Magdalena Bors: Household Magic

© Magdalena Bors ‘Jungle’ 2010 [detail] from the series ‘The Seventh Day’

Deep meaning often lies in childish play

Friedrich Schiller


Magdalena Bors’ fantastical staged photographs suggest a domestic magic brought into being by longing, obsession or childlike exuberance. In her first series, ‘Homelands’, fairy-tale scenes grow from the mundane materials and bric-a-brac of everyday domesticity. Wool winds its way into an Arcadian landscape secreted below the coffee table; spilled sugar lumps rise up from the kitchen floor to form an enchanted castle. Each image suggests that something magical is very close by, but remaining just beyond our sight.

If ‘Homelands’ engages our wish for something magical beyond the humdrum of daily life, Magdalena Bors’ second series, ‘The Seventh Day’ turns more squarely to explore the entanglement of creation and obsession. In each, an iconic landscape has been recreated in an unlikely form and location. Jigsaw puzzles coalesce into a vivid coral reef; dirty washing writhes into life, turning a domestic laundry into a tropical jungle. In this series, the figure in the photograph is clearly the creator of the bizarre scene and fully conscious of what they have made, but their expression suggests they cannot now understand what drove them to do it.

The 18th-century German philosopher Friedrich von Schiller suggested that play was a fundamental psychological drive that effectively forms a bridge between the rational and the sensual. But for the figures who now regard their handiwork with such perplexity, the process of compulsive play has not lead to the clarity of reason or even the catharsis of sensual release. Perhaps that will come in time; or perhaps such insights are the province of children.

In the third series, ‘Laneways’, two children discover a magic world just outside the back-garden gate: a place for exploring and imagining, a place of youthful wonder, unalloyed. Yet the snow, puddles and meadow flowers suggest the damper climate of northern Europe. Magdalena Bors was born in Antwerp, Belgium, of Polish parents and many of the landscapes in these photographs take a wistful glance back to the Old World. The sugar-cube castle and woolly coniferous woodland speak strongly of a western European landscape and sensibility; of stories carried across the oceans and retold to keep the memory of the homeland alive in the imagination. Each picture creates something new from the warp of tradition and weft of domesticity to speak imaginatively about the inner experience of being. An experience that yearns for something beyond the here and now; something more than a world constrained to what we simply see and comprehend … something playful yet elusive.

Alasdair Foster

© Magdalena Bors ‘Woodland Scene’ 2006 from the series ‘Homelands’


What brought you to photography?

My father was an artist and a photographer, so photography has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. He died when I was seven years old, but when I think of him, it is always with a camera around his neck. As a teenager, I inherited my father’s Nikon SLR, and from then on, this medium has been woven into almost everything I do.

I studied architecture at university. I was obsessed with detailed photographic documentation of potential project sites, from the textures and physical materials, to capturing the way the light at a given location changed throughout the day. I also made detailed models of my projects, which I then meticulously photographed. In fact, photography became such a focus of my architectural study that one of my lecturers suggested I was perhaps studying the wrong subject. After a couple of years working in architecture I retrained in photography, eventually completing a Bachelor of Arts at RMIT University in Melbourne.

How did the ‘Homelands’ series begin?

I was photographing my final-year folio at university. The subject was landscape but, halfway through the year, I hit a bit of a creative block. It was winter in Melbourne, I didn’t have a car to get out and about in, and I was generally feeling uninspired. I had also been looking at the work of the German romantic painters, as well as reminiscing about the European landscapes of my childhood, which made me increasingly frustrated about not having access to the type of landscapes that I so desperately wanted to photograph.

I have various recollections of this story now, but legend goes that I was knitting a scarf one evening, and just kept going… and ‘Woodland Scene’ magically came to being. [laughs]

Who is the woman in black?

That’s me. But the role I am playing is representative of many women; of their daydreams, loneliness, yearnings, fantasies of escape to a different world. These are images of escapism, imagination and desire, born out of moments of distraction performing the most mundane tasks.

© Magdalena Bors ‘Castle on the Hill’ 2007 from the series ‘Homelands’

How did you go about making an image like ‘Castle on the Hill’?

I had the initial idea of building a fairy-tale castle, and immediately thought of sugar cubes as the building blocks. I worked up the idea and sketched out the visual concept. As this was the third image in the series, decisions such as the position of the woman and the colour palette of the scene were by then becoming defined through consideration of how the series would work as a whole.

Like the other images in ‘Homelands’, ‘Castle on the Hill’ was constructed in my home. The scene was set up in my study. I covered half of the floor with linoleum patterned with large tiles. The hills were constructed using a wireframe base covered with papier-mâché, then painted in PVA glue and covered in sugar. It was even messier than it sounds! The castle was constructed out of sugar cubes, and the spires were made from cardboard cones with rock salt glued to them.

When it came to making the shot, there was a lot of back and forth between the camera and installation to get the arrangement and perspective just right.

Given all the work that goes into building each set, why do you only make one image of each construction?

I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity. You have to see past the craftsmanship – the elaborate process of making – and embrace the image on its own terms. Even though there is a lot of work in each set-up, if the final image is not the way I want it, I do not show any images of that construction.

In ‘Homelands’ the fairy-tale scenes are apparently springing into being unbeknown to the woman in the black dress. But in your next series, each figure is the creator of the scene they inhabit. Can you talk about this shift of emphasis and what you wanted to explore in the ‘The Seventh Day’?

I guess I had a desire to remove myself (and, by association, the viewer) from within the images, shifting to a third-person perspective and introducing a wider reaching narrative about obsession and compulsion. I developed the characters for these images much how I would imagine an author developing characters for a novel. They are all quite different, but share a common desire to be connected to the majesty of the natural world, and a frustration for not being able attain this connection in their daily lives.

© Magdalena Bors ‘Reef’ 2010 from the series ‘The Seventh Day’

Why is this series called ‘The Seventh Day’?

It’s a reference to the Judeo-Christian creation myth that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Here each character is resting and reflecting, having completed a mammoth task.

Do you think that obsession and creativity are related in some way? Is one an inevitable result of the other?

Undoubtedly the two are related, but obsession can manifest itself in such a negative, destructive way, that I wouldn’t connect them inextricably. This is perhaps something that I was hoping to depict in ‘The Seventh Day’. As well as beauty, there is a pointlessness and melancholy to the creations, and an evident isolation felt by their creators. Perhaps creativity is more useful when it is not associated with obsession. I listened to a podcast recently which talked about the habit of ‘daily creative practice’, as opposed to intense bursts of creativity followed periods of non-creativity. The suggestion in the podcast was that the latter could ultimately lead to creative block when the artist returned to their practice. I guess it’s something I’m currently aiming for in my own life: a more measured, less obsessive version of creativity. Not a watered-down version though, just more considered and less emotionally taxing.

© Magdalena Bors ‘Bungle Bungles’ 2010 from the series ‘The Seventh Day’

One image features the Bungle Bungles, a range of beehive-shaped hills in the Purnululu National Park in Western Australia, which have a red and orange striped appearance due to the layering of sedimentary rock and pebble. How were these sculptures made?

I crocheted the Bungle Bungles myself. They are completely free form; I’ve never followed a crochet or knitting pattern in my life! For me, the physical making of the sets is an important part of the creative process. I don’t think I would have been so heavily invested in the detail and design of these images if I had outsourced the making. It was important for me to immerse myself in the mindset of the character depicted in each image.

When you showed your work in Aarhus, Denmark, you ran a workshop for children at the museum.

That’s right, the workshop was part of Grandparents and Grandchildren Day at the museum and ran in conjunction with an exhibition I was presenting in the city. The theme of the event was turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and our blank canvas was a generic child’s bedroom set up in one of the museum galleries. Taking this as the setting, we asked the children to make paper flowers and origami cranes and then install them in the space.

Knowing there would be a language barrier, I had prepared printed instructions on how to make the flowers and cranes. Interestingly, the older children generally made the paper cranes and followed my instructions to the letter. However, the younger kids, working with their grandparents, abandoned the instructions and invented their own flowers, with some beautiful results. It was wonderful to see the kids interacting with the environment they had helped to create as the bedroom setting was transformed into a field of flowers with a flock of cranes flying overhead.

© Magdalena Bors ‘Apostles’ 2011 from the series ‘The Seventh Day’

Do you think children are naturally creative or is it something that must be learned?

I think we are all born with a natural aptitude for creativity. It is something that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Sadly, there is a general trend in our western education system to begin formal education at an earlier age, and I think this tends to stifle creativity. There are exceptions, of course, most notably the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland. I think an over-emphasis on formal learning is a real problem, because creative thought is essential, not just in the arts, but in any field requiring innovation, or any situation in everyday life that will benefit from a creative solution.

In your most recent series you have created installations in the laneways of Melbourne. First can you explain what a ‘laneway’ is?

In the Melbourne municipality where I live, there are over fifty kilometres of laneway providing access to the rear of properties. Built in the 1850s, their original purpose was to provide access for services such as the delivery of coal and the emptying of sewerage tanks. The laneways are a mixture of concrete, grass, but predominantly bluestone [basalt].

These images move outside of the house, but maintain their link to the family and the domestic. Can you talk about the ideas that inspired this work?

I find the laneways endlessly fascinating. They are a strange realm, halfway between private and public. These days, they are rarely used and the environments in the lanes bear little in common with the houses that connect to them. A beautifully maintained house can sit in front of the most ramshackle laneway. Rather than connecting spaces, they mark out a divide between neighbours, and, as I discovered during the making of the work, any activity in the laneway is viewed with suspicion.

Who are the children in these images?

These are my own children, two boys, who were two and six years old at the time. I did not allow the boys to see the sets I was constructing until they were finished and ready to shoot. I wanted to capture their initial reactions and interactions.

How did they respond?

Their responses varied depending on the setting I had created. The boys really loved the snow scene because they were allowed to throw the artificial snow around. However, I think that the butterfly scene had the biggest initial wow factor.

As an example of how these images were planned and executed, could you tell me about the making of ‘Mirage’?

The image was inspired by the puddles that collect among the laneway cobblestones and the way that, on a still day, they reflect the sky perfectly. Jumping in muddy puddles is a childhood rite of passage… [laughs]… yet my eldest son, who had been born during a drought in 2008, didn’t experience significant rainfall until around the age of three. That is what inspired me to create this scene.

I waited for a rainy day and went looking for an aesthetically pleasing collection of puddles, which I photographed from directly overhead. The puddle shapes were then turned into vector graphics and sent to a specialist manufacturer to cut perfect puddle shapes out of mirror. Once the real puddles had dried, I fitted the mirrors into the corresponding indentations in the cobblestone lane. Then I invited the boys to come out and play.

© Magdalena Bors ‘Autumn’ 2011 from the series ‘The Seventh Day’

How have these series been received by the public?

I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to my work; it’s been really humbling. I’ve been surprised by the diversity of people the work appeals to, young and old, from all corners of the world. Perhaps a little frustratingly, there are often a lot of questions about how the images were constructed, but I hope that people are able to see something beyond the craftsmanship of the setting… to let their imagination take them into the fantasy spaces… to play.

What have you learned through making this work that you did not understand before?

Gosh, that is a tough one! I think the most significant thing I’ve learnt is that, as an artist and mother of young kids, it is very difficult to work in isolation. I suspect that the idea of working by myself at home appealed to me initially because I wasn’t very good at hearing criticism… But it is incredibly valuable to receive feedback and bounce ideas off other people. I now understand the value allowing oneself to be vulnerable; openly receiving feedback and discussing ideas in the hope of making better, more resolved work.

Magdalena Bors Constructing the set for ‘Castle on the Hill’

Biographical Notes

Magdalena Bors was born in Antwerp in 1976, emigrating to Australia in 1981. She has a Bachelor of Arts in photography from RMIT University, Melbourne (2006). She has exhibited across Australia and also in Denmark, France, Poland, Spain and USA. Her work is held in a number of public and private collections including Murray Art Museum Albury (Australia) and Galleri Image (Denmark). In 2007, she won the Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize for Best Staged or Directorial Photo-Media Work. In 2009, she was awarded an emerging artist grant and, in 2013, a mid-career artist grant, both from Australia Council for the Arts. Her work featured in Simon Gregg’s ‘New Romantics: Darkness and Light in Australian Art’ [Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011] and her monograph ‘The Art of Domestic Compulsion’ was published by Galleri Image, Denmark, in 2013. She lives and works in Melbourne.

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the May 2017 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.