> Sylvia Grace Borda: Churches

Dorothy Hunter / Sylvia Grace Borda: Churches

April 2012

There is often a certain amount of trepidation behind coming to visual terms with the nature of another country. Art has never claimed to be reflective of facts and figures, yet questions of loyalty, territory and truth arise. What is “yours” to comment on? What do you know, how do you know, and what does that matter?

Having spent several years working in Northern Ireland, Sylvia Grace Borda is neither a detached bystander of the landscape, nor an embedded citizen. Working within this semi-immersion, the Vancouver-born artist’s photographic series, Churches, uproots and shapes a conceptual strand embedded in Northern Ireland’s reality.

Surveying the modernist architectural legacy of Northern Ireland’s churches, the artist compiles and condenses a previously unrecorded facet of the country’s architecture and society. Having originally set out to find terms that could underpin Northern Ireland’s definition, Borda found that the country’s ambiguities and contradictions made this an impossible endeavour[i]. Instead, Churches takes a lateral and expanded look at religion’s spatial and societal impact. There is no attempt to firmly pinpoint, and no suppositional subtext. 

It goes without saying that the photographic definition of Northern Ireland has a rich journalistic history. Being aware of the discrepancies in how the country is viewed locally and internationally, and conscious of how questioned and propagandised its media portrayal has been in the past, the artist sought to “show the divide without defining it”, drawing a diagonal line across Northern Ireland’s prescribed political fundamentals. As a result, for an audience familiar with Northern Ireland only in its media terms, these aesthetically grouped bastions of faith have a certain placidity – above all the pregnancy of these buildings in terms of faith and politics, they are marked simply by their architecture.[ii]

As a line of enquiry and representation that holds the act of observation at its crux, Borda was cautious of the work’s capacity to turn into a documentary project. Emphasis on the information of the subjects could easily obscure the work’s deeper premise, making the work more about the nature of the singular buildings than the conceptual terms behind this typology. As a result, the specific and indistinct appear to be in a finely tuned balance in Churches. Whilst conceptually dependent on their Northern Irish context, there is no information of denomination or location – in effect, the churches themselves become “spaceless”, background to the question of its stated and unstated definitions and portrayal.[iii]

The legacy of photojournalism has defined the work of Northern Irish photographers such as Donovan Wylie and Paul Seawright, shaping an aesthetic of detached observation and visual ambiguity that has become almost canonical. With their distant perspectives and heavy geometry, some of the images of Churches do carry similar formal qualities. Yet Churches operates within a different framework, focusing on creating a compilation of images rather than individual shots. “As single or individual images, if you were to look or handle them, their strength isn’t in their singularity”, Borda says. “It’s in their larger composite, or their relational experience of being one of one hundred.” Whilst Northern Irish photographic art has often played upon its inevitable reference of photojournalism, Churches internal and external relationships combine and contrast, working within and around the stated terms of its definition.

The visual variety within Churches is huge. Simple boxlike constructions contrast with vast, often oddly futuristic angular forms, which appear to be more like monuments than buildings. Whilst the modernist ethos of form following function aligns with the pragmatism of the national psyche, the overt non-traditionalism of the larger buildings is a challenging aesthetic that, in general, has sat slightly uneasily in the collective consciousness of Northern Ireland.

Yet these churches remain reflective of their community above all else, before any larger discussions of aesthetics.[iv] As architectural historian David Brett observed, the churches themselves are “almost like a folk art”,[v] and their differences demonstrate the diverse needs of the communities they serve.

This is mirrored in the act and spatial consolidation of the photography: whilst visually representing single scenes, each image of Churches became a manifestation of its surrounding area. Borda had originally set out to create a record in a similar vein to the Bechers, to centre frame and be a set number of feet away from the buildings. However, when the spatial layout of the landscape did not allow for this, the artist adopted a more flexible aesthetic when taking the images, resulting in a “potentially motley group” of photos.

Whilst embracing a more fluid approach to each image’s formal qualities, “staging” is a key component of Borda’s practice, and in Churches is most prevalent in how this collection is consolidated. Coming to the Table is composed of sixteen souvenir plates, each bearing a church and laid across a long black table in a darkened room. 

Borda avoided the more conventional photographic form of large printed images, as to do so would “emphasise the faith” of the churches above their other contexts. By instead reducing the size of these buildings, there is limited depth for reading the images individually. Focus is instead shifted to their relationship to one another, as well as the physicality of the ceramic form; for these objects “in a theoretical way, represent a fragile state.” In an effort to show the images in a non-hierarchal format, the artist has opened the record into something more interactive than the printed photograph, where images can be handled, rearranged and cross-referenced in a forum without denominations or locations. Transformed into a familiar domestic form, viewers can sit across from one another and potentially discuss the piece. 

Whilst Coming to the Table encourages a prolonged engagement with the photographs, the slideshow that accompanies it takes the opposite approach, slipping through one hundred of the collected images in a continuous rotation. “The slide loop is compositionally edited so that things move across the image plane,” Borda says. “The images constantly pass and don’t give you the privilege to stare at them too long. You almost have to watch the film loop four or five times so that you see traces of things.” Each slide is fleeting, as if the viewer is “driving by”. With no discernible beginning or end and a constantly changing locus, it’s a spliced journey. In reality, the details of the physical landscape are constantly shifting: each scene’s visual markers move at different paces, to some degree reflecting and developing a changing relationship with space and society.

Each photo marks the present’s position with the past, and so, too, will the aging of this collection shift the nature of Churches’ images. Moving from a purely conceptual record to an archival point of reference as time goes on, the photos gradually become a part of cultural affluence that they represent.[vi] Churches shall enter into the same dialogue with time as these buildings, and as such, the gap between the architecture and their representation will progressively close.

As Churches culminates, from entering the gallery space and then migrating to the archive, it steadily gains referential layers, moving away from the artist and becoming part of the wider world’s chronology. The American writer Joseph Campbell compared the process of making art to the journey of the archetypical Greek hero; yet the passage of the art itself carries its own quiet significance. As it passes a threshold, you cannot return to a project but instead use it to launch off into a different kind of territory: one reframed, and once again unfamiliar. “In this sense, you go on another mission,” says Borda. “You keep travelling, keep running from your home base. For ‘where there was darkness, now there is light; but also, where light was, there is now darkness.’ Every time you leave, it impacts you in a way you don’t anticipate.”


Sylvia Grace Borda is an artist and Research Associate at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver. She has studied Fine Arts at the University of British Columbia (MFA) and Media & Photography at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design (BFA).
Solo exhibitions include Belfast Exposed (2012), Cameras and Watercolour Sunsets, CSA Space Vancouver (2010); A Holiday in Glenrothes, Royal Institute of Architects Scotland Gallery, Edinburgh (2008); EK Modernism, CSA Space (2007); New Town Passages, EKAC Galleries, Glasgow (2006); Minimalist Portraits, SAW Art Gallery, Ottawa (2005); and Every Bus Stop in Surrey, BC Surrey Art Gallery, Canada (2005).  
Sylvia Grace Borda has received a number of public grants and awards including City of Richmond Public Art Commssion: No.4 Pump Station (2010-11), Cultural Capital of Canada Artist status award in combination with Cultural Olympiad project status for the Winter Olympics (2008-10), the Innovation Award, The Lighthouse Gallery Glasgow (2006), and the Urban Culture Award (through the Millennium Commission, Cities of Culture Liverpool) for 2005-07.

Dorothy Hunter is an art writer and artist based in Northern Ireland

[i] Sylvia Grace Borda, in conversation with the author March 19, 2012. All direct and indirect quotes from the artist drive from interviews conducted in a telephone interview on this date.

[ii] ibid

[iii] ibid

[iv] ibid

[v] David Brett in conversation with the Artist, January 19, 2012.

[vi] Sylvia Grace Borda, in conversation with the author March 19, 2012.