The Needle's Eye

The Needle’s Eye: Contemporary Embroidery
Kode 1, Art Museums of Bergen, Norway, October 10 – January 4, 2015

The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, Norway February 21 - May 16, 2015

Thread draws the eye to detail, making scale an inescapable quality of embroidery. Even when stitched into the drum of a cement mixer, the surface of a photograph or even human skin, embroidery is essentially about the expressive qualities of thread. This means that viewing embroidery is often an exercise in close looking at relatively short focal distances.

Åse Ljones’ twelve panel Rørsle (2010) of concentric circles exquisitely contradicts these generalisations with a balance of scale and detail. In the Bergen venue, her work is displayed near Anna Von Mertens’ circular Anasazi 12th Century Migration (2013) and Regien Cox’s embroidered drum of a concrete mixer, Winnowing Sky Travellers (2013). Von Mertens explains her need “to get my own bearings in this vast universe”; Ljones refers to the slowness of embroidery creating “room for silence”; and we are told that the metal Cox embroiders “alludes directly to outer space”. Unfortunately, the curatorial decision to group these spherical references makes trite the stated intentions of each individual work.

There are of course other exceptions to the scale rule. Gunvor Nervold Antonsen’s large canvas Djupet (2010) combines the fast marks of spray paint with delicate but huge looping webs of stitches. And Anne Ingeborg Biringvad’s Ingeborgs kors (2011) of pieced recycled embroidery with painted shapes is explained in the catalogue as a work that includes an unfinished woollen embroidery stitched by the artist’s grandmother who lost young children: “a cross of grief she shares with women the world over.” Here the fact that the work sits so bravely on the wall feels right – as bold as the bravery needed to overcome grief.

Because the exhibition is organised around unremarkable themes such as materiality, tradition, storytelling, gender, power and status each section blurs easily into the next. This would be less of a problem in a smaller exhibition, but here the result feels like trying to read an essay that has been written without paragraphs. The viewer is tasked with the considerable responsibility of deciding where to draw breadth.

Thankfully, we are given one clear moment to pause. Set near the back of the space, essentially the half way marker for a methodical exhibition goer, plays a video of Kimsooja’s performance A Needle Woman (2009) in which the artist stands stock still while the world streams by. Her performance presents a welcome alternative interpretation of what embroidery may mean and, crucially, its placement in the exhibition is pitch perfect.

But other accomplished works suffer from their placement. Susan Collis’ masquerading dustsheet, Better Days II (2010), and overcoat, 100% Cotton (2004), feel more contrived than I have seen in other contexts, although her Shoddy (2013) an under carpet of what is in fact Cashmere, Mohair, wool, silk and gold thread lurks much more convincingly along a separate wall. Kristine Fornes’ emotive landscape of Furu, furu, gran og gran (2011) is mesmerising because of the artist’s ability to make a subtle stitched line so expressive, but drew a short straw displayed so close to the entrance door where viewers are unlikely to have settled into concentrated viewing.

A number of historical embroideries from museum’s collection are dealt with extensively in the exhibition catalogue. In person they fail to resonate other than on the basic level of shared construction technique. There are also a number of works hung unusually high on the walls – possibly an effort to move visitors beyond an easy line of sight – but the gesture is too clever for its own good and makes the complex detail of works such as Nava Lubelski’s Gold Rush (2011) simply hard to see.

An exhibition of this scale devoted to contemporary embroidery practice is a heartening validation that textiles are enjoying a warmer welcome in mainstream Art and Design Museums than the past has offered. Ironically, the rub is that textiles do not always flourish in the vast empty spaces built with contemporary art in mind. Textiles are notoriously difficult to display and photograph – challenges that will regrettably suppress their broader appreciation until the curatorial challenges of exhibiting textiles are tackled more convincingly.

Crafts magazine (Jan./Feb. 2015: 58-59)