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What is Life - Christine Borland, Graham Fagen, Simon Starling

12 July - 31 August 2008

The Plant Exhibition Hall

What is Life

Simon Starling. Photo courtesy of Jason Schmidt © 2008  

This exhibition of new and recent sculpture by three of Scotland's leading contemporary artists, all collaborated with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and created works of art connected with the Garden's plant collections and scientific study.

The title of the exhibition referred to the writing of the Nobel laureate Erwin Schroedinger (1887-1961), which proved to be one of the spurs for the development of molecular biology and the subsequent discovery of DNA. Schroedinger alluded to the fact that even when all scientific questions have been answered, the mysteries of life remain unsolved, and the Garden's work has for many years, embraced art as well as science and horticulture.

Simon Starling

Strip Canoe (African Walnut)/Work in Progress, 2007-2008. Wooden canoe, mannequins.

In 1909, Herbert Lang and James Chapin were sent by the American Museum of Natural History on the first biological survey of the largely unexplored North Eastern Congo, gathering samples of plants and animals and taking thousands of photographs - including some of the Okapi, an almost mystical relative of the Giraffe which had been discovered only ten years earlier. This project by Simon Starling replicated a traditional North American strip canoe (built from the 1880s and originally based upon the Native American Birch Bark canoe).

In Starling's sculpture, the use of African Walnut (Lovoa klaineana) in its manufacture and its striped appearance alluded to the jungle camouflage of the Okapi; the canoe (built by Simon Hopkins in Glasgow), was a hybrid object: part African, part American, part working canoe, part refined sculptural form, part pantomime costume.

Simon Starling was born in 1967 in Epsom, Surrey and he won the Turner Prize in 2005 when he exhibited ‘Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2). His solo exhibtions include ‘Le Jardin Suspendu', The Modern Institute, Glasgow (1998); ‘Secession', Vienna (2001); ‘FLAGA (1972-2002)' Franco Nero, Turin (2002) and ‘Tabernas Desert Run', The Modern Institute (2004). This latter exhibition featured a bicycle fuelled by hydrogen and oxygen that Starling rode 66 kilometres across Spain's Tabernas Desert. The only waste product of this journey was waster which he then used to paint a watercolour drawing of a cactus which he had seen on the trip; this can be seen in the collection of the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. He currently lives and works in Copenhagen.

Christine Borland

To be Sett and Sown (Indoor version), 2008, Birch Plywood, leather and porcelain.

In 2003, Chrisine Borland was invited to take part in an artist's commission to celebrate the 550th anniversary of the founding of Glasgow University. During her researches, guided by the botanist Professor Jim Dickson, she became fascinated by a planting list for the creation of a physic garden, in a pocket book copy of Leonhart Fuch's ‘De Historia Stirpum Commentari Insignes' (Significant notes on the History of Plants), 1542 - perhaps the earliest scientific botanical account, belonging to the University's Special Collections Department. The list (written on the fly leaf) was of plants used for medicinal purposes and although the exact significance of the list is unknown, many of the plants are thought to relate to their use in pregnancy and childbirth. The work on display here was an indoor version of an outdoor sculpture commissioned by the University of Glasgow (where it can still be viewed at the Hunterian Museum); realised for the first time. The work on display referred to the beds used for dissection in mediaeval times and each of the porcelain headrests carried a depiction and the plant name. The plants as described were: Sabina, Sisarum sativum magnum, Pulegium, Satureia, Peucedanus, Adiantum, Oenathe, Aristolochia rotunda, Caltha and Chamamaelum.

Christine Borland was born in Darvel, Ayrshire in 1965 and studied sculpture at Glasgow School of Art, before completing a Masters degree at the University of Ulster in Belfast. She received a Scottish Arts Council Bursary in 1992 and the DAAD scholarship to Berlin in 1996. Her major exhibitions have included ‘From Life', Tramway, Glasgow (1994); ‘Christine Borland', Lisson Gallery, London (1997); ‘Hoxa Sound - The Constant Moment', a site-specific project in Orkney (2001); ‘An Hospital', Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute, ‘Selected Preserves', Galerie Toni Tapies, Barcelona (2006) and ‘Christine Borland' at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2006).

In 1997 she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. She lives and works in Scotland.

Graham Fagen

War/Garden (after Tubby), 2007. Neon and acrylic.

This work was conceived whilst Fagen was making a commission for FRAC Nord for the Talbot Museum in Poperinge, Belgium. British soldiers used Talbot House as a place for respite during the First World War. The person in charge of the House was an Australian soldier called Tubby Clayton. He placed signs and noticed around the House to try and instruct good behaviour and respect; such as ‘no swearing allowed' and, ‘if you spit at home, spit here'. One of the notices which particularly struck Fagen was ‘come into the garden and forget about the war'. At the time Fagen was planning an exhibition in Berlin and he decided to reproduce this phrase (using his own handwriting) in Neon, and in any language. The original German version ‘Komm in den Garten und Vergiss den Kreig' became the English one on display here, after his return to Scotland.

Graham Fagen was born in Glasgow in 1966, he studied sculpture at Glasgow School of Art and completed an interdisciplinary Masters degree at the Kent institute of Art and Design. His exhibitions and projects have included; ‘Graham Fagen at The Botanics' and ‘Subversive on the Side of a Lunatic', The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds (1999); ‘Theatre', The Imperial War Museum (2002); ‘The Forest and the Forester' (after Masterlinck), Grizedale Arts (2002, with residency); ‘Two Pocket Parks, Tree Planting and Where the Heart Is', the Centre and Royston Road Company (1999-2002); ‘Commission to Kosovo', Imperial War Museum (2001-2002); ‘downpresser', The Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow. He lives and works in Glasgow.

With thanks to the artists and: The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Simon Hopkins and Sophie Macpherson (Scott Associates, Glasgow); Ross Sinclair, Steff Norwood, Mungo Campbell and The Lisson Gallery, London; Sussanah Beaumont and Doggerfisher, Edinburgh.

installation view

Installation view: "What is Life", the Plant Exhibition Hall, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2008.

All work courtesy of the artist and Doggerfisher, Edinburgh; The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd., Glasgow and The Lisson Gallery London.

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