’the essential structure of anything’
notes on textile in contemporary art
A few years ago, the Department of Specialized Art and the Academy of Fine Art at Bergen School of Art and Design merged into one, and the institutional division between art and specialized art seized to be. There were still a staff with background in photography, ceramics and textile, but now the students could shop courses more freely, dipping their toes in different mediums, methods and concepts, without being labeled as, say, ‘textile artists’.
For years, I have been participating sporadically in Hilde Hauan Johnsen’s group tutorials and other activities with her students, and through this I have had the great opportunity to meet a number of brilliant art students and professors working with textile. These meetings have been greatly rewarding for me, and taught me much I would never learn from a classroom as a student of art history, and because of this I became particularly fond of textile art. However, I never understood the commonplace clear but invisible gap between academy art and material- based art. Maybe it’s simply because it is deteriorating, and this segregation is no longer relevant? Having spoken to quite a few students, I noticed how most of them did not openly identify themselves as textile artist despite working primarily with textile. ‘I’m just an artist,’ was the recurring answer. Fair enough. Another hypothesis as to why this hierarchal system appear to be vanishing is that fine art has pursued conceptualism to its demise, and have rediscovered the material again.
In my attempt to distill any intrinsic qualities of textile that is defining in the context of contemporary art, I came down with the following three points. They are fairly obvious, but they serve me as useful points of departure.
1) Textile art is the accumulation of time.
2) Textile art is something real.
3) Textile art is culturally significant.
1) Working with textile is to work with time. Whether it is done by hand or made through advanced digital looms, it is an accumulation of time. I believe what draws me to this aspect is the realization that the speed of the world is increasing and that free time has become the most coveted resource. Through technological advances we are reachable every minute of
every day no matter where in the world we are, and the flow of information makes us potential recipients of constant live updates from conflict zones, pictures and videos from family members and ranting tweets from world leaders.
Some of the old looms at the art school was placed in the attic for a while, but in recent years they have become increasingly popular amongst students who want to work on these old devices. When it comes to weaving, the meaning and value lies in the actions as much as in the physical work, and every imperfection and awkwardness in the finished work becomes a sign of the hand that made it. This might not seem significant, but against the backdrop of the digital precision and mechanical perfection that surpasses any craftsman, the sign of the human becomes equally beautiful and equally important.
2) For the last 20 years or so an extensive artistic exploration into the Internet, new technology and mass media has fueled a conceptual art which addresses current state of affairs, often with an attitude of resignation in front of their own bleak and dystopian predictions of the future. Cynicism and irony were suitable strategies for a number of artists, but over time these gestures appeared empty and unconstructive to a growing number of people.
Textile art was never cynical. Working with textile is to create something real, stuff that belong amongst us in the physical world. It is an object, and in a world that favors the distribution over the content, the real become increasingly appealing. When watching a textile artwork, the eyes are scanning it for the way it was made and traces from its maker, at the same time as the body investigate its physical properties. Standing in front of the work, I imagine whether it is soft or stiff, light or heavy, and it is hard to not consider the well of connotations the textile medium has. Because textile is in its essence linked to the body.
3) Working with textile is to take part of a legacy spanning thousands of years. From curing animal hides for warmth to intricate embroideries, textile has always been something beyond its practical function. Amazingly, this is not only the case for some cultures, but for all of them. Textile has played a part every culture, hence it is a suitable medium for investigation simply what it is to be human. All over the planet diverse cultures has developed similar techniques to make distinctive types of fabric. Different parts of the world have access to different natural resources, which in time has been refined into beautiful textiles representing their culture. Wool, silk, cotton, feathers, teeth, bones, gemstones, shells and precious metals; folk costumes are not arbitrary cultural tokens but a symbol of what the land offers its inhabitants. Textile art is culturally significant.
It is two and a half minutes to midnight, according to the Doomsday Clock. The scientists behind this powerful metaphor assess that the probability of a global disaster that would obliterate us is higher than ever, urging public officials to guide us away from the brink. This type of information is incomprehensible to most of us, and the powerlessness is numbing. Art can speak to us through time and without the bias of language, and textile is a medium that resonates with people from all over the world. Textile art is not about evaluating one thing over another, but to acknowledge the craft and creativity that has been taken up by people from vastly different cultures, and consciously be part of their tradition. This gesture is political.