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'LA is not for the faint hearted, it really tests you'

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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

It's not easy to define Polly Borland. Hailing originally from Melbourne, her pursuits as an artist and photographer have seen her based in cities like London and Brighton in the UK, before heading to Los Angeles, which she considers ‘a very unusual place’.

Having built a global reputation, Polly's work includes an iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, three decades of creative projects with close friend Nick Cave, and a range of artwork that takes you to unsettling, distorted places. Polly turned her lens on Los Angeles to let us in on the city's darker underbelly, her inspiration, a few favorite spots, and why she always avoids freeways.


On where you’re from

I grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and then lived in England for 23 years, in London and Brighton. 

On moving to the USA

After England, I moved to Los Angeles, where I’m living now and have been here for seven years. The UK and America are completely different planets. The culture shock was more severe for me going from the UK to USA than it was for Australia to England.

On why LA felt so alien

I think because when I was growing up in Australia, it was very Anglified. We grew up with English television programs and were more tied to the mother country. It was multicultural Australia, but it was definitely more of an English colony in a cultural sense at that time. I was culture-shocked when I first moved to the UK but it didn’t last for the length of time as it did moving to LA. Everything about America — and particularly Los Angeles — is different. Even Americans get culture shock moving to LA from other states. LA is just a very unusual place.

Top and bottom left: Morph 4 and Morph 3, 2018 by Polly Borland. Top right: Nick Cave unrecognizable in blue wig, 'Untitled', by Polly Borland. Bottom right: Monster 2017 by Polly Borland. Images courtesy the artist and Murray White Room Melbourne.

On your relationship with LA

I’d use the word ‘disorientating’ to describe my relationship with LA. Initially it was very fraught. I lived in London for 10 years, and there you basically bus or tube around; you don’t need to drive. Then I moved to Brighton, where I lived for thirteen years. As a seaside town, you can walk around Brighton in half an hour and get a bus around it in ten minutes. So the first problem for me in LA was the driving, and in particular the crazy driving; people just don’t follow the road rules. So I was just very scared on the roads. I’m used to LA driving now, and know my way around, but I still don’t drive on the freeways. People can’t believe that I don’t use the freeways, but I know my own way around. So my relationship with LA has been pretty fraught, I would say.

On smoke and mirrors

In England, even though I call England a nation of passive-aggressive people, they can handle my Australian directness. But I’ve found Americans, who you might expect would be more on the same page in that regard, are actually less straightforward than the English. It’s weird. LA can be very disorientating because there is a lot of smoke and mirrors, and things are not always as you might think. The fact that there’s no center can be quite disorientating too.

'In LA, you have to fight to define who you are. For me, on a creative level, it’s been brilliant because it’s actually pushed me further than I may have been pushed in other places.'

On the darker side of LA

There is a darker side of LA. For me, the darker side of this city is in the smoke and mirrors that I mentioned. There’s an underbelly here. There are the contradictions of LA — the city has a terrible homeless problem, right in the middle of downtown, which is spreading out into Hollywood and West Hollywood, and yet we’re in the fifth-richest economy in the world. California is even richer than a lot of countries. For me, that’s very dark. It’s really through my personal interaction with people that I’ve seen the darker side of Los Angeles. So for me, there are huge darknesses in LA. In my work today, I’m most interested in cultural and social darkness, and political darkness. 

On how LA inspires you

What I’ve found the most inspirational about LA is that you have to really decide who you are here. LA is not for the faint-hearted. It really tests you. In England, by comparison, there is this incredible creative acceptance; the sky’s the limit on a creative level, and I found there is a creative freedom in London that stems from that. Whereas in LA, not as much, because American society, as a generalisation, is far more conservative, versus England, which is the land of eccentricity. There is a conformism here, and I think you have to fight against that so as not to be swallowed up by it. You have to fight to define who you are. For me, on a creative level, it’s been brilliant because it’s actually pushed me further than I may have been pushed in other places.

Top: Her Majesty, the Queen, Elizabeth II by Polly Borland. The image was later sent to 'Fine Cell Work', to be turned into needlework by prisoners living in British jails. Bottom: 'Untitled' 2018, unique lenticular photograph. Images courtesy the artist and Murray White Room Melbourne.

On photographing Queen Elizabeth II

I’d done an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in England, and from that the Palace got to know who I was. There were loads of Australians who were working in the press office, and one of them put me forward for the project to shoot the Queen for the Golden Jubilee, because they wanted to have different types of photographers — people from the Commonwealth, new and different photographers. And that’s how I got the gig. I was known in England for my portraits, more so than my more way-out-there work at the time. 

On something only in LA

A podular city with no centre. 

‘The UK and America are completely different planets... Everything about America — and particularly Los Angeles — is different. Even Americans get culture shock moving to LA from other states.’

On where you find inspiration

MOCA, the museum in downtown LA. There’s also this really cute little museum downtown called Velveteria — a museum of black velvet paintings that is worth visiting for something different. 

On anything from Australia you need a fix of

In terms of Australia, I like to go and visit my friend Nick Cave in LA, although I think of him as more of a global character than Australian, I guess. I don’t really have that many Australian friends here actually. 

On window seat or aisle

I prefer the aisle. 

On inspiration in LA

The views and the California coast. 

On LA in one word


Top: Morph 1, 2018 by Polly Borland. Middle: Polly Borland in her studio in Los Angeles ahead of her exhibition, Polly Borland: Polyverse, at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Photograph by Shaugn and John. Bottom: The sun sets on downtown LA, by Martin Adams.


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