightless … However, because of the sheer volume of cushion stuffing, these details were invisible, and I never spoke to Borland about it.
Growing up in a chaotic household with six siblings and struggling parents, Borland says she was very fearful as a child and tried to make sense of the world through what she could see. “I’m highly visual and things fascinated me, things I loved. I’d find patterns in curtains, fabric, everywhere I’d be looking for the visual feast,” she says. “In contradiction to my emotional state … because I was so hypersensitive I used the visual to deal with, or maybe not deal with, this emotional overload that I was constantly feeling.”
This intensity of visceral response is still reflected in the way she works. Watching Borland in action in the documentary Polymorphous (2013), directed by Alex Chomicz, you can see her thrill in the chase for the right image. She talks as she clicks “That’s it! That’s it! Oh my God!” She describes the intense feeling to me: “When I’m taking photos, it’s definitely a physical thing, it’s like I have a rush, and if I’m excited by what I’m doing, then I know I’m onto something.” She knew instantly while working with Sibylla on Morph. “That’s a very physical thing, the beating of the heart, the endorphins in the brain.”
Borland’s voice takes on this same edge of excitement when she remembers playing dress-ups. “I loved it all. But I also wanted to be a boy as a child.” In the documentary, she describes lying in bed, stuffing her blanket down her pyjama pants, imagining what it would be like to change gender. “I was a chubby child too. So I was always fighting my body.” This idea of confronting bodily limits, of wanting to extend beyond the frame, or interrogate that blurry Alice-in-Wonderland line between child and adult, is what gives Borland’s images such emotional impact. While photographers like Bill Henson and Sally Mann also tread this perilous line, Borland’s work is more playful, less literal. What seems to disturb viewers most about her work is the way it messes with innocence. “Like children’s books, toys, these are things that I was fascinated by or I was very emotionally attached to,” she says. “And then my adult self intersects with those and creates a kind of fusion of childlike memories and innocence with an adult’s horror of knowing too much.”
In Borland’s Morph series there’s a slight adjustment to the perspective, an opening up — the lenticular images offer a venetian-blind-like ability to look at the work from different angles — of Borland’s curiosity of spirit about the world and people, creating a space for exchange, even a type of nurturing and hope for transcendence for her lonely and vulnerable “imagined creatures”. She sees the images and accompanying video as “a kind of moving beyond”, and that the next step is sculpture. “These figures are about to come out of the frame of the picture,” she says. “It’s about the melding of two different things, it’s about defying the body and taking control of the body at the same time.”
Talking to Borland can be disconcerting sometimes because of the burrowing intensity of her gaze and what Sibylla describes as her “unmediated understanding of something beyond language”. When we talk about Gabriel García Márquez’s idea that all human beings have three lives — public, private and secret — and her uncanny knack of revealing all three, she laughs. “I’d like to think that I’ve got x-ray vision but I probably haven’t.” But walking through the gallery with Borland as she points out the moments of metamorphosis in the images, her work at its best does seem to reach inside human beings and turn them inside out, exposing viscera, quietly trespassing into inner worlds to access what usually remains hidden. “I’m always getting people’s secrets from them, even when I’m talking to them. I’m only interested in the secrets, really.”
A version of this article originally appeared at The Monthly.