Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Kaunas Textile Biennial

Alice_Kettle_Kaunas_reviewBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

8th Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE ‘11: Rewind—Play—Forward

Various Locations
Kaunas, Lithuania

Launched in 1997, the 8th Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE ’11: Rewind—Play—Forward  brought together an international, multidisciplinary program open to the public for three months (September 22–December 23, 2011). Twenty-two exhibitions spread across ten gallery and museum spaces in the city were framed by the dominance of Soviet-era architecture, which set the atmosphere for many of the shows. The result was more than ample display space but an overwhelming mileage of exhibition routes to tackle. At the city’s vast National Museum, several exhibits spread across a number of floors. Lure, a suspended installation of red thread by the Chinese-American artist Beili Liu, provided an effective reminder of the visual strengths to be found in simplicity. In the same building, Canadian Amélie Brisson-Darveau’s A Wardrobe for My Shadows was displayed to encourage viewers to stumble upon the work. This approach helped disrupt some of the monotony generated by the sheer scale of the building and well suited the floor display of Brisson-Darveau’s quilted material “shadows.”

Less familiar contributors included the Norwegian artist Tonje Høydahl Sørli’s tapestries of cartoon figures and thought bubbles. Each work was shown on its tapestry frame, some with an untrimmed back and loose threads visible; this display approach offered a surprising combination of unexpected imagery and exposed the mechanics of tapestry weaving. For viewers of my generation and younger, the opportunity to see this contemporary work in the same venue as tapestries by the celebrated Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz was a real treat. Like so much textile work, Abakanowicz’s roughly textured tapestries, so familiar through the flattened images of photographs, benefit from viewing in person. Similarly, new jacquard weavings by the American Lia Cook, based on imagery taken from brain scans, also deserved first-hand observation as the optical games they play are largely lost through photography.

The ample exhibition spaces made viewing feel quite solitary on the mid-winter weekend of my visit, which admittedly occurred months after the initial opening and the 16th European Textile Network conference. Nonetheless, certain installations, such as Korean artist Chunghie Lee’s No Name Women, powerfully filled an entire room making purposeful use of the space. Other exhibitors, such as NUNO, the Tokyo-based design and production studio who are masters of complex woven textile structures and unusual finishing techniques, suffered from a dimly lit exhibition space which made the subtlety of their work difficult to discern.

The decision to bring together dance and textiles benefitted new audiences. Of the 43 pieces presented live during the biennial, I was able to see German choreographer Johannes Wieland’s Box Melancholique, an engrossing experience that managed to largely avoid the complications of translation through dance, gesture, and (to my terror) the threat of audience participation. I was relieved to escape the latter, but the startled novice snagged into knitting on stage proved amusing to watch from the audience.

In contrast to the quality of performances, it was video art that tended to represent some of weakest contributions. German artist Michaela Melián’s mesmerising multimedia installation composed of audio, video, and site-specific drawings was a beautiful exception to this trend.

Any event of this scale, which included hundreds of artists from 53 countries, is going to include work of variable quality. The vast selection of art and design on exhibit at Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE ’11, however, also deserves to be understood in light of Lithuania’s relatively recent independence from the Soviet Union in 1990. Curation could arguably have been tighter to create a smaller selection of higher quality work, but inclusion and variety felt, understandably, to be fiercely defended priorities in a nation rebuilding a democracy.

To see videos and other imagery from the 8th Kaunas Biennial TEXTILE ’11 including Johannes Wieland’s Box Melancholique, visit

Surface Design Journal (fall 2012: 62-63)