AN EN­TAN­GLED MAT­TER

We ex­am­ine the hold of the art of weav­ing and em­broi­dery on the imag­i­na­tion of this gen­er­a­tion of artists

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents - STORY CHRISTIE LEE

There were many In­sta­gram­wor­thy ex­hibits at the Venice Bi­en­nale 2017, but none was as com­pelling as Sheila Hicks’ Es­calade Be­yond Chro­matic

Scale (2017), a glee­ful wall of wool balls that in­vited the soul to ad­ven­ture. If con­tem­po­rary art shows are of­ten ac­cused of be­ing self-in­dul­gent in art speak, then Es­calade, with its brightly-hued strands pulling one’s senses from its dor­mant state, would pro­vide some re­lief.

Hicks has had a long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer. In the 50s, she stud­ied paint­ing un­der Josef Al­bers, but found her call­ing in tex­tile arts soon af­ter. She opened nu­mer­ous tex­tile work­shops in Mex­ico and South Africa, and weaved ta­pes­tries for Ford and Fuji. Re­cently, there has been a re­vival of in­ter­est in her works. Since 2011, she has ex­hib­ited at the Palais de Tokyo, ICA, Whit­ney Bi­en­nial, Hayward Project Space, Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou and ICA, Philadel­phia, amongst oth­ers.

Es­calade wasn’t the only tex­tile art piece at the show. In fact, the Bi­en­nale, ti­tled Vive de Arte, was chock-a-block of needle­work and em­broi­dery pieces. An an­tithe­sis to Hicks’ ex­plo­sive wall, Lee Ming­wei’s The Mend­ing Project (2009-present) in­vites view­ers to con­trib­ute a piece of cloth­ing that needed mend­ing, while David Medella’s A Stitch in Time (1968) was a re­vival of an ear­lier work that asked passers-by to stitch a piece of cloth con­tain­ing a mem­ory or ex­pe­ri­ence into a piece of cloth.

Tex­tile art has en­joyed a re­nais­sance of late - one that be­gan in the 60s and 70s, when artists like Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro, who used the ma­te­rial to chal­lenge male­cen­tric art in­sti­tu­tions. While it has never com­manded press head­lines in the same way as paint­ings or sculp­tures, the last few years have seen an ex­plo­sion of tex­tile art ex­hi­bi­tions, and one would be hard-pressed to go to an art fair with­out see­ing at least one ta­pes­try or em­broi­dery piece.

“Tex­tiles aren’t very col­lectible,” says Jes­sica Hem­mings, Bri­tish cu­ra­tor, writer and tex­tile art ex­pert. “I have a sus­pi­cion that some of it has to do with the anx­i­ety that tex­tiles don’t last. But the re­al­ity is still that it is very de­pen­dent on which part of the world we are talk­ing about. I’m based in Swe­den, and I think North­ern Euro­peans are com­fort­able with col­lect­ing craft.”

Long con­sid­ered ‘craft’ rather than ‘art’, there is also the dif­fi­culty of defin­ing what tex­tile art means.

“As a cu­ra­tor, I have avoided giv­ing a fixed def­i­ni­tion of tex­tile art as I don’t want to put one artist’s prac­tice in one spe­cific cat­e­gory,” says Mizuki Taka­hashi, co-di­rec­tor of Hong Kong’s Cen­tre for Her­itage Arts and Tex­tiles. “We

[Taka­hashi and her co-di­rec­tor Teoh Chin Chin] wanted to name the or­gan­i­sa­tion CHAT, be­cause rather than a tex­tile mu­seum, we wanted it to be a place to ex­plore what tex­tile and tex­tile art means.” While Hong Kong’s his­tory is in­ter­twined with the tex­tile in­dus­try, tex­tile has never strayed far from the fash­ion sphere. CHAT, set up by MILL6 Foun­da­tion, is aiming to chal­lenge that. Hav­ing played host to Mar­i­ana Hahn’s ethereal dresses and New York­based art duo Aziz & Cucher’s provoca­tive ta­pes­tries in the past, CHAT launched (In)tan­gi­ble Rem­i­nis­cence, a group show that weaves to­gether per­sonal and col­lec­tive mem­o­ries to re­flect upon Hong Kong’s tex­tile past, last month.

BACK TO MATERIALIT Y

What ac­counts for the resur­gence of in­ter­est in tex­tile art? “In the age of post-in­ter­net, peo­ple have a greater de­sire to go back to ma­te­ri­ally-ori­ented art,” Taka­hashi notes.

“I think peo­ple re­ally want to go back to days when ev­ery­body worked with their own hands. You achieve an in­ner si­lence when you work slowly with your own hands,” says Swedish tex­tile artist Britta Marakatt-labba. “Be­fore, peo­ple would ask me, why are you wast­ing your time? But now, the world has reached a point where we want to work with ma­te­ri­als that de­mand slow­ness.”

Hem­mings is hes­i­tant to draw a sim­ple cause and ef­fect re­la­tion­ship be­tween a dig­i­tallysat­u­rated world and ‘slow art’. “Along­side ev­ery­thing else, art moves in cy­cles, so this is a trend that we are in at the mo­ment.” But she doesn’t deny tex­tile’s ma­te­rial ap­peal. “Con­tem­po­rary art has be­come so con­cep­tual that if you haven’t stud­ied it, then you don’t know where to be­gin when you walk into a gallery. That is where ma­te­rial-based work can be quite dif­fer­ent. The best works com­bine the in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional sides. It’s the idea of go­ing up to an art work and say­ing, ‘this touches me in a pow­er­ful way’.”

For the Bri­tish cu­ra­tor, one exhibition that gripped was Swedish artist Han­nah Ryggen’s ex-hi­bi­tion, which ran at Mod­ern Art Ox­ford from No­vem­ber 2017 to Fe­bru­ary 2018. “It’s very po­lit­i­cal art. It’s art that touches upon fas­cism, the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Nor­way. But if you don’t read the cap­tions, you come face to face with these huge, beau­ti­ful ta­pes­tries. The colours, the nat­u­ral dyes, she hadn’t planned on the ex­act com­po­si­tion, so there is a spon­tane­ity to them. We live at a time where sim­ply say­ing that some­thing is ‘beau­ti­ful’ would make for an un­so­phis­ti­cated way of look­ing at art, but I think that’s an ig­no­rant way of look­ing [at it].”

“TEX­TILES AREN’T VERY COL­LECTIBLE. I HAVE A SUS­PI­CION THAT SOME OF IT HAS TO DO WITH THE ANX­I­ETY THAT TEX­TILES DON’T LAST.” – Jes­sica Hem­mings

PO­LIT­I­CAL FAB­RICS

By us­ing the medium to cri­tique so­cio-po­lit­i­cal ills, Ryggen was only one of a hand­ful of artists who have chal­lenged pre­con­cep­tions of tex­tile art as be­ing ‘twee’ or ‘ir­rel­e­vant’. “Tex­tiles have al­ways been ca­pa­ble as mes­sage car­ri­ers,” notes Hem­mings, who pointed to flags and uni­forms as time-tested forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “And to fur­ther the idea. the idea of weav­ing and em­broi-dery, of cre­at­ing lit­tle plots that might even­tu­ally be­come part of a big­ger one, works in a sim­i­lar way as lan­guage does.”

“It’s al­ways been a form of story-telling. I want peo­ple to start ask­ing ques­tions, only so would they know more about the Sami cul­ture,” says Marakatt-labba. “The chal­lenge is to make works that trans­late be­yond a spe­cific cul­ture.” Born in Idi­vuoma, north­ern Swe­den, Marakatt-labba was en­trenched in Sami cul­ture from a young age. An artist as well as book il­lus­tra­tor, the 67-yearold works across medi­ums, but it was His­torja, a 24-me­tre-long piece that en­thralled vis­i­tors at Doc­u­menta 14. Painstak­ingly wo­ven us­ing the tra­di­tional Sami skill of duodji, there were win­try scenes of bare birch trunks, and that of foxes, moose, bears roam­ing the vast, white land­scape. Sami mytholo­gies, in­clud­ing red hat-don­ning god­desses, are also wo­ven in. There is also one scene de­pict­ing the Kau­tokeino up­ris­ing; a church is in flames, blood is splat­tered, and one vil­lager has his head chopped off.

One artist who is us­ing the medium as a way to re­claim not only a col­lec­tive, but also per­sonal his­tory is Chi­nese artist Lin Tian­miao. As a child, the artist was tasked with cot­ton spool­ing - an ac­tiv­ity that she came to re­sent but would later in­formed her artis­tic lan­guage. In The Pro­lif­er­a­tion of Thread Wind­ing (1995), a bed is pierced with thou­sands of long nee­dles, each with a thread at­tached, cas­cad­ing to the floor and end­ing with a ten­nis-size ball of floss. While she re­jects the fem­i­nist la­bel, Lin’s art of­ten dives into the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal forces that gov­erns the fe­male psy­che. Lan­guage was the force ex­am­ined in Protrud­ing Pat­terns (2014). Af­ter col­lat­ing about 2000 terms used to de­scribe women off the in­ter­net, the artist stitched them onto car­pets. View­ers were en­cour­aged to tra­verse wall, tram­pling on the bumpy sur­face.

“I would love to say that it’s non­sense, that it’s re­peat­ing stereo­types,” says Hem­mings when asked if there re­ally are more fe­male tex­tile artists. “But I go to tex­tile con­fer­ences all the time, and the truth is, there are a lot more women at these events,” Hem­mings says. “I think there are op­por­tu­ni­ties to work with tex­tile in a broader con­text, but I don’t think we have reached that point yet.”

Taka­hashi dis­agrees, “it’s quite var­ied. Some used it as a way to re­claim cer­tain iden­ti­ties, oth­ers use it for the unique touch. Some artists are in­ter­ested in the crafts­man­ship that goes into it, while oth­ers are ex­plor­ing the his­tory of his or her own coun­try through tex­tile art. I don’t think these in­ter­ests are de­fined by gen­der.”

She points to Sa­toru Aoyama, a Ja­panese artist who is us­ing em­broi­dery art to cri­tique the elu­sive­ness of au­thor­ship, and raise ques­tions about the fick­le­ness of geo-po­lit­i­cal bor­ders. There is also Mau­r­izio Anz­eri, an Ital­ian artist whose tech­nique

of sewing into found vin­tage pho­to­graphs also yield eerie yet com­pelling nar­ra­tives.

De­spite the recog­nised ma­te­ri­al­ity of tex­tile art, there re­mains a bar­rier that artists and cu­ra­tors need to over­come when it comes to dis­play­ing tex­tile art in a white cube gallery, where things are ex­pected to be straight and ex­actly pro­por­tioned.

“I think many of us are con­di­tioned not to touch any­thing when we walk into art galleries,” says Hem­mings, who cu­rated Mi­gra­tions, a tex­tile art that trav­elled through Aus­tralia, the United King­dom and Amer­ica in 2015-16. For Mi­gra­tions, the most chal­leng­ing bit was to get peo­ple to in­ter­act with To­ril Jo­hannsen’s piece. “That ac­tu­ally was the premise of the loan. But even with a sign en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to touch the work, peo­ple are con­di­tioned not to touch things in a gallery set­ting.”

Then there is the prob­lem of col­lect­ing it. Tex­tile art, when left to nat­u­ral wear and tear, is more prone to decay. “You have artists who have tried to com­bat this by fram­ing it, or putting it be­hind glass, but they min­imise ma­te­rial di­men­sions of tex­tile.”

It’s a chal­lenge that isn’t unique to tex­tile artists. Eight years af­ter the de­but of the white cube gallery model, cu­ra­tors, artists and gal­lerists are ex­per­i­ment­ing with new ways of art place­ment. Per­haps there’d soon come a day when un­ruly strands of yarn and fi­bre no longer needs to be tamed in a gallery set­ting.

“I THINK PEO­PLE RE­ALLY WANT TO GO BACK TO DAYS WHEN EV­ERY­BODY WORKED WITH THEIR OWN HANDS. YOU ACHIEVE AN IN­NER SI­LENCE WHEN YOU WORK SLOWLY WITH YOUR OWN HANDS.” – Britta Marakatt-labba

LEFT ABOVE Works by Sheila Hicks. RIGHT Lee Ming­wei's work at Corderie dell'ar­se­nale as part of the open­ing of The 57th In­ter­na­tional Art Exhibition Italy.

LEFT Jes­sica Hem­mings' pieces. ABOVE Mar­i­ana Hahn's Ethe­re­al­dresses exhibition by CHAT.

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