8 January - 30 January 2016



8 - 30 January 2016

All early infantile experience is preverbal: unformulated and instead registered and expressed physically. At one point, every individual has relied solely on touch to understand, and action to communicate. The capacity to decode experience into language is built over time - often between mother and child.

Preverbal memory, nurture and the boundaries between comfort and constraint are themes that dominate Rutie Borthwick’s recent practice. For Entrusted, Borthwick transforms the intimate space of CABIN gallery into a physical manifestation of motherhood: visitors enter the gallery into a white fabric umbilical cord; pregnant walls bloom forward, formed from soft baby-gro fabric; a globe of breasts glows purple. The silent gallery space itself encourages a kind of preverbal experience, and in the case of Entrusted is transformed by fabrics employed by Borthwick for the very intention of attracting touch.

Heightened awareness of the body in space has been an enduring focus for Borthwick: initially via an extensive series of paintings which portray wandering individuals removed from the landscape, and placed in a void. The role of the viewer is therefore to imagine and construct the context of these painted figures, all the while subconsciously weaving in their own personal histories. As Borthwick acknowledges “I realised I was more interested in putting people into the work” than presenting it, and so this series moved out of the painted plane and dramatically materialised into living, breathing, installation works during her Masters of Fine Art at The Slade.

Now, for Entrusted, her most immersive installation yet, Borthwick’s audience is entirely enveloped by vivid reminders of their most personal history: works which enact not only visual but also haptic memory through their tactile surfaces. Protruding fabric walls see the naked skin of an expectant mother’s stomach made soft and comforting, encouraging the skin-to-skin contact needed to create a close bond, perhaps between mother and child. In persuading visitors to become close, the piece recreates the common impulse to feel the pregnant belly while also drawing in those that would not usually touch, and through this challenging any notion of the female body as “other.”

Confined within the gallery space, visitors are then enwrapped by an undulating, oversized umbilical cord. Formed from the stretchy fabric used for the cuffs of school sweatshirts or perhaps mens’ jumpers, the piece prompts childhood memories, and is intended to “make people feel small and embraced”  as they are “held” within the gallery space, finding either affinity or an overly intense proximity with one another. Together with the warm tones of several glowing breasts which appear more as a knot of floral buds ready to blossom, than alluding to sexuality, this light piece transforms the entire space with a warm fleshy hum: creating an “external womb or incubator” as Borthwick describes. The impression is one of fullness; the installation consumes the viewer.

The mother, whether portrayed with reverence or resentment, is a theme that has dominated the history of art from its earliest form to the present. Perhaps the most renowned contemporary artist to explore her own maternal bond, Louise Bourgeois, portrayed the power dynamics between herself and her mother through enormous metal spider effigies, inside of which one is caged rather than held; however something of Bourgeois’ series of fleshy textile dolls is present within Entrusted. Furthermore, the physicality of Borthwick’s works remind somewhat of the practice of Sarah Lucas, although where Lucas’ works look to the anonymity and fragility of women under the male gaze, Borthwick’s work embodies fragile relationships and is the anonymous, or universal, mother.

Borthwick’s own interest in the influence of mother upon child derives from psychoanalytic research, much of which cites the earliest actions of the mother as having significant impact throughout life. John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory for example, which positions the maternal bond as directing a child’s ability to form relationships throughout life; and the ‘good breast and bad breast’ theory of Melanie Klein, which views the infant relationship to the mother’s breasts as teaching that good and bad can both be part of the same entity.

Deeply emotive and affecting, Borthwick’s work discusses and tests these theories for each individual. For some, the experience will give rise to positive nostalgia, while others may feel overwhelmed, as opposing and unique memories are spurred by a single installation which reimagines an all inclusive stage of development. As a result, each visitor inside the gallery becomes the analysed subject, yet also peering through the panes of the glass-fronted CABIN Gallery, from outside they may also become the analyst.

As Borthwick acknowledges: “as they experience the works the people in the gallery will be observed, the intimacy will become public and the nurturing element somewhat disrupted. In this way, they are ‘on show’ to passers-by outside of the gallery, and so they are like the people in my paintings.” In this way, the impact of the installation is twofold: with one interior, experiencing and one exterior, viewing audience. As this sharp and insightful duality expresses, Borthwick is an artist with humour.

Accompanying Entrusted will be a series of limited editions of painted handkerchiefs. Contained within small black boxes often reserved for precious gifts, each delicately wrapped handkerchief has been handprinted with a nipple, causing visitors to continue questioning their relationship with femininity even after leaving the gallery space.


In conversation with Rutie Borthwick