Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Sign Post to a New Space

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Sign Post to a New Space

Each year the company Creative Exhibitions organizes several popular textile events in the United Kingdom. The Knitting and Stitching Show, which tours venues in England and Northern Ireland, and the Festival of Quilts, held in Birmingham, draw significant numbers of attendees, both for the shopping opportunities provided by the textile vendors and for the exhibitions. The recent symposium Sign Post to a New Space: Concept, Collection, Collation, held November 24–25, 2005, reflected the organizers’ desire to attend to the interests of a further sector of textile enthusiasts: collectors, historians, curators, and professional artists. Coinciding with the Harrogate edition of the Knitting and Stitching Show, the symposium proved to be a successful addition to the popular show.

Several presentations tackled the challenge of defining “art textiles” (a term used more frequently than “fiber art” in the United Kingdom). Far from redundant, these working definitions helped to focus discussion. Dr. Jennifer Harris, deputy director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, England, explained that the main difference between fine artists’ use of textiles and “art textiles” can be found in the desire of the latter not only to use textiles for their tactile and symbolic qualities but also to “initiate debate about textile history.” Artist Michael Brennand-Wood made an impassioned call for textile artists to “work on our own terms” rather than conforming to the values of other disciplines. And the writer and historian Mary Schoeser explained, “Textiles allow intimate exploration of structure and surface. This is what informs the textile concept even if the material is not fiber.” The discipline of textiles is enormous, but—in light of these definitions—also surprisingly focused.

Presentations by Harris, June Hill, and Grace Cochrane addressed the textile and applied-art collections at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Bankfield Museum, Halifax; and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia. At the other end of the spectrum, artists Primmy Chorley, Marian Bijlenga, and Tilleke Schwarz discussed the place of private collecting as a source of inspiration in the development of their own artistic practices. Artists Deirdre Nelson and Michael Brennand-Wood tackled yet another aspect of the topic of collection: the role museum collections can play in the development of new work. The place of written language, both as part of exhibitions and as a source of inspiration for artists, became a recurring theme throughout these discussions. Some speakers, such as the artists Brennand-Wood and Matthew Harris, warned that the visual arts need to be appreciated first and foremost visually, and that text can be an intrusion that takes away from the viewer’s experience of understanding the visual language of the maker. But others, such as Nelson and the curators Harris and Hill, defended the place of explanatory text in exhibitions as a way to assist a broader museum-going public that may be quite unfamiliar with the work they are viewing.

Wisely, the curators of this event, Michael Brennand-Wood and Mary Schoeser, along with the organizers, have decided against making a symposium an annual affair, suggesting instead that similar events be organized as it becomes apparent that further discussion is warranted. Hopefully this approach will avoid any danger of becoming merely a social reunion and will instead allow for conference themes and approaches to remain dynamic and flexible to the needs of future debates and practices. A high standard has been set for what one can only hope will be many thought-provoking symposia to come.

Jessica Hemmings is a lecturer in the theory and practice of textiles at the Winchester School of Art in England and a contributing editor for Selvedge and Modern Carpets and Textiles.

FiberArts Magazine (April/May 2006: 7)