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.

*           *         *           *           *

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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Fabric of Britain – The Wonder of Embroidery

Having managed to miss the rest of this short series, I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Fabric of Britain – The Wonder of Embroidery’ yesterday on BBC Four. Although once or twice my hackles were raised, this was possibly the best opportunity I will have to get so close to the stitches of Opus Anglicanum. Truly breathtaking. Some interesting social historical contextualising too.  Left me with loads questions which will just have to be left on the back burner for some future research! The Victoria and Albert Museum also seem to be displaying these textiles in a very different way to how I remember them which sounds like a good excuse for another visit.

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Cloth and Memory {2} – Colour and Memory.

One thing that particularly struck me was, with the exception of Yoriko Yoneyama’s work,  the apparent clash between the UK and the Japanese work in the room. This clash seemed to be triggered by a number of things: the physical segregation of the British and Japanese work, the treatment of colour by these two groups of artists and the treatment of the concept of memory. As mentioned in my previous post, it was the UK work, largely in tones of grey, to which I responded immediately.  They captured something of the wistful, autumnal mists I view across the valley from my study window at this time of year. Over romanticised I know, but the grey haze always reminds me that the year is growing to a close and to reflect on what has been achieved.  This is also based, I think, on a career in teaching where the year always starts in September and not in January. However, grey or grey/green is the colour that I associate with memory. This, in itself, is not an insignificant conclusion.

Machiko Agano - The River

Machiko Agano – The River

In contrast,  the Japanese works with their completely different and varied colour palette left me disorientated. They appeared to address memories that were far more personal than the historical/architectural narrative of some of the UK work, although they had links to the natural elements required for the mill’s cloth production. Their personal and cultural specificity seemed loud and attention grabbing balanced against the grey which transported me back to the cultural history of the satanic mills and school history. I had no shorthand with which to engage with this work. The idea that memory should somehow be so vibrant, a celebration relived as opposed to replayed as a projection was almost anathema to me. Interestingly, as a result, I took few images of the Japanese work, a response I now regret.

There was one exception: the work of Koji Takaki’s. A few days prior to my visit I had attended the ‘Textile Art Practice Now: Talk with Machiko Agano and Koji Takaki’ at The Japan Foundation in London, part of the wider educational situating of this exhibition. During the evening it was mentioned that Takaki’s work on display at Saltaire had been partially made during his period as artist in Residence at the Textural Space exhibition at the Whitworth in Manchester in 2001.  I had been fortunate enough to see this exhibition and remember watching Takaki at work. It was a pivotal point at a very early stage of what was to become my textile studies. Here the exploration of the concept of memory became intermingled with the personal again and somehow more meaningful. But was this memory or nostalgia? Takaki uses a white/neutral colour scheme that virtually disappears in the traditional white cube, but contrasted with the colours of the spinning room. This again emphasised  the relationship between and influence of the exhibition space and the varying effects this can produce.

Koji Takaki - MA

Koji Takaki – MA

In terms of my research project these works affirmed that the relationship of textiles and memory is intrinsic to many cultures, although its expression may be different. If the aim of  my work is to stimulate memory I need to consider that any objects I use need to be  recognisable to as broad an audience as possible. My reaction to the colour used to represent memorial was also significant, influenced probably by both culture and experience. The very neutral palette that I have used so far could take some further experimentation with the introduction of colour. The past may not always be sepia or veiled in a mist of nostalgia and romanticism!

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Compromise or just making decisions?

One of the challenges I face repeatedly through my PhD studies is to locate my practice in a wider context.  I am craft-trained and have no first degree in fine art and therefore feel a dilettante in the art studio and constantly excuse my presence there. Although my practice frequently involves the making of object, it is not craft in a conventional sense. I deliberately and resolutely choose to label my work textiles, despite the exclusion that this often brings.  I made the decision during my MA that if I did not regard textiles as worthy of bearing the label ‘art’, how could I expect anyone else to? If there was a vanguard in contemporary textile art, I wanted to be part of it. This decision gives me various problems.  My work is often not an obvious fit into textile exhibitions as the development of technique is not a primary objective. Art exhibitions usually have thematic aims and I am forced to ask myself, should I compromise the specific questions of my research, embodied in my practice, to fit a designated theme? Alternatively, should I develop work for an exhibition that would detract me from my research?  As time is a limited resource, I have opted to concentrate on my research. Opportunities to develop other work can be investigated when the PhD is done.  In short there is always a compromise to be made.* The issue of compromise/decision making and the curating of works that, whilst thematically linked are visually very different, was raised again by my visit to Cloth and Memory {2}. My response to this question in relation to the exhibition will follow in a later post.

Cate Hursthouse -  Unhomely Furnishings – Side Table (2010) Hemmed In, Milton Keynes Gallery, December 2012

Cate Hursthouse – Unhomely Furnishings – Side Table (2010)
Hemmed In, Milton Keynes Gallery, December 2012

* I was fortunate enough to have a piece accepted for the exhibition Hemmed In at Milton Keynes Gallery last December. This exhibition, in my opinion however, took an unusually broad and inclusive view of textiles.

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Cloth and Memory {2}, Salts Mill, Saltaire, 2013.

Cloth and Memory {2}, curated by Lesley Millar, is a textile art ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. Although such exhibitions have been criticised in the past for closing down rather than extending critical debate, in my opinion, they have a significant role to play in the critical debates of the still contested field of textile art.

Maxine Bristow - Mutable Frame of Reference

Maxine Bristow – Mutable Frame of Reference

Cloth and Memory {2} is, from the outset, impressive both in its scope and its location: the former spinning room of the mill.  This huge space offers an unprecedented opportunity for large scale installation, and a striking, patinaed environment to which a number of the featured artists have responded directly. The relationship between the colours of the space and the work was a major influence on the works that I responded to most immediately. It has led me to question if my response to these works would be the same if they were hung in the more conventional setting of the white cube and the significance of the environment on the perception of art particularly, of course, textiles.

Diana Harrison - Handkerchiefs

Diana Harrison – Handkerchiefs

Maxine Bristow, Hilary Bower and Diana Harrison’s works made the deepest impression on me.  The wooden structures of Bristow’s work reminded me of the wooden tongs my mother used to pull washing from the hot water on washing day. Their exaggerated dimensions contrasting with the truncated dimensions of the curtains prompting a sense of disorientation and confusion of scale that compares with the contorted proportions memory confers on events and their details. Similarly the proportions of Bower’s sack like constructions with their puncture marks and transparent panels suggest remnants of narrative, obscured by time yet unexpectedly remembered. Harrison’s discharged handkerchiefs embody the effacement of the workers from the space. The installation of these handkerchiefs on the floor of the space somehow reinforces their ‘objectness’, accidentally discarded simple symbols of self ground literally into the floor by the passage of many feet and time.

Hilary Bower - Of Human Signage - a view of shadows

Hilary Bower – Of Human Signage – a view of shadows

Other works made an impact for completely different reasons. Yoriko Yoneyama’s installation was visually stunning, curtains of rice receding into the distance of the vast space of the room.  Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s balls of spun fibre were a sublime intervention.  A modest material, revered by its plinth mounting and museum like casing thought provokingly brought together the longevity of the practice of spinning, industrial progress and decline and the lives of the individuals involved. Her accompanying video can be viewed at:

Yoriko Yoneyama - Rice Dreams 2013 Salts Mill

Yoriko Yoneyama – Rice Dreams 2013 Salts Mill

These few words barely scratch the surface of my response to this exhibition, so it makes sense to return to my thoughts in future posts.


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