Gaolbreak: Angela Fulcher

Angela Filcher Gaolbreak 2017

Gaolbreak: Angela Fulcher catalogue

The material of escape has often been modest: hair clips for picking locks; files smuggled in food packages; clothing worn in disguise. This may in part be explained because the practical function of the textile is often overlooked in the laundry list of items to confiscate during incarceration. Belts are removed to reduce the risk of suicide or harm to fellow inmates.[1] In cases of solitary confinement even papers, calendars and books have been banished.[2] Under regimes enforcing censorship, it has been the textile that has managed to travel under the radar and into the world.[3] And while the material of fibre is used occasionally used to thwart escape,[4] bedding, sheets and blankets tend to register as benign. Because they are seen to offer little threat, the textile often remains close at hand – close enough to be repurposed.[5]

Cork-based artist Angela Fulcher’s response to the 1923 gaol break at Cork City Women’s Gaol is inspired by forty-two inmates bid for freedom in aftermath of the civil war. The escape made use of the soft stuff of textiles: bedding fashioned into ladders to aid their descent. Fulcher’s recent work regularly includes found fabrics such as curtains, blinds and carpets associated with the home, clothing and accessories, as well as tents, window display materials and vinyl that “span spaces”[6]. Her response to the 1923 gaol break spans not only space but also time. Anachronistic purple, maroon, light and cerise pink sheeting and duvet covers that date from the 1970s through to the contemporary are here deployed as a reminder of the event. Much like the prisoners daring means of escape, this material too was found close to hand: harvested by the artist from charity shops and popular economy department stores such as Guineys and Penneys.

“The boldness of the colour in the space reflects a sense of the audacious and spirited nature of the escape,” explains Fulcher.[7] The prominent presence of colour and pattern represents other changes as well: a return of the decorative to visual language that carries meaning beyond the superficial. The textile – and practices more generally that focus on materials – have experienced the decorative used in a pejorative sense for decades. But interest in the meaning of beauty is on the rise.[8] The political, as diverse examples from hip-hop fashion to Chilean arpilleras can teach us, also resides in the decorative. Today this may be explained as an expanded interest in the everyday and recognition of value in aspects of culture previously ignored. But modest things have always been nearby; their variety of purposes includes the potential to be overlooked.

[1] The low wasted style of hip-hop culture is associated with “time inside”, suggesting a familiarity with wearing clothing without a belt eventually translating into global fashion. See, for example, Shaun Cole (2012) “Considerations on a Gentleman's Posterior”, Fashion Theory, 16:2, 211-234.

[2] South African anti-apartheid activist, Ruth First recalls stitching a calendar of unravelled threads during solitary confinement in Pretoria in 1963 to keep track of her days and preserve her sanity while held under South Africa’s 90-day detention law. See R. First, 117 Days: An Account of Confinement and Interrogation Under the South African 90-Day Detention Law (Virago Modern Classics, 2006).

[3] During Pinochet’s ruthless dictatorship of Chile, arpilleras stitched by women’s groups documented the “disappeared”. These pieced and quilted textiles, often with short passages of stitched text, were smuggled out of the country for exhibition before conventional media reported these stories. See M. Agos and C. Franzen, Scraps of Life: Chilean Arpilleras: Chilean Women and the Pinochet Dictatorship (Red Sea Press, 1987).

[4] In the Japanese novel by Kobo Abe Woman in the Dunes (1962) (made into a film of the same name directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara and released in 1964) a couple thrown together by cunning and chance exist in a pit in the sand dunes. Their daily task of clearing sand preserves their immediate existence, but deepens their prison. The local community command a rope ladder by which the protagonist first enters his prison, ensuring power remains only with those who choose to deploy the ladder from above.

[5] Katie McGown’s unpublished PhD at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, Dropped Threads: Articulating a History of Textile Instability through 20th Century Sculpture describes the textile’s covert role in the French film A Man Escaped (1956) directed by Robert Bresson: “This first object, a piece of string thrown up through the bars of Fontaine’s window into his still-cuffed hands by another sympathetic inmate, is tied to the corners of a handkerchief creating a makeshift basket. By raising and lowering it to the courtyard below, he can send letters to his family, and smuggle in a safety pin capable of springing his handcuffs. This initial liberation enables the prisoner to gradually breach successive boundaries, and simultaneously gain a better understanding of the prison’s architecture. He determines that he needs to create rope and hooks in order to drop down towering walls, and monkey climb between two high barriers. Unravelling the wire mesh of his bed frame, and ripping his blankets into long strips, he twists the materials together to make a strong and flexible length. His earlier letters to his family have brought a suitcase full of clothing, and these are cut up as well. In prison where even pencils are forbidden, the tools of escape have to be as innocuous as possible. If the guards had found his length of rope, there would have been trouble, but the raw materials of his escape could be stuffed into a mattress, becoming soft and amorphous again, flying under the radar. Through this small accretion of inconsequential fibres, an arsenal of tools were created.” (pp. 125)

[6] Skype interview with the artist January 10, 2017.

[7] Email correspondence with the artist December 29, 2016.

[8] See Jorunn Veiteberg’s “The Problem of Beauty” in Craft in Transition translated by Douglas Ferguson (Bergen National Academy of the Arts, 2005).

Photograph: Jed Niezgoda /