I have just spent two very interesting and thought provoking days at the ‘Emotional Objects – Touching Emotions in Europe 1600 – 1900’ conference. http://emotionalobjects.wordpress.com/. Conferences can be fantastic immersive, learning experiences. This conference did not disappoint. Although my study is neither specifically historical, nor focuses on the early modern period of history, there were many interesting overlaps with my own areas of interest and huge reassurances in terms of the relevance of the material that I have looked at and some of my own ideas. Where outlined by speakers, there were also some interesting insights to be gleaned about methodology – a current preoccupation and source of early morning waking.
My study relies on understanding cultural attitudes to textiles in the home, many of which saw significant development during the period under discussion. Textiles were well represented in the conference, from the textile tokens of the London Foundling Hospital which kicked off the whole conference, to the benefits of needlework to navigate emotional trauma, the use of simple stitch marking to embed family narrative in textile based bequests and the propensity of textiles to convey specific images of luxury and decadence. The dominance of textiles in the range of objects represented came under discussion during the closing session and the consensus seemed to be this was the result of their ubiquity in a time that had, compared with today, relatively few objects. Textiles, it was repeatedly observed, are universal and international.
Of particular interest was a panel which focused on unsettling objects. Here too textiles were well represented. The ability of textiles to unsettle in the context of these papers rested in their function as bodily adornment that out-survived the flesh, and as material that brought about the demise of the wearer. The unheimlich was referenced several times both directly and indirectly. Lacan’s surfeit that causes anxiety had been obliquely referenced in a paper in another session. Of note in this session was the shift away from Freud and the return to Ernst Jentsch’s essay which describes the unheimlich more as a worrying undercurrent and sense of ‘troublesomeness’. This apparent shift from the psychoanalytic echoes some of my own thoughts on the nature of the unheimlich.
The closing comments section raised some interesting questions about the variable meanings of objects. The consensus seemed to be that objects’ meanings were unstable, fixed by their social and historical contexts, highly personal and the matter of conjecture. The mutability of meanings attributed to objects has given me something to think about, particularly in relation to the ‘fixed’ semiotic of textiles as feminine so prevalent in textile theory and which I am trying to challenge and expand. Perhaps object study is the right course after all. Or does the lack of a specific historical context leave the project open to accusations of generality and lack of rigour? Does/how can art offer a way of combining these varying meanings? There are always questions.
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I come away from most conferences with something unexpected and this one was no exception. On entering the room for the keynote address I was stunned by a large sisal hanging by Tadek Beutlich. It was one of those moments when the hairs rose on the back of my neck and one of the most exciting things I have seen in a long time. I have read about Beutlich and his work and seen images, but seeing something in the flesh is always a different experience. I was bowled over by the sheer physicality of the piece. It screams heavy and earthbound through it use of base fibre. The sinewy ‘threads’ from which the piece is woven are visceral, intestine like, wound so tightly and arranged so closely in places they resemble the folds of the brain or left to hang free like unkempt hair. Here is a creature apparently constrained by its mass yet empowered to rise above its material restrictions. I have no idea of Beutlich’s original intentions regarding this piece, but for me it spoke of the triumph over adversity and human resolve.
Given how frequently textiles had been the focus of attention during the conference it might have been expected that this work would have been received appreciatively by those in attendance. From the conversations I overheard, totally unethical I know, this was not the case. Its function as textile seemed to be replaced by responses to its visceral qualities, the hair-like nature of the sisal was too uncomfortable, the weight of it too oppressive, aesthetically lumpen. Much food for thought for practice too here.