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Strong Medicine

Christine Borland makes art out of the questionable ethics of science

The two skulls buried in cardboard boxes brimming with Styrofoam peanuts look as if they were just dropped off by FedEx. Those outside the field of medicine may be unaware of the bizarre world of osteological supply, but yes, you can buy human bones from a catalog the same way you can order tote bags from Lands' End. Skulls Unlimited.com even allows you to point and click human skulls into your shopping cart. Let's see, do I want the "best quality" with only minor imperfections for $699, or the $399 student model with few to no teeth? And what cranium would be complete without the "human skull stand" for only $49 or, for the skull on the go, the $99 skull carrying case?

Christine Borland, the Scottish artist whose work is now on display at the Contemporary Arts Museum, bought her skulls from the British company Adam, Rouilly Ltd. That's when she discovered the dark side of the bone trade. Borland's skulls were a discount closeout, the last of Adam, Rouilly's "natural bone material." The company was moving to a "plastic bone substitute" because its supplies had dried up. Some displayed correspondence reveals the reason why: Adam, Rouilly had been osteological suppliers "since the 1920's when trade links with the Asian subcontinent enabled the supply of natural bone material." (Catching a whiff of colonial exploitation?) The supplies were recently cut off when the Indian government banned bone export after an investigation into the supplier's sources revealed instances of grave-robbing. Borland uses the skulls, and most of her found and created artifacts, to investigate such issues of medical and scientific ethics.

The skulls are unsettlingly labeled second-class male and second-class female (also the work's title); Adam, Rouilly grades its products according to age, missing teeth and facial abnormalities. The classification calls to mind the Indian caste system as well as the class-based aspects of British society. Forensic reconstruction techniques show us what their owners would have looked like in life, or more accurately, in bronze -- a purposefully noble material for people who met such an ignominious end. The woman is impossibly petite with a noticeable asymmetry to her cheeks. Staring at her, you can't help but wonder what her life was like. How did people treat her? Was she happy? Through what circumstances did her cleaned bones come to be the inventory of a British company?

But Borland isn't content to show just the skulls and the bronze faces. She also documents the process with duplicate skull casts fitted with spacers to guide reconstructed flesh depth. She includes Xeroxed information about cranial sex estimation, as well as the final reconstruction molds. But the presentation feels like didactic overexplanation, like too much mileage out of one idea. What's important is the direct connection between the carcass that once contained an individual's thoughts and memories and the face of its owner.

The unsavory medico-colonial theme continues with three Set Conversion Pieces (1998), in which fetal skulls nestle in bone china pelvises -- all charmingly hand-painted with blue and white Delft-esque images of sailing ships, flowers and birds. Cast from obstetrical models, the objects show the fetal skulls arranged in various birth positions (breech, etc.). It looks like some sadistically difficult coffee table puzzle in which the nearly impossible object of the game is to pass the skull through the pelvic opening. Looking at the basic structures, it seems amazing that birth ever occurs. The surface decoration makes the pieces reminiscent of scrimshaw, or a horrific 19th-century souvenir of imperialism -- along the lines of Indian scalps or shrunken heads.

In one of her most visually striking pieces, Spirit Collection: Hippocrates (1999), Borland refers directly to the physician's ethical oath. Blown-glass globes hang from the ceiling, topped with tinfoil as if they were laboratory experiments; inside, the fragile outlines of bleached leaves float in a preservative solution. The leaves are from a tree outside Glasgow University's Department of Medical Genetics that was grown from the seeds of the supposed tree where Hippocrates taught his students. In this system, the far-flung fragments of a living thing that once sheltered Hippocrates are coolly preserved as if for further scientific study. The leaves seem to be falling to earth in hermetic spaceship environments.

Delicate networks of blown glass mimic a trachea and bronchial tubes in Bullet Proof Breath (2001). Golden threads of spider silk are wrapped around the fragile branches of glass, creating a strong and resilient network. Spider silk has a tensile strength greater than steel, and the U.S. government is researching various applications, like bulletproofing, for the material. To acquire her silk, Borland met with corporate scientists researching the arachnids (the American government wasn't as forthcoming) and watched them harvest silk. Breathing carbon dioxide into a container knocks the spider unconscious so that the silk may be extracted and gingerly wound around a spool. It's a curious, painstaking process that is far more intimate than the shearing of a sheep or the unraveling of a silkworm cocoon.

Because there are such fascinating anecdotes behind each piece, Borland's work becomes significantly more engaging if you've heard her speak about it. Her research takes her to odd places and teaches her amazing things, and these experiences seem to provide a large part of the artist's satisfaction. Her problem lies in consistently communicating that sense of discovery to the viewer in the finished pieces, which can sometimes seem less interesting than the experiences that informed them. Nevertheless, Borland has staked out some intriguing conceptual territory, and it will be interesting to see what else she mines from it.

 
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