Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Deirdre Nelson: Arcadia Commission


Arcadia: Stitching the past to the present

Between wards 201 and 202 of the new Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh now hangs a permanent installation by the Glasgow based textile artist Deirdre Nelson. Curated by Ginkgo Projects, the commission bears Nelson’s trademark ability to act as a cipher of social history. For Arcadia, Nelson interviewed over forty elderly in-patients, many suffering from varying degrees of memory loss. The personal recollections and local memories collected during these interviews inform the content of five main narrative textiles in the nine work series. While content can be connected to individual patients’ recollections, the dancing, beach scenes, flowers and birds depicted also serve as a reminder that in spite of the rapid pace of life today, many pastimes are timeless.

Keen to “emphasize the often unrecognized lively aspects and the full and busy lives of older generations” Nelson chose movement, particularly dance, to link the textiles. Five main narrative works depict an eclectic range of associations: escapism provided by ballroom dancing; fishwives with their catch on the beach at Musselburgh; yellow daffodils now used in medicines to treat dementia; a surreal shoal of floating turquoise fish. As a counterpoint to these works are four black and white diagrams of dance steps, captioned with quotations such as Fred Astaire’s “I just put my feet to the ground and move them around” and the anonymous observation “A man who dances has his choice of romances.” The latter acts as a poetic suggestion of how the viewer, at least in their mind, may approach their stroll along the installation.

The style of Arcadia is something of a departure for Nelson, who works here with a relatively restricted palette. Landmarks local to Edinburgh such as Portobello Beach and a colliery are reproduced in soft focus as digital prints on silk. These scenes are predominately black and white, with colour appearing through embroidery and print in isolated areas reminiscent of a hand-tinted photograph. In spite of the grainy grey landscape, each scene is graced with blue skies. Stitch embellishes select areas restricted to the lower half of each main composition. Here patterns of organic shapes such as fish or flowers are set in a curiously mechanical repeat. The precision of each floating scene suggests a disembodied relationship with the rest of the image, as though the act of recalling memories has brought back elements in an order displaced from the original experience.

Nelson explains that Arcadia is designed to “do more than decorate”. Hung in one long series along the hospital wall, she explains that the works are “designed for use by physiotherapists to encourage patients to improve their mobility by walking from image to image as part of the treatment. They act as windows in an institutional hospital corridor and should provide positive distraction for patients, visitors and staff alike.” Funded by the NHS Lothian Endowments Fund and the Hope Scott Trust, the hospital setting provides a context far removed from our reliance on the contemplative white cube as the space in which we enjoy art. Each textile is encased in a Plexiglas box to meet the strict hygiene requirements of the setting and Nelson’s delicate stitch work must compete against a functional backdrop of medical signage and bright blue plastic flooring. While these restrictions are understandable, they inevitably distance the viewer from the detail contained in each work. The temptation is to draw up a chair, sit quietly and begin to take it all in. Hospitals are often far from conducive to this type of behaviour, but the healthy commissioning policy enjoyed by this new Infirmary allows those who chose, a little respite from the realities at hand.

Crafts magazine (Sept./Oct., 2009: 14)