Lausanne to Beijing Fiber Biennial

“From Lausanne to Beijing” 4th Annual Fiber Art Biennale 2006
Suzhou, China
October 27-November 17, 2006

With a remit to “show the most active thoughts and ideas in the field of fiber art in the world” the 2006 Annual Fiber Art Biennale mounted an enormous exhibition in the cavernous galleries of the Suzhou Arts and Design Technology Institute. Inspired by the Lausanne biennales (held in Switzerland between 1962 and 1995) the 2006 exhibition marks the fourth in the series of exhibitions, which the organizers explain, strive to “further more exchange and communication between the eastern and western art.”

This ambitious undertaking felt guided, to a large extent, by the curious decision to revive the Lausanne exhibitions, which epitomized the interests of fiber artists (initially with a specific attention to tapestry) during the decades in which they were held. Ironically, much of the work on display at this event would have looked quite at ease in the Lausanne exhibitions of the past. As a result, the exhibition felt to be occupying a visual time warp, with much of the work on display made in the past few years, but of a style that reflected the interests and ideals of several decades past.

The large, newly built campus and art gallery of Suzhou Arts and Design Technology Institute proved an apt setting for what could only be liken to a marathon of fiber art exhibitions. A visit to the exhibition required a considerable feat of stamina and endurance, with an enormous quantity of work on display throughout the sizable arts complex. Overall, this may have been the exhibition’s greatest downfall as the sheer volume of work on display inevitably meant that many pieces were not of a particularly high standard. The exhibition catalogue proved a misleading reference with the inclusion of a number of international artists whose work was not in fact part of the exhibition.

Considering the lengths fiber art has to go to in order to defend its identity, the event would have been served well if a policy of quality rather than quantity was employed. Considering the international aspirations of the organizers, international exhibitors fell few and far between representatives from China. This demographic was understandable considering the event’s location, but the bulk of work on display ultimately failed to “show the most active thoughts and ideas in the field of fiber art in the world.”

Decorative rather than conceptual work prevailed, but perhaps most surprising to see was the overwhelming predominance of tapestry presented by many of the Chinese artists. Considering the healthy links to film, video and performance art that fiber art has established in recent years, it is difficult to see how a genre of work so thoroughly explored by European and North American artists in the 1970s and 1980s is truly representative of fiber art today. Regrettably the uneven calibre of work and somewhat unprofessional approach to display drew attention away from the engaging and truly innovative work included in the exhibition.

Nonetheless, the event had its notable delights. Although familiar to me through photographs, Korean artist Chung Kyungyeun’s installation of white cotton gloves with dip dyed fingers was a treat to see in person. The Italian-born British-based artist Clio Padovani, who trained as a tapestry weaver but now works with video presented several giant stills from a recent video work printed digitally onto cotton and loosely embroidered. The piece was one of few that stood out as a conceptual, rather than solely material, investigation. But it was the Japanese artist Kozue Yasuoke’s “Portrait of Myself” which managed to stay in my mind’s eye long after the giant galleries of the exhibition had been tackled. Her triptych of three textured and gently distorted faces seemed to speak eloquently to both material and conceptual concerns – a balance I feel fiber art must continue to keep in mind. International interest in fiber art is certainly to be welcomed and encouraged. But for future exhibitions to be meaningful not only to those artists newly introduced to the discipline, but also for an international audience of established practitioners, greater rigour must be applied to the definition and understanding of fiber art and the real possibilities it presents for the future.

Surface Design Journal (winter 2008: 58-59)