‘Churches’ is an exhibition by Canadian photographic artist Sylvia Grace Borda. What is usually an open plan exhibition space has been radically altered to accommodate this show, transformed literally into a foyer and a large black box. Even the ceiling has been lowered and covered with large black tiles. A slightly claustrophobic atmosphere prevails. In the foyer a glass-covered display table houses ceramic ware loaned from official government collections as well as antique shops – a kind of political memorabilia, which also represents the kitsch tourist souvenir one might have carried home 50 years ago to hang on the wall. There is also a table with books, provided by Borda, which have influenced her practice or relate to the subject matter.
A walk along a short corridor leads into the black box, where the main works are situated. The first, entitled Churches, is a video featuring 100 images of churches across Northern Ireland, which is projected onto the back wall of the space. The second is a beautifully executed installation, Coming to the Table. It comprises a long, boardroom-type table, covered in black fabric, with three black pendant lights hanging low over it, creating three pools of light on the black cloth. On this table are 16 ceramic plates, photo-printed with images from the projection. Although there are seats, and the audience is clearly able to handle the work (and has, I’m assured, moved the plates around themselves) I feel somewhat alienated. There is a sombre presence to the work, a feeling that these seats are already taken, that I am excluded from whatever discussions might take place here. The projection, however, draws me in immediately. These unnamed mid twentieth-century churches are displayed very formally in circles, echoing the plates on the table; they are surrounded by black and devoid of people. I find myself looking for clues in the closely framed images. Every so often, the denomination or some details about the community become clear – through a small sign or bold lettering across a church door. There is a really fascinating array of shapes and sizes, some incredibly ugly and plain, others quite interesting architecturally.
Borda has made it very clear that she is framing this work from the point of view of an outsider, but not that of a tourist. In an insightful essay by Robin Laurence, which accompanies the exhibition, he states that she works “not from a documentary impulse but from a conceptual one”.1 There is no doubt that many historical and social contexts are referenced in these works alongside references to many previous photographers including Eugene Atget, Walker Evans and Bernd, and Hilla Becher. The word ‘church’ refers not only to the buildings, but to the institutions and their clergy, as well as to the service itself. Borda appears to be interested in the aims of Modernist architecture, especially in relation to churches, where design was reduced to function and form.2 Most were ambivalent and ambiguous in terms of denomination. The churches shown come from this Modernist tradition, and demonstrate a stripping back of materials and ornamentation. In the context of Northern Ireland’s recent history this is especially interesting. Focusing on churches from unspecified denominations, for tourists to collect, points at Northern Ireland’s growing tourist industry since the Troubles ended, while the table metaphorically refers to the peace process. Northern Ireland’s ceramic production industry is also represented in the display cabinet and referenced in Coming to the Table. What is also worthy of note is that these churches are all closed, they appear inaccessible, unpopulated, and inward looking. This juxtaposition is an area Borda exploits.
In this ‘Churches’ project, which Borda began in 2009 and worked on for two years, she attempts to explore what churches represent and perhaps to understand a situation that she herself had no innate knowledge of. Some of the references are a bit literal, but she has been successful in identifying the perfect vehicle for this exploration and displaying it beautifully. Borda has uncovered a much-overlooked area of Northern Irish culture, as well as cleverly turning some traditions on their head. It is difficult not to bring a certain amount of baggage to our reading of this work, but that, perhaps, is why Borda’s perspective is so valuable. The circular lens of her camera simultaneously invokes both distance and focus.
is an artist and writer. She is Associate Editor at JAR (Journal of Artistic Research) and teaches at IADT, Dublin.
1. Robin Laurence, Silvia Grace Borda: Erasing the Divide, pamphlet accompanying the exhibition at belfast Exposed 2. Many of the churches shown were built by Liam McCormick, born in Derry, who was widely regarded in the second half of the twentieth century as the ‘father of modern church architecture in Ireland.’ See the Irish Architectural Archive: http://www.iarc.ie/exhibitions/0010.html