Sera Waters: the Dark Side

Sera Waters

“They even stole steaks from the freezer,” Australian artist Sera Waters remembers overhearing an indignant victim of petty theft recalling at her local police station. Admitting that she had previously considered the story an urban myth, the comment provided inspiration for Waters most recent series of embroideries, Butchering. “Myth no longer,” she explains of the chance comment she overheard, “I decided that petty (or not-so-petty) criminals could possibly be the dark versions of our suburban butchers: similarly revelling in blades, cuts, blood and ice.” The content of the new series, Waters explains, is both fictional and actual: “dramatics that are invited into our homes under the guise of entertainment” as well as the reality of our increasingly violent contemporary culture.

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Waters comes from a family of makers. Her Grandmother, like many women of her generation, created “embroidered linens that adhered to the pleasant and traditional subjects of flora and fauna.” Waters has adopted what she refers to as the “‘nice’ and decorative language of stitch” used by her Grandmother, but instead of a peaceful domestic life, she records “the memories of dramas that have occurred in our suburban homes”. Textiles became an element of her studio practice first through screen-printing at the South Australian School of Art, University of South Australia, where she graduated with a degree in the Visual Arts in 2000. She then completed an MA in Art History at Adelaide University in 2006 with a dissertation that explored images of disaster in Japanese visual culture. During this time she experienced both a break-in and fire set by an arsonist where she was living – facts that make the focus of her current studio practice only a little less surprising.

Waters explains that after completing her studies, she found she “didn’t have language for stitching”. In the summer of 2006 she travelled to England on a Ruth Tuck Scholarship to study at the Hampton Court Palace’s Royal School of Needlework. Attending a variety of technical courses allowed her to build up her skills, but the experience did nothing to dissuade her interests in stitching curiously macabre content. Returning to Australia, she married and gave birth to her first son, two significant events that also did little to disrupt her interest in disasters.

In early 2008, Chop Chop was embroidered as part of Crooked Lineage, a series inspired by “intruders, weapons, disguises, dubious facts and evidence from the scene of petit crimes”. The series is stitched using black work, what Waters coins “the darkest of all the embroidered arts”. Reminiscent of a block print on heavily textured paper, Chop Chop looks to have only partially taken to the surface of cloth, like an edition late in a print run, or a half erased imprint. The stark work led to further and increasingly detailed scrutiny of the surface details meat contains in the Butchering series created during late 2008 and early 2009, which follow with two distinct but equally unexpected sets of imagery: knives and meat.

“My Nana never embroidered anything bad, only the niceties of life, not the reality of life,” Waters offers as explanation of her chosen content. Ironically, Butchering contains the most ornate work to date, rendering unappealing and even threatening imagery sensuous. While neither knives nor meat could be said to represent expected content for embroidery, both are stitched with an attention to aesthetics that you would anticipate seeing in the most saccharine work. Rib Eye Roast and Boneless Pot Roast include further unusual details, such as blood stained ice crystals in the background of each work. Waters explains that the “ice crystals radiate their coldness and represent the frozen state of the meat” but are also intended to have “ominous links to underground drug rings – a subject which appears insatiably interesting in current Australian television.” (The term ice is slang in some circles for the Methamphetamine Crystal Meth, a drug with alarming statistics of increased usage in North America and Australia over the past decade.)

More mundane, but equally distasteful observations are also celebrated, such as the fat that sits proud on the surface of Rib Eye Roast, glistening in yellow beads along one edge. Sequins are coupled with glow-in-the-dark thread to embellish Hack and De-Bone, images of knives that Waters describes as “tools-of-the-trade for butchers of the criminal and non-criminal variety”. Ironically, the knife works contain some of the most decorative surfaces of the Butchering series. Here they glint in the darkness, like weapons ready for “potential crimes about to be committed.”

A series of embroideries that contain images of explosions stitched on fire blankets make up the work now being created for Waters solo exhibition Craft'n Disaster at The Project Space, part of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia in Adelaide (opens in June 2009). The timely content was in fact planned before Australia’s recent fires in Victoria. While fire blankets allude to Australia’s propensity for natural bush fires and the crime of arson that is often responsible for the blazes, Waters explains the series is inspired, in part, by Tracey Emin’s use of blankets. “The main idea behind the fire blankets,” she explains, “is how soft and comforting items in your home soak up images of disaster. I wanted to use fire blankets to capture this sense of irony.” Once again, these new materials continue her exploration of uncomfortable realities in contemporary life, but were also selected as a challenge to create work on a larger scale.

If initial impressions of the content seen in the Butchering series feels like an uncomfortable match for embroidery, further consideration reminds us of the role cloth plays in absorbing the stains and spills of our meals, the mess of food preparation, even the careful cleaning and drying of the sharpest of kitchen knives. The content may at first seem to be yet another subversive disruption of the comforts we tend to associate with cloth. But Waters explorations of violence may in fact also simply be realistic. Butchering does not provide us with a record of what we want to see. Instead, it records the violence many viewers elect in their entertainment as well as the crimes that regrettably remain ever present, even when we try to look away.

Embroidery magazine (Sept./Oct., 2009: 24-27)