Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Dirty Beauty

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Dirty Beauty

Flooring is about dirt. Much as we would like to think otherwise, floors are where dirt collects. As a result, the materials and patterns we choose to use as flooring are, consciously or not, defined by our anticipation or denial of its presence. For example, the flooring of the Italian fashion house Miu Miu on Peking Road in Hong Kong is carpeted with the plushest of deep pile carpets. In contrast to the cement streets shoppers’ pound all day, the heavy carpet signifies excess. Thus, the floor provides a distinct demarcation between the mundane reality outside and the eccentric promises of pleasure contained within. But Miu Miu’s choice of carpet is also disconcerting. How much city street dirt finds its way onto this carpet? Flooring, however luxurious, is about dirt. That does not mean that every material and pattern that makes it to the floor is designed to stay in place forever. Recent installations and prototypes by Catherine Bertola, Linda Florence, and Cal Lane celebrate, rather than conceal, dirt and abrasion with ephemeral work that exists on the floor.

British artist Catherine Bertola’s chosen material is dust. Her current installation of wallpaper at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is created from the very material conservators and cleaners at the museum spend considerable time and energy banishing from the collection. As she explains, “My work is about labour, investing time in a very ordinary material. I use daily domestic activities or chores such as vacuuming and dusting to make my work. The manual labour involved adds value to something that usually gets swept away. I use dust as a mechanism for storytelling – dust is often described as being the matter of history, a residue or fragment that enables you to reflect on the past.”

In 1999 Bertola produced a series entitled Sweeping it Under. Collecting the accumulated detritus of the floor in various spaces, Bertola used her found materials to recreate textile carpet patterns. The work is ghostly, emerging from the corners of rooms or bare floorboards to suggest, rather than fix, pattern. Another British artist, Linda Florence, also creates unfixed flooring patterns, not of dust but of equally unusual materials such as sugar and birdseed. Based in London, Florence began to consider moveable patterns when she found herself peeling away wallpaper and happened upon older layers hidden beneath. The DIY project inspired a series of panels intended to cover both wall and floor that intentionally change over time. The flooring, because of its exposure to abrasion, starts to change its pattern as the top layers of flocking wear away to reveal other layers of pattern beneath. Acting as something of a control to the experiment, the section of the panel attached to the wall does not experience the same abrasion and as a result keeps the preliminary pattern intact. Further versions of the project have included the hand printed slate Scratch Card Floor installed at the Scin Studio, again, with a printed pattern that changes as the surface wears away.

Alongside prototypes and commissions, Florence also produces conceptual works akin to performance art. As a student, she worked in a carpet store during one summer holiday. Noticing how much carpet patterning is designed to disguise dirt tracked onto the carpet, Florence chose to take the idea of tracking and turn it around. Sugar Floor Dance is based on the idea of recording tracking in a controlled manner. In this case a pattern of sugar is laid out on the floor and a couple asked to dance the waltz with its specific motions, across the pattern. The “tracking” of the dance disrupts portions of the pattern – the inverse of pattern concealing the tracking of dirt onto carpet. In another performance-based experiment, Florence carefully laid out an ornate pattern in birdseed in a park and recorded the disintegration of the pattern as it was literally eaten away by the local pigeons.

American artist Cal Lane also works with unfixed patterns, often made of dirt. Lane explains, “my interests lie in contrast; contrast in imagery and material.” Working with metal, Lane has created a number of “textile” installations, including “Filigree Car Bombing” exhibited at the Radical Lace and Subversive Stitch exhibition held at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City in early 2007. She explains that her use of textile imagery stems from a desire to play “visual devil’s advocate” as well as “the feeling of femininity being pushed onto me when growing up.” “I started with a doily, which to me was like a delicate, feminine, protective, fussy, object and began cutting thick steel plate into doilies with an Oxy-acetylene torch.” Ironically, Lane explains that her interest in textiles stems from her dislike of “fabric and flowers, lace and finery were things I was resisting and almost angry at.”

While Lane often works with metal, a material that suggested solidity and permanence, some of her works have been impermanent, fleeting installations. In 2006 she installed “Dirt Lace” in Washington DC, made of sifted lace patterns that exist on the streets only fleetingly. Rain and footsteps are the first to wipe the pattern away. The installations, she explains, “don’t last very long, as soon as it rains its gone, but that’s the beauty in it I think, it’s a bit of a performance, a short term thing that isn’t an object to covet but a momentary experience like a dance.” A further series of photographs, Covered, captures the bodies of men and women that Lane has adorned with sifted lace patterns of dirt. She explains that the “technique of this came from seeing how my grandmother sifted icing sugar through doilies onto cupcakes to create a pattern.” In lieu of the comforting associations of home and consumption Lane suggests far less comfortable connections to discomfort. “What I like about this piece is how lace becomes both decorative like tattoos and morbid like burying someone under dirt.”

Rather than a source of domestic dismay, each of these artists has looked to the floor and the dirt it contains as a source of inspiration. None suggest that the presence is permanent, but instead propose that dirt and tracking on the floor are inevitable. More importantly, each provides an interpretation of the floor that reveals the possibility of beauty to be found in the least expected of locations.

Surface Design Journal (spring 2008: 30-35)

image: Linda Florence “Sugar Floor Dance” (detail)