Boro – Somerset House

Boro describes a genre of indigo dyed, hand sewn, Japanese historical textiles. Characteristic of Boro are the signs of wear and repair which emphasise their utilitarian, historical and social origins, a limited colour palette (resulting from political restriction on the use of colour dependent on class), restricted access to materials, and the need to maximise the life of the cloth for practical and economic reasons. In their current incarnation the narratives of these cloths have also been patinated by a further layer of appropriation and designation as ‘works of art’. This latest incarnation is achieved through the visual language of art by mounting on stretcher frames covered with canvas and wall hanging. Visually Boro cloths have been compared to 20th century art’s abstract and assemblage movements.  It is these visual similarities, it seems, which are sufficient to designate these textiles art and this is where I have problems with them. For me they are not art. They are appropriated, fetishised textiles. There is nothing to indicate that the makers intended to articulate or communicate with others through them and the accompanying catalogue does nothing to dispel this belief, recording only the social and anthropological context of their existence. They must remain, for me at least, decoration and in the more formal context of the debates of textile art contribute little.

Boro - Somerset House 17.04.14

Boro – Somerset House

However, having dumped my more rational, academic response to the exhibited textiles, they are nonetheless undoubtedly beautiful and highly desirable. They have an air of calm and contemplation. The worn surface invites conjecture and a projection of (romanticised) narrative. The subtle variety of tones, textures, woven patterning, resist patterning and accompanying hand stitching, sometimes erratically dispersed across the cloth, sometimes more measured ensures these textiles are visually interesting. Despite their age they have a timeless quality attributable, in my opinion to the use of indigo dye and visual similarity to the ubiquitous denim. It is impossible to know if the composition of these cloths was ever considered by the makers or whether the juxtaposition of the pieces was pure chance. For me they indicate something of what I consider to be an innate human characteristic to decorate and to please the eye.  However, in their current incarnation the influence of the collector/curator to select, collect and appropriate is also a considerable influence on their aesthetic quality. Some of the exhibits retained their garment structure which set up a tension with the more western aesthetic used in the majority of the works. I am uncertain as to whether the mounted, wall hung works are cropped and cut from larger pieces to enhance and therefore manage their appeal. Undisputed, in my opinion, is Boro cloths’ ability to make a statement in a certain type of domestic setting. This is reinforced by the display at Somerset House in a number of ‘domestic scaled’ (just) spaces on off white walls against varnished floor boards and provocatively suspended above generously proportioned fire surrounds. There was a huge component of aspirational life-style in this exhibition, it is a selling exhibition after all, which is strangely at odds with a textile born out of hardship and poverty!


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Annie Turner

I visited this exhibition at someone else’s suggestion. It is out of my comfort zone and my direct field of interest, yet nevertheless interesting. Turner works with clay and her practice is a response to place – the river Deben in Suffolk.

The work was clean, crisp, understated and, for me, contemplative. The recurrent form of this work was the open gridded, vessel, animated through slight twists and sags. There is a wonderful contrast between the precision of Turner’s construction and the inferred influence of the less predictable, but equally manipulative, hand of the flow of the river. Reminiscent of, yet abstracted from the utilitarian these forms are rendered ambiguous through wear, abandonment and displacement. The works are resonant of the ruin, the patina of rust and on closer inspection a wonderful surface texture that is both the erosion, and accumulation of surface over time. These structures are as much the product of the rapid flow of the flood as they are the calmness and stagnation of the summer’s day. They are old, with stories to tell. The open structures are a vivid contrast to the over-scaled, glazed and incised muscle shells and claw-like objects that also make up this body of work.  Their dual presence echoes the symbiotic existence of man and beast in the landscape, the result, like Turner’s use of materials, of deep understanding.  As a craftswoman I can appreciate Turner’s skill even if I have little comprehension of her techniques. Her subtle handling of both form and materials to create the mood and language of her work appears effortless, a consummate use of craft skills that passes beyond the utilitarian into the expressive.

Images of the work from the exhibition can be found here:

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Sensing Spaces

Managed to get to Sensing Spaces before the exhibition finished. Excellent lesson in working with space. Reinforces some of the decisions  I have previously made and my rejection of the project being about working with physical space – I don’t have the experience or the expertise! The exhibition did make clear how much I respond to the proportions of my studio space (conveniently domestic although quite a tight domestic! The home in the head as well as the walls that surround us). A point for future consideration, development, refinement, visual/theoretical exploration?

Sensing Spaces

Li Xiaodong

Fantastic exploration of light and dark by Grafton Architectswonderful pared back simplicity. Loved  Li Xiaodonghidden cell like rooms for contemplation and the wonderful surprise of the Zen garden. Also the only textiles which presented an interesting foil to the use of branches in the construction.

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Bumping into old work.

The process of critical reflection is crucial to research and one of the array of tools necessary to de-personalise practice in practice based research. Creating the means to do this with ones own practice is not always easy. Time and space away from the work are some of the methods that I use. Enforced time out of the studio, while frustrating, can produce new and exciting insights. I have recently had to take some time out of the studio and also been forced to remove work that is usually hung there to allow some essential maintenance. Both these events have produced some surprising results.

My small studio space has been dominated by a large piece of work for some time.

Cate Hursthouse - Studio Investigation - 2013

Cate Hursthouse – Studio Investigation – 2013

This piece of work has remained in-situ virtually since it was made as I was unsure whether  it would retain its form once removed from the wall.  The wall it hung on was needed for the maintenance work, so it had to come down. With some trepidation it was re-hung yesterday in a larger space and has maintained most of its folds, although I need to spend more time with it. The changes that have occurred have been largely the result of hanging in a larger space which has reduced the draping. There are obvious problems with work that is so inherently unstable that I will have to address in the very near future. Later work has, to a certain extent, addressed this issue although some of the results are not as long-term as I had hoped.

This work bothers me. Its folds and drapes should not be suspended like this, it should fall flat, my awareness of textiles tells me that yet some areas seem to push proud, want to dominate, where others fall back. I have other pieces which change every time they are hung, so I now have to consider how, and if, I should stabilise these folds. Other pieces have been rendered rigid but they lack some of the ‘life’ of the more fluid pieces. My current writing reflects these same instabilities.  I am trying to marshal thoughts and ideas into a patterned cloth/text where everything works in harmony, re-writing becomes like unpicking, readjusting the balance of colour, tone, line, shape and form until the work ‘looks right’.

I have thought for some time that the surface of these objects requires something ‘more’. I have tested and sampled and ultimately been dissatisfied with the results. A chance encounter with some images of older work has made me think about where to go next and how I can revisit some of these earlier ideas which seem to have got a bit lost in current practice. It is beginning to feel quite exciting again and after fighting with the two apparently conflicting areas: practice and theory, good to feel they are beginning to really work together.

Cate Hursthouse 2010

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Emotional Objects.

I have just spent two very interesting and thought provoking days at the ‘Emotional Objects – Touching Emotions in Europe 1600 – 1900’ conference. 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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Tadek Beutlich - Bird of Prey

Tadek Beutlich – Bird of Prey

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.

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