Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

A Culture of Looking


The 7th International Triennial of Contemporary Textile Arts in Tournai, Belgium and the 2011 Miniartextil exhibition in Como, Italy shared one striking recurring theme: the importance of site; both the exhibition venue as a dramatic setting for the display of textile art, as well as the idea that location is an overriding source of inspiration for many artists. These exhibitions come at a time when Europe, at least as a cohesive cultural and economic entity, is increasingly in doubt. As the Mayor of Tournai, Christian Massy, observed in his catalogue introduction, “At a time when nationalism, tinged with greatly varying populist ideas, is unfortunately gaining ground within our continent, culture would seem to be the ideal vehicle for discovering Europe and the world.”(1)

The irony is that culture – in the economic climate that Britain has chosen to term “austerity” – now sits on the frontline of budget cuts. Projects that have, and will, survive must be able to speak to a diverse audience. The tricky part is that accessibility has become a thinly veiled excuse for dumbing down content. In the short term this may generate a surge in visitor numbers, but over the long term it does the arts a great disservice. Textiles in particular have the potential to be familiar, welcoming and accessible. But they also possess the ability to communicate topics that are complex, unsettling and controversial. Some of the best textile art manages to do it all: engage, challenge and communicate without expecting the viewer to know everything, or to be fobbed off with the idea that confusion was the ultimate artistic aim.

In both Tournai and Como exhibitions appeared in venues spread across each town. Striking historical architecture became dramatic backdrops for viewing contemporary work that tackled current concerns about the environment, migration and community. Take as an example the Belgian artist Elodie Antoine who explores the “theme of contagion” in work that often introduces an uncanny and unexpected addition to a staid environment.(2) Antoine has described her work as an “object you know but in a different way”.(3) Her sculptures suggest a world awry; something the Japanese artist Machiko Agano also tackles in her new work. Agano has worked with natural materials for much of her career, but has recently shifted away from this aesthetic towards the artificial. She has described this move as a response to the feeling that her urban studio setting in Japan has left her with the sense of being “surrounded by fake nature”(4); hollow compensation for the natural beauty destroyed by our modern lifestyles.

For Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter, now based in South Africa, themes of migration and exile are topical as well as personal. Halter, whose parents are Swiss, explains that he felt an outsider even before his family left Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s.(5) Large synthetic woven bags are often found in his photographic and video work: the property of individuals with uncertain homelands, often packed in haste containing the modest material wealth of displaced lives. Much of Halter’s work acknowledges the number of immigrant communities that exist throughout contemporary Africa because of political unrest and economic uncertainty.(6) Dutch artist Marita Kratz’s 10,000 White Roses is similarly interested in quantity – not of immigration – but the contribution women make to society. Her work makes physical the “stored energy of female hands, a testimony to female diligence” and, like Antoine’s installations, is reconfigured for each new exhibition venue.(7) Kratz explains, “I use these roses as the bases of small and large-scale installations, which show not only the unassuming simplicity of the single rose, but also the monumental beauty of thousands together. The contemplative, careful viewer then pauses for a moment to consider that almost forgotten phenomenon ‘female diligence’.”(8)

The themes touched on in the examples above – environment, migration and community – all hold particular currency today. With this in mind, it is easy to conclude that certain topics hold resonance for all viewers. But gathering together an international selection of artists for exhibition can quite unintentionally foreground our differences. On the one hand, we hear of the encroaching globalisation of the world. With this comes the often unspoken assumption that we see eye-to-eye. Martine Gadenne, the “Continere” competition coordinator in Tournai writes, “In a world of distanced populations with diverse cultures and religions, it is sometimes difficult to understand or even speak to one another, resulting in the temptation to reject others and everything that seems different to our own way of life.” As a product of culture, visual art can offer a bridge between these differences. But the aesthetic values and thematic interests of an artist’s work are a complex combination of individual vision and cultural influence that often feels far from any global agreement on style or content.

Visiting these recent exhibitions reminded me again of the different cultural values apparent in our visual world. Take as examples the Japanese artist Kaoru Nakano’s Energy to be Reborn Again, a small sculpture of threaded paper discs, capped with red ends and Naoko Serino’s sculpture Generating 12-2. Both works exemplify delicacy and simplicity. Welsh weaver Ainsley Hillard’s self-portrait To and Fro operates with a similar reserved palette and attention to detail. But I am increasingly conscious that my admiration for these works is dangerously subjective. My reaction is as much a reflection of my taste and values (a product of my culture, education and personal vision) as much as the works are evidence of their maker’s culture and personal taste.

In large exhibitions such as these the variety of visual vocabularies on display verges on defying translation. Compare, for example, the German artist Patricia Waller who creates tableaus that some will find humorous and others deeply unsettling with the British artist Alice Kettle whose recent work deviates from the large-scale dramatic compositions and instead introduces cut embroidered cloth in portraits that are hurt, damaged and raw. In stark visual contrast, Pauline Cornu creates work as intimate as Kettle’s, but stitched in a graphic minimal style that risks being overlooked because of its extreme simplicity. What are we to make of these vastly different ways of working? Taste is both personal and cultural, felt and learnt.

Cultural taste may not be something we can easily defend, but that makes it no less powerful. Documentation plays an equally inescapable role in our understanding of art.(9) Much of the art we know is seen through photographs. Textiles are particularly difficult to capture photographically with texture and colour often lost even in high quality photographic images. This makes the importance of first hand viewing all the more crucial and puts textiles at something of a disadvantage when it comes to confirming international recognition. Exhibition catalogues and websites, even when comprehensive, often make use of earlier images of the work or even alternative works. What is unintentionally lost(10) is always worth bearing in mind – even if it can rarely be qualified.

If nothing else, viewing first hand allows you to watch people looking at art.(11) In Tournai and Como I was taken aback by the number of families and groups spending their weekend looking and talking about art. Admittedly observing conversations in foreign languages always assumes an aura of intrigue. They could in fairness have been talking near art, rather than about it. But I would like to hope otherwise. The viewers I watched were not reserved to earnest young art students and conscientious curators. A culture of looking felt present, perhaps enhanced by the absence of the conventional white cube from the exhibition venues. The invitation to explore sites across the town looked to provide a healthy tactic to expanding audience engagement. Now more than ever, art that we stumble upon; art that is as much about where it is as what it is; art that makes us think and talk deserves our attention.

Professor Jessica Hemmings is Head of the Faculty of Visual Culture at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin.

This essay is presented by Friends of Fiber Art International, recipient of the 2012 SOFA research grant, New Voices: Discourse on International Contemporary Arts and Design; in conjunction with the lecture, Taste & Site: Surveying the New Senses of Textile Art, by Jessica Hemmings.

1. Christian Massy, “A Few Words From the Mayor” 7th Triennale Internationale Des Arts Textiles Contemporains de Tournai catalogue (Tournai, Belgium, 2011: 11).
2. Author’s telephone interview with Elodie Antoine (July 18, 2012).
3. See Sigmund Freud, Hugh Haughton, David McLintock Sigmund Freud: The Uncanny (London:
Penguin Classics, 2003) where Freud observes the ‘unheimlich’ or ‘unhomely’ to be particularly unsettling because it is familiar.
4. Author’s email correspondence Machiko Agano (July 26, 2012).
5. Author’s telephone interview with Dan Halter (July 25, 2012).
6. Author’s telephone interview with Dan Halter (July 25, 2012).
7. (accessed August 5, 2012).
8. (accessed August 5, 2012).
9. It is interesting to note that the recent exhibition “Fashioning the Object” held at Art Institute of Chicago (April 14–September 16, 2012) elected to foreground the representation of fashion.
10. See Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in Age Mechanical Reproduction” found in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1968 English translation) p. 217-251. Benjamin terms what is lost in the photographic record of an artwork an ‘aura’.
11. See Amy Whitaker’s Museum Legs: Fatigue and Hope in the Face of Art (Hol Art Books: 2009) which addresses the fatigue many viewers experience in conventional museum venues.