Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Innate Portability

Portage_exhibition_coevrBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Portage: Textiles & Extremes of Scale
Shetland Arts’ Bonhoga Gallery, Scotland, 2010

Textiles rarely have to make an effort to be portable. They already are. It is in their nature.

The textiles on display here have made the journey to Shetland in part because of their innate portability. One arrived wrapped in the modest packaging of a recycled Cornflake box. Another has travelled virtually, arriving via email rather than sea or air. All have benefitted from their flexible, lightweight materials that lend themselves to transport.

The portable nature of textiles has long allowed them to travel the world. Today, this means that new works can make their way to remote locations with (relative) ease using the same routes that allowed local traditions to become known worldwide. When compared to the fragility of glass and ceramics or the weight of wood and metal, the textile is well prepared for a journey: they tend to bend and fold, rather than break. They can be packed small and expand on arrival. In fact, textiles not only travel well, they have also assisted in the momentum of travel. Canvas aeroplanes wings and ship sales helped generate travel as John K Raustein reminds us with his ship sail embroidered with the mechanical means of travel. Engine parts – rather than the wind – are stitched onto the very material that once propelled our sea vessels.

Textiles involve the use of smaller elements combined to create a larger whole: fibres are matt together to create felt, a single yarn looped back and forth makes crochet and knit fabrics, multiple interlinked threads form woven cloth. The textile then has two options. One is to relish these minute beginnings and dwell on extraordinary details as Inni Parnanen does in her use of stitched parchment. Anna Ray and Ase Ljones also work in this way but create details that are optically unstable: shifting and revealing new dimensions to their patterns depending on the viewer’s distance from the work. The textile can also multiply its miniature makeup, combining small units until we are faced with something surprisingly large such as Outi Martikainen’s large-scale screen comprised of fine threads.

The makeup of textiles also allows for work to be created and assembled over time. The sweet-sized elements of Susan Mowatt’s investigation of colour and texture are made, piece-by-piece, to fit quite literally around the pressing demands of the artist’s life. Aino Kaijaniemi creates detailed tapestries that provide us with a larger narrative when grouped together. Marian Bijlenga creates her own version of intricate Shetland lace knitting from a transport system in its own right: individual fish scales pinned to the wall.

The lightness of textile materials means works such as Anna Osmer Andersen’s oversized chain link necklace presents none of the weighty burdens of its dockside metal counterpart. Similarly, monofilament – the material of fishing line – is used by Anniken Amundsen to create plant-like forms that seem to be nurtured by air, rather than soil and water.

Remember that textile repair, if ever needed, is often not impossible. Darning and patching allow the small-scale elements of the textile offer ways to keep the larger whole intact. Kari Steihaug cannibalises existing textiles and reforms the sacrificed threads into new structures. Tanvi Kant’s delicate use of recycled sari fabric largely obscures the fabrics’ original identity to present us with entirely new forms.

Textiles like to travel. It is in their nature. But they often get short shrift – overlooked because we think we know them so well. The extremes of scale exhibited here have made the work no less portable. But they do ask you to pause and look again and things you may have thought you knew. Come close and look twice. Nothing here is quite as it first appears.

Dr Jessica Hemmings
Head of Context
Edinburgh College of Art