Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Marian Bijlenga: Drawing on Nature


Marian Bijlenga

“For me a thread is a line,” explains Dutch artist Marian Bijlenga. Bijlenga is the creator of delicate drawings, drawings that multiply across space and play tricks on the eye. Her recent work is often large, made of forms that suggest the natural without becoming natural. “I always call my work drawing,” she explains. “For me, when I draw with pencil then it is just a notation. I like to use material to make drawings.”

In the early 1990s Bijlenga’s drawing tool narrowed to a single material: horsehair. The fibre provides the necessary strength and flexibility to construct embroidered compositions of lines and dots. But as Yolanda Rustenhoven wrote for this magazine in 2002, “Marian Bijlenga uses textiles in her work – cotton, paper and horsehair, for example – but the application of the textile itself is not her main goal.” Embroidery provides the tool for securing the horsehair in place, but Bijlenga explains, “for me it is not real embroidery. Sometimes my work is in an embroidery exhibition, but it could also be in a sculpture exhibition. For me it is not so important.”

Bijlenga studied textile design but admits, “When I studied textiles I started to learn weaving, but for me weaving was too slow. It takes a lot of time before you could start and I did not like the technique. I was looking for a more direct way of working.” Bijlenga took the threads held by the loom and began instead to make drawings, stiffening the fibre by dipping it in glue. It was, to her satisfaction, “a much more free technique.” Calligraphy inspired much early work, but instead of the narrative possibilities of language Bijlenga explored the abstracted positive and negative shapes text created. “When I cannot read the words, for me that is very interesting, the rhythm of the writing and also the space in between the letters and the connection between lines. It is still my inspiration.” Gert Staal, in his essay to accompany Bijlenga’s portfolio series publication by Telos, observes of Bijlenga’s work during this time: “There are no words or sentences to assume form in the end, rather a collection of sounds placed alongside one another, almost by accident. They are the words of a child who cannot yet speak, tales whose meaning comes first from the intonation with which they are told.”

From these early text patterns Bijlenga’s work has grown increasingly abstract. Nature, rather than writing, is her inspiration. Small circles, ovals and streaks grow into compositions that map positive and negative space. For an outsider, the production seems as painstaking as weaving, but it is the immediacy of the process that is important. “I make one element and give it a place on my wall and then I make another element, so the work grows until I like it.” The work is meticulous, but Bijlenga sees the construction of each individual element as only the beginning. “After I have the pattern [pinned] on my wall, then starts the real work. The first thing is like playing. Then finally I use water-soluble fabric and make a drawing on the water-soluble fabric so I know how to attach the pieces. Then I use monofilament and the small pieces are attached to each other and finally it all becomes one big piece so you only need some pins on top of the piece to hang it on the wall.” When displayed with the right amount of natural light, the work looks to float just in front of the wall in a beguiling defiance of gravity.

Contemporary textile art has, in recent years, adopted an increasingly conceptual agenda, particularly in Britain. But Bijlenga is reluctant to be drawn on this line of inquiry. “If there is too much meaning and I have to read a lot of things about a piece of art, then it is not always interesting for me. “First the image must fascinate me,” she explains, “then comes the meaning. She cites the work of sculptors such as Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon and Andy Goldsworthy as inspiring. I ask then if the mantle of textile artist is problematic for her? “In Holland several fine art galleries show the work of textile artists. We don’t have real textile galleries anymore and most of the textile artists are in galleries for fine artists or they are more related to design. For me it is not an issue. I like to work with materials.”

Bijlenga’s most recent work builds upon the work of fellow Dutch artist Herman Scholten who made weavings of irregular shapes by working with thread and pins in his studio wall. “At the moment I am working with the traces from the pinholes left on his wall, a map of contours of his wall hangings,” she explains of her colleague who is now retired. Thirty years worth of pin holes were drawn by Bijlenga and the pattern of holes transferred to her own studio wall. “I do my own things on that wall,” she explains, “following his dots or lines or crossing and making a whole series of large pieces, 3 by 3 metres, that continue where he stopped working.” “I like to use leftovers of other artists. Mostly traces left by others. This could be holes in a wall, or punch holes in leather made at random by the use of a machine, but also eating away holes in leaves from insects, or skid marks on the road. There is a nice word for it: palimpsest. It is used more from the etching or writing, but I like the word and I feel as though I am doing that.” I ask if the cycle will continue with another invited artist and she confirms the possibility. Bijlenga may not call it conceptual, but I would. A material map of multiple generations of artists, all linked by one unifying pattern: thirty years of pin holes.

Embroidery magazine (March/April 2008: 22-27)