The Quickening by Christine Borland

Essay by Gill Headley

In 1998, I was Director of the Contemporary Art Society in London and had the good fortune to have the curator Robert Hopper as one of my Board Members. Amongst other major roles, he was the inaugural director of the Henry Moore Trust (now known as the Henry Moore Foundation). He had been approached by Guy Wilson, Director of the new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, who wanted to commission an outdoor sculpture. Hopper persuaded him to be ambitious and to approach the  Contemporary Art Society for advice.

Wilson was no stranger to major cultural projects and had already commissioned The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace by composer Karl Jenkins for the Millennium celebrations in 2000. It was performed in the Royal Albert Hall to mark the Royal Armouries Museum’s  recent move from London to Leeds and was dedicated to victims of the Kosovo crisis. My colleague Mary Doyle and I went to Leeds to discuss ideas with Wilson and his colleague Vaughan Allen. We agreed on a programme of commissions for the permanent collection which eventually became the heart of a touring exhibition Warning Shots! in 2000.

In March 1996, 17 people, 16 of whom were children, were killed in a massacre at a primary school in Dunblane, about 30 miles from Glasgow.  Two days after the tragedy, the Queen opened the new Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. In June of the same year, an amnesty for handguns was announced and more than 160,000 were given up from which the Royal Armouries was allowed to select examples for its national collections of arms and armour which includes artillery, and the National Firearms Centre.

For the commission we invited a proposal from the Scottish artist Christine Borland that was submitted shortly before the birth of her first child. Christine chose to examine – in her unique mixture of dispassionate forensics and the deeply visceral and personal –  links between life and death, protection and violence, the feminine and the masculine.

The finished work, selected unanimously was a sound and visual installation. Guns from the museum’s collection were displayed in cases alongside anatomical models displaying the different stages of childbirth. The space was dark and close, womb-like almost. Images of Christine, heavily pregnant and complete with ear-protectors, show her raising a handgun to firing position. The  soundtrack comprised  a foetal heartbeat, strong and steady then interrupted with bursts of gunfire (recorded from a selection of the amnesty guns). The steady pace of the heart is replaced by one of racing speed, which then settles; and the cycle begins again.

Glasgow Print Studio produced a portfolio called Habitat which includes a screen-print version of the project in which Christine, like an image from a Rorschach test for emotional functionality, appears on the left and right; is this  a mirror image or is she firing at someone?

The print in the New Hall Collection is entitled The Quickening with the original installation being called The Quickening, The Lightening, The Crowning. The term ‘quickening’ refers to the increase in the foetal heartbeat but also to life itself hence the phrase ‘the quick and the dead’. It also means the first fluttering ‘in utero’ movements. The lightening stage in pregnancy is the moment when the baby engages downwards with the pelvis, leaving the ribcage, allowing the mother some temporary relief. Crowning is the second stage of labour when the top of the head begins to appear from the birth canal. The work speaks of the fragility of life and how often our lives can be held in the hands of others.

Gill Hedley is an Independent Curator and External Advisor to the New Hall Art Collection.

October 2020