Cloth & Culture NOW

Cloth & Culture NOW
January 29 – June 1, 2008
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich
September 17 – December 14, 2008
The Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester

The work of thirty-five artists from six countries, Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania and Britain, is present in this ambitious exhibition of contemporary textile art. Curated by Professor Lesley Millar, the eclectic mix of nationalities is explained as representative of countries where “textiles have traditionally played a central role, both economically and also as a carrier of the narrative of place, of cultural particularity.” Arguably, many other countries could deserve attention within this remit. Finland isolated from the rest of Scandinavia is an unusual decision, as is the inclusion of Japan. And as one audience member at the accompanying conference questioned, Britain may in fact have a more tenuous role to play within this definition of textile culture than we would like to acknowledge. Nonetheless, the eclectic mix makes for a fascinating exhibition that refuses to subscribe to a universal code of aesthetic appeal.

With very few exceptions, the work on display has not been previously exhibited to the public. This must have made for nerve-wracking installation the week before the exhibition, but also a refreshing change from the rehashed combinations that have been common of late. In Britain, redundant exhibitions plagued 2007 when universities scrambled to submit evidence of their research profiles to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which determines allocations of future research funding. With the RAE thankfully behind us for a few years, it can only be hoped that more exhibitions of this experimental nature continue to find their way into our galleries and museums.

Considering Millar’s previous experience curating contemporary Japanese textile exhibitions (Textural Space, Through the Surface and 21:21 The Textile Vision of Reiko Sudo and Nuno) it was surprising that the Japanese work on display proved some of the least engaging. This may have been due to these artists in particular shipping work, rather than overseeing installation in person as well a lack of familiarity with the exhibition space. Or it may have been the result of curatorial efforts to bring new and perhaps less established examples of Japanese textile art to an international audience. In the defence of all the work on display, the Sainsbury Centre offered a difficult space to work within. The building itself is huge by British standards, with a cavernous gallery, largely occupied by the permanent collection and café on the ground floor. A portion of this space was taken up by this exhibition, with further work downstairs both along a corridor and in a large but ironically claustrophobic gallery, which boasted no natural light.

The range of work exhibited has resulted in a variety of approaches not often brought together in a single exhibition. Work from the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania possesses very different aesthetic intentions from the concept-driven British textile art we have come to know and the understated sensibilities often evident in design and art from Japan and Scandinavia. In contrast, much of the work from the Baltic countries engaged with a more traditional craft aesthetic, which at times ran the risk of feeling obvious. Performance is explained in the comprehensive exhibition catalogue as central to much of this contemporary Baltic work but unfortunately is not evident through the static work on display. Nonetheless, note worthy work makes up a good part of this exhibition. Inspired by, but not made of, tapestry Ieva Krumina’s printed sea of lace-like soldiers made of plastic bags is as technically sophisticated, as it is visually innovative. Severija Incirauskaite-Kriauneviciene’s embroidery on metal carries some similarities to the work of Canadian artist Cal Lane. Here a series of metal vessels were exhibited, with brown cross-stitch patterning areas such as the metal lid of a bucket. Most successful were the works with empty as well as stitched perforations that gave the suggestion of a discarded, or possibly unravelling, project. Lina Jonike also deploys cross-stitch with powerful results. Here she works with a digital print on canvas of an anonymous woman (dressed in a floral patterned shift holding a cluster of hand picked flowers) standing in front of an overgrown building. The portrait is encircled with a stitched wreath of blue forget-me-knots that brings a strong narrative element to the stitch. Finally Peteris Sidars’ knitted and stitched gloves offer an evocative representation of object memory through a poetic use of materials and craft.

This is not an easy exhibition to view. From culture to culture the values that inform textile production shift considerably. Cloth and Culture NOW asks viewers to step away from familiar values and recognise a far greater breadth to contemporary textile practice than we have tended to acknowledge in recent years. For those able to make the trip to the UK, the task is well worth the challenge.

Surface Design Journal (summer 2008: 54-55)

home page image: Maxine Bristow