Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer



Olek: I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone
Tony’s Gallery, London

The title of Polish-born, New York-based artist Olek’s first solo exhibition in Britain was cribbed from another female enfant terrible of the art world: Tracey Emin. In a recent review for the Guardian newspaper, UK art critic Laura Cumming deemed Emin’s quilt I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone (2002) to be a fine example of “mawkish self-pity.” Paying homage to Emin’s ethos, the garish environment Olek created for Tony’s Gallery in London (January 27–March 23, 2012) had the potential to polarize opinion in much the same way. Her camouflage-patterned crochet sits in the sloppy craft camp—an elusive judgment to make because intention is so difficult to gauge. Incautious construction allows for the creation of meters of fabric that are displayed, pulled and stretched over anything: canvasses, furniture, a rocking horse, even crochet-covered frames holding photographs of crocheted worlds.

There is a sense of art school haste about this work that is in distinct contrast to the meticulously crafted environments of, for example, Liza Lou. Compulsion to create is shared by the two, but attention to detail is not. Instead, Olek’s installation felt hasty and, as a result, suggested the experience of performance rather than a static sculpture. This reading was backed up by the orientation of the exhibition, which looked set in anticipation of an audience beyond the exhibition space. Objects faced the main gallery window and entrance door to become as much an expanded window dressing as an immersive environment. The tactic worked, up to a point. During my visit, passers-by walking between the new Shoreditch High Street light rail station and achingly trendy Brick Lane did stop and stare, but few chose to venture inside.

Experience of the work from within the installation, rather than peering in from the street, did alter impact. Shoes needed to come off to enter the space, a practical gesture that had the added benefit of leaving viewers a little less sure of themselves while padding around the springy crochet floor. The text embedded throughout the crochet contributed to this unsettling sense. And because the text was hard to decipher, viewing distance became all the more crucial. Although, in fairness, this illegibility may be no bad thing for some as the bits I could catch included the proclamations: “I passed out. I think I came first though. Thur Sep 16 1:08.” The exhibition’s press release attempted to explain the context of these phrases by suggesting that “the omnipresence of explicit messages crocheted into the objects are statements revealing her position as a female artist in an art world that is inclined to have sexist opinions.” Apparently gleaned from text messages, the brief narratives share much with Emin’s tactic to harvest artistic content directly from what would otherwise be the private details of life.

Amongst the visual clamour of clashing color and pattern, it was a dreadlocked female mannequin seated and waiting for the phone to ring that I found most disconcerting. Nearby was a crib, empty bar a toy machine gun, and next to the crib a conspicuously empty feeding chair. The scene reads as the antithesis of domesticity, but the potential freedoms this tableau could provide are here overshadowed by an unsettling sense of melancholy.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2012: 64)