A MUSEUM archive is a strange and evocative place, full of powerful memories and tangible links to the lives of others.

When it houses a collection of artefacts connected to war, the poignancy seems even stronger.

Scottish artist Christine Borland spent a year in residence at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, researching the city’s World War One collection, before undertaking an intensive period of experimental making in her Argyllshire studio.

The result is I Say Nothing, a thought-provoking artwork which invites critical reflection on both the First World War and the world of museum collecting and care.

The large-scale sculpture, co-commissioned with 14-18 NOW, the UK's arts programme for the First World War centenary, and made possible through the support of the Art Fund, was unveiled at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum yesterday.

“I love archives,” admits Borland, an internationally renowned artist and Turner Prize nominee, who divides her time between Scotland and Newcastle, where she is a professor in fine art at the University of Northumbria.

“The objects are so potent – particularly with this collection, when you consider the timeframe being referred to. And then there is this layer of care and conservation, the storing and unwrapping of an object in front of you; the ethical debate surrounding the whole notion of conservation, of ‘doing no harm’. These are all themes which really resonated with me.”

She adds: “Having the chance to work in the conservator’s studio, experiencing materials used in the care process was very powerful. Walking through this place, seeing ghostly objects draped in this unusual, translucent material influenced the final form of the work.”

In fact, the sculpture is draped in glassine, a protective film used in museum preservation.

“I liked the duality of it, the idea that it obscures what lies behind, but in certain kinds of light, allows the viewer to see right through it,” she adds.

Duality is a recurring theme in I Say Nothing, which confronts the dichotomy of institutional care and brutality by focusing on the historical use of invalid feeder cups.

Using the little-known 19th century technique of photo-sculpture, Borland worked with models to document two poses representing the diametrically opposed ways in which the feeder cup was employed – to nurse wounded soldiers during World War One, and to force-feed hunger-striking suffragettes in the years running up to 1914.

As part of the commission, Borland travelled to Flanders, where bomb disposal squads still make safe First World War munitions.

There the Open Museum invalid feeder cup was exploded in a controlled detonation. The fragments form part of the artwork. Transformed, these pieces make a profound statement about meaning, memorialisation and loss.

“The feeder cup was in a box of objects which goes out to schools for World War One projects, and I liked the fact I could take it out and touch it, I didn’t need gloves on,” says Borland. “The duality was striking – photographs of nurses holding soldiers’ heads as they used it to feed them really tugged on the heart.

“But in the course of my research, I discovered letters from a Glasgow suffragette to her sister. They had both been imprisoned in Holloway in 1912, and they were being given the choice of how they wanted to be force fed. This woman was explaining she had chosen the feeding cup, and she was urging her sister to do the same. It was a horrific image. It really brought home the power of this wee object – and spoke of the complexities behind many aspects of the war and institutional care.”

Borland says she was fascinated by the active bomb disposal work continuing in Flanders.

“For us, World War One seems far away, but in Belgium it still has a very strong legacy,” she explains. “Many millions of people buried there, polluted land … the effects continue. Hundreds of munitions are dug up during harvest season, a time normally associated with bounty and goodness, given the nickname ‘the iron harvest’."

Borland has since donated two similar invalid feeder cups to Glasgow Museums, one becoming part of the First World War handling kit and the other entering the collection as an accessioned object.

While the simple, white ceramic cup held particular fascination for Borland, becoming the lynchpin for the artwork, she focussed on a further 12 objects from Glasgow Museums’ collection for an accompanying publication, also called I Say Nothing. (The public can arrange to see these objects by appointment at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre.)

“I had the luxury of time, so I didn’t start with too narrow a remit, and let things jump out at me – objects with perhaps a hidden story, something I could bring out,” says Borland.

She was struck, she says, by “the weirdness of mules’ hooves” and a moss ambulance pillow with particular relevance to Glasgow.

“The mules’ hooves were intriguing, mainly because there were only three, and they didn’t all come from the same animal,” she says.

“The exact provenance of many of these objects will never be known, of course, but I discovered that these had been brought together really through an accident of labelling. Mules were used on the front because they were hardier than horses. If your mule died, you could claim compensation if you provided proof – so many cut off the hooves.”

She adds: “The pillow was intriguing. Sphagnum moss was used during the war because of its antiseptic and healing properties. Women and children and conscientious objectors were sent out to gather it and it was taken to repositories in the cities, to be dried out and packaged up and sent to the front. Supplies of absorbent materials like cotton wool, for example, would have been running low.”

In Glasgow, reveals Borland, the Mack – Glasgow School of Art’s famous Mackintosh building, recently destroyed in a fire – was a repository for sphagnum moss.

Other objects which fascinated the artist – ID tags from German soldiers, removed from the battlefield; a wooden head-rest, brought back from east Africa; and a number of prosthetics, all chime, she says, with the recurring theme of loss and absence. A further object gave the exhibition its title.

“I was fascinated by a series of boxes containing charms collected from soldiers who took them into battle,” she explains.

“Some of them had religious connotations, others were harder to fathom – pieces of bog oak, a sheep bone, the kinds of objects people treasure and you don’t know why.

“They were kept in a series of beautiful hand-crafted boxes with written descriptions of the objects.

“But when I opened one, called I Say Nothing, which was supposed to be a Chinese soapstone monkey, it was empty. All the boxes were empty and that seemed to me a double poignancy. Those treasured objects, from soldiers in the war, had ended up missing.”

As a result of Borland’s project, she is hopeful the objects may be found.

“I moved away from those objects, but the title remained,” she says. “I am fascinated by absence. At its basic level, it means the viewer can insert his or her own information, or story. Gaps and spaces mean readings can remain open-ended.

“People can bring their own ideas, build up their own narrative. That, for me, is what art is all about.”

I Say Nothing is on display on the south balcony at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum from today.

A further World War I commission by Christine Borland, To The Power of Twelve, is currently on display in Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute until November 18, with an accompanying publication.

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