Jeanette Sendler: the thin red line

Jeanette Sendler

German artist Jeanette Sendler’s background in theatre and costume design is evident in the large scale works she now creates as performance art pieces and installations. After training as a tailor for women’s clothing Sendler worked in the costume departments of various theatres including the Bertolt Brecht Theatre and Comic Opera in Berlin, the Scottish Opera, the English National Opera and the Australian Opera in Sydney. The art of hat making or millinery, to be precise, was Sendler’s early passion. From this interest evolved her current commitment to fibre and performance art. Resident in Scotland since 1991 Sendler studied at the Edinburgh College of Art, earning a BA (Hons) followed by an MA completed in 1997 both in Theatre Costume Design. Over the past decade Sendler’s interest in costume design has moved from the theatre stage to performance art and much of her recent projects now involve large-scale installations rendered in felt or paper.

Sendler’s considerable commitment to the worlds of fibre and performance art is evident in the several organization she is associated with founding. In the same year that she completed her studies at Edinburgh College of Art Sendler co-founded Metacorpus, a company that aims to increase the awareness and appreciation of costume art through the organization and support of performance art production. Three years ago Sendler was also involved with the co-founding of Emerging Properties a second performance art company based in Berlin that is committed to projects that combine poetry and fibre art. In addition to these organizations, Sendler’s business Costume Construction handles special commissions for costume projects. Alongside costume production Sendler continues to create a line of felted hats, her early passion, that teeter between the functional and the theatrical.

Research and Residencies have recently taken her to Finland, Lithuania, Kazakstan and Kirgizstan. The impact of these travels is evident in Sendler’s new found commitment to a variety of educational projects directed to furthering public knowledge of the ancient craft of felt making. Sendler’s arrival in Scotland over a decade ago may have been more fortuitous than she initially realized as the region seems to have offered much in the way of inspiration and resources for her interest in felt. She now teaches part-time at the Edinburgh College of Art and has been invited to lecture at numerous institutions in Scotland and Northern Europe. Her work is included in Filz Felt by Peter Schmitt, likely known by specialist books shop goers for its particularly appropriate felt cover.

The landscape, architectural spaces and the voids of ghostly forms are Sendler’s subjects. Large scale sculptures are often evocative of interior cavities, both of the human body and organic forms such as the cavities of rotten tree trunks. During a residency at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum in Sussex Sendler created “Decay and Life” a series of felted skins that cover several of the parkland’s trees. The trees were subsequently undressed and the felt installed at the Beatrice Royal Gallery in Eastleigh, Hampshire. The gallery installation resulted in the project taking on two lives. During the outdoor installation, the cycles of growth and decay underwent constant change. Installed in the museum setting the project took on a new identity as a static record of the moment when decay was halted and put on display. Perhaps most evident in this project is one of Sendler’s trademarks techniques: the incorporation of other fibres such as bark, grasses and moss with felted wool. This broad definition of “fibre” is also evident in Sendler use of hand made paper in several installations. Paper and felt are possibly more closely related than the other fields that come under the wide umbrella of textile art. Pulp and wool eventually arrive at the uniform surfaces we recognize as commercial paper and felt. Both belie the original hand making processes that Sendler chooses to explore.

Other works of performance art address the relationship between language and textile art. Working in collaboration with Nicole Dahlinger “Ghost Letters” is a piece of performance art based on works by the American poet Richard McCann. A series of performances in London and Berlin describe, in Sendler’s words, “the journey of two friends into the world of death; one dies and the other one returns to the real world.” Similar to the earlier “Decay and Life” the costumes for the performance were intentionally subjected to the elements. Exposure to weather caused the fibres on the exterior surface to break down, while the performer’s body heat and movement encouraged a similar interior decay. The unsettling emotion conveyed by these works in reminiscent of an environment described by late Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari in his short story “One Arm.” On an unusual night Yasunari’s main character imagines that he hears the following radio warning: “because of the wet branches and their own wet feet and wings, small birds have fallen to the ground and cannot fly. Automobiles passing through the parks should take care not to run over them. And if a warm wind comes up, the fog will perhaps change color. Strange-colored fogs are noxious. Listeners should therefore lock their doors if the fog should turn pink or purple.” Sendler’s performers would likely have seemed at ease in this strange fog. Here the felted costumes present a strange tension between a sense of being smothered and that of being swaddled, a world where beauty could as likely be magical as sinister.

Sendler’s contribution to “Sound and Suspension”, a collaboration with Metacorpus, was a series of performances entitled “Human Fetal Hearing.” The uterine-like shapes fashioned from felt create an interior world that is intended to evoke any fetal memories the viewer may hold with them. A second concern of the project and part of the audio component of the performance was a representation of fetal hearing and the possible impact fetal hearing may have on an individual’s communication skills later in life. The work reminds one of another German artist: Joseph Beuys. Beuys magical story of rescue during World War II and his subsequent use of felt and fat as material for his sculptures are known to have complex metaphorical associations, among them a sense of protection and survival. Sendler’s muffled world of fibre creates a similar poetic protection from the realities of day to day emotional and auditory exposure. And much like Sendler’s interior skins, Beuys’ is quoted with explaining that, “The outward appearance of every object I make is equivalent of some aspect of inner human life.”

Near Berlin the installation “Life Line”, the third element of the “Ghost Letters” series, uses a three hundred metre long felt rope to link thirty-three rooms in a former Tuberculosis hospital. Sendler explains that the line is a metaphor for life, but as Victoria Parry notes, “Fibre has often been called upon to describe and delineate the texture and perception of space, as have spider’s webs.” One wonders what sort of spider would have spun the rambling thread of this installation which slips though existing holes in the structure as well as borrowing its own. Vaguely reminiscent of an unruly green garden hosepipe, the blood red rope snakes its way through a frozen tap, in and out of the snowy grounds, across walls and ceilings to finally arrive at a two dimensional heart shape resting on the floor of one of the interior rooms. In some rooms attention is drawn solely towards the floor in a series of loops reminiscent of a mini-bicycle rack. In other spaces the felt snakes its way past the cracked and peeling paint of the walls and ceiling. Like a surreal replacement to the electrics or plumbing of this unloved building, there is little evoked by this trail of thread that proves sinister. Instead, one feels as though they are witness to a child’s work, the uninhibited drawing of lines in space, marking both sites of interest and those of seeming disinterest that reconfigure this otherwise sad space. Sendler’s most recent solo exhibition “Threads of Red and White” at the Jono Gallery in Lithuania reinstalls a version of the above piece along with “Chorus of Ancient Souls” and “Chorus of Living Souls” from “Ghost Letters”. “A Form of Patience” will be the fourth and final segment of the “Ghost Letters” series. Conceived as a work about paper, the performance will explore the medium from the perspective of both writer and fibre artist and includes an audio element that involves the sounds associated with writing and papermaking.

Skin is a recurring theme throughout Sendler’s work to date, be it the vein-like thread of her architectural installations or the shedding and decomposition that takes place in many of her performances. With the popularity of deconstructed and unravelled textiles in fashion, this invocation of decomposition, rather than merely unravelling, signals the fundamentally different possibilities that felt offers as a medium over other textile materials. The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use woven and felted textiles as examples of two inherently different notions of space: the smooth and the striated. As a textile smooth space relates to felt as “a supple solid product [. . . which] implies no separation of threads, no intertwining, only an entanglement of fibres obtained by fulling.” Such philosophising, at the very least, is acutely aware of the fundamental differences between felt and various other textile structures. Sendler too seems aware, and inspired, by these differences.

Selvedge magazine (issue 3, 2005: 18-19)