How is love pictured, written, defined? Much of our anxieties about love and its discontents, at least in my view, stem from the fact that it renders us utterly abject, powerless, hysterical and mute. Love’s great legacy is its abiding melancholia: the manner in which it keeps us imprisoned in a holding cell where desire and pity circulate in a tightly entwined dance. Love chews us up and spits us out. We long for love, forever blind to its contempt.
‘To try to write love,’ says Roland Barthes, ‘is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotive submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).’
As much as I know this about love, I don’t know love at all. And so I fall in and out of love most days – knowing that it’s really just the idea of love, the language we use to describe and give shape to it that fills me up, empties me out and holds me forever in its thrall.
This spirit of excess and impoverishment is at the heart of Polly Borland’s pictorial language of love. ‘Much of my work is about love,’ she once said. Looking at her 2010 series Smudge you can see how this is true. It is there in the title. Borland angles her lens at a coterie of characters whose identities are smudged, smeared, streaked, smoked and smouldering. They are fantastical creatures writ large and excessive, all dressed up and ready to fall in love. But they are sad sacks that linger for affirmation and intimacy beneath the heat of the photographer’s studio lights. You can see that Borland loves her characters and we can see that they try to love her back. But, try as they might, they are the love’s collateral damage and are doomed to forever approximate an idea of love that is stained by disappointment.
Borland’s models wear beige and pink body stockings, lurid nylon skins and fright wigs. They are embellished with various prosthetic devices and fancy-dress costuming: a fake six pack here, a jokey titty rack there. Animal and Santa suits are repurposed into plushy anthropomorphics; ping-pong balls become bulbous bodily tumours. Make-up is smeared on their heads, evoking a cartoonish blur of faciality, while others have hirsute fur heads with dangling, dildo-like growths.
Borland is a respected portraitist who has shot everyone from the Queen to Kylie. In Smudge the portrait is a blank slate (or blank state) where anonymity is fashioned into being. It is not important that beneath the garb are people of note – musician Nick Cave, photographer Mark Vessey and fashion designer Sherald Lambden, if you must know. What is important is who or what they become, how they reveal as much as they conceal. It is this very sense of transformation, of what is made possible through a combination of romanticised affect and erotic disaffection that brings them to life. Borland’s constructions are not quite human, not quite doll or toy – unfinished and lacking on the one hand, hemmed in and sewn up on the other. The flesh of the body is poured into nylons and stockings like furniture stuffing, rendering Borland’s characters as impenetrable as they are fucked.
In her earlier series The babies 2001 a fetish community of ‘adult babies’ are infantilised through kiddie dress-ups. As compassionate as Borland’s gaze tends to be, the documentary matter-of-factness of The babies is dispensed with in Smudge. Here the portraits achieve a stylised precision that belies their soft centre. And soft they are: the temptation to caress and pet these creatures is set in motion by their anthropomorphism. Whereas The babies sexualises the innocence of childhood through baby masquerades, Smudge evokes a parallel realm of eroticised innocence, albeit through an implied ‘plushophilia’ (which broadly refers to a form of paraphilia involving stuffed animals). By linking sex and toys (some appendages read as sex toys), their innocence is defiled and strangely regenerated. It is innocence with a hard-on.
- Roland Barthes, A lover’s discourse: fragments, Richard Howard (trans), Penguin Books, London, 1990 (first published 1977), p. 99
- Rob Sharp, ‘Flights of fancy dress: Polly Borland’s portraits marry the infantile and the fetishistic’, The Independent, Thursday 17 March 2011
Catalogue essay for We Used to Talk About Love at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, 31 January – 21 April 2013.
Published by Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2013.