AN ENTANGLED MATTER
We examine the hold of the art of weaving and embroidery on the imagination of this generation of artists
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
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.