Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Slow Looking

FABRICation

BY JESSICA HEMMINGS

The artists in FABRICation are engaged with the significance of slow making by hand as a vital form of knowledge. By addressing how our material world is made, they create objects that require slow looking.

In direct contrast, few people can explain the making behind the objects that surround us. Crucially, even fewer care. Most of us know how to consume, discard and… repeat. This knowledge gap is not accidental: carefully developed marketing strategies bring us back to the shops for more. Electronics are often cheaper to replace than repair. But so too are clothing, suitcases, shoes, umbrellas. Who now knows enough or cares enough to invest in the repair of an object’s fabrication?

It is dangerously easy to misunderstand the material world around us if a basic understanding of how it came into existence is absent. In the case of art, an appreciation of the labour and skill involved in production is a component of meaning. This has a particularly acute bearing on our understanding of textiles. There are unquestionably more ways to appreciate a textile than solely via consideration of making, but it is impossible to appreciate textiles fully without attention to their fabrication. This is important to the works assembled for FABRICation because each shares an interest in the meaning of making. How things are assembled, what this means, and what it may mean to misunderstand or mis-see making are concepts at play throughout this exhibition.

FABRICation also introduces a twist in meaning that should not be overlooked. To fabricate can mean to construct, manufacture but also to invent (facts) and to forge (a document). The deceptions present in this exhibition are optical – games which test and trick the eyes – rather than the art of counterfeits. Optical games also make an appearance in instances where the fabric on display is not, in reality, fabric at all. Fabric – the basic stuff of textile practice – appears both literally as material, but also figuratively through painted illusions to material. The inverse approach makes an appearance through painterly marks constructed from thread, pieced cloth and collage. While the influence and inspiration provided by the textile is undeniable, the original is displaced. The works in FABRICation are certainly inspired by textiles, but they are equally important to see as paintings.

On display are objects that firmly occupy the realm of the non-functional, but are not necessarily crafted entirely from scratch. The industrial or ready-made appears in the guise of materials recycled from other functions such as a dress or vinyl sheeting. Often the chosen methods of production demand far greater commitment of time than the original they allude to. Painting wood to look like cloth, stitching together cloth to seem like glass, weaving wool into sculptural loops – each material translation requires considerable skill and time to interpret anew.

The presence of the textile in fine art has on one level never been absent. Every painted canvas is a painting on cloth. But despite this inherent intimacy, boundaries between art made from textiles and art made near or about textiles have been ludicrously well policed. This anxiety has relaxed in the past decade and several recent international exhibitions have provided textiles with a warmer welcome within fine art than felt for some time. In Germany, Art & Textiles: Fabric as Material and Concept in Modern Art from Klimt to the Present was held in 2014 at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and brought together very real textiles with their vivid representations through other media such as painting. 2014 also saw Decorum: carpets and tapestries by artists at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris focusing on rugs, carpets and tapestries by modern and contemporary artists.

These large exhibitions feel somewhat overdue to an audience who has followed textiles over the past decades, but their presence within essentially traditional curatorial contexts suggests that the unease with which the textile has been treated in the past may be drawing to a close. FABRICation contributes to this shift with the work of seven artists who arguably could not be defined as owned by the disciplines of textiles or fine art. They are both – or perhaps neither – something positioned in between the two that refuses to take for granted the ways art is made and the ways art is seen.

Seeing is far from an innocent activity. We are each conditioned, through culture, education and experience, to recognize familiar elements of the visual world that surrounds us. Disrupting our optical expectations causes a pause. When faced with a shape or texture we do not immediately recognise our eyes and mind experience a moment of disconnection. This disconnection is not a gap. Instead misrecognition can foster slow looking.

The slow food movement celebrates the time involved with the production of our food and rejects hasty substitutes. Slow craft has similarly been celebrated for its intentional engagement with time. Rather than seek alternatives to quicken daily experiences, there is an increasing acknowledgement that we need to find ways to distance ourselves from the superficial engagement with life that is the by-product of speeding and skimming. Slow looking could, arguably, be applied to anything and everything. What it won’t allow for is multitasking.

The works presented for FABRICation deserve slow looking. They aren’t what they seem and that is, to some extent, their point. They do expect the viewer to study their making and the illusions their making suggests. Then consume and repeat.

Jessica Hemmings is a Professor of Visual Culture and Head of the Faculty of Visual Culture at the National College of Art & Design, Dublin. With her interest in materiality and expertise in textiles, she also writes essays and edits essay collections. Her writings include Yvonne Vera: The Voice of Cloth (Kalliope 2008) and Warp & Weft (Bloomsbury 2012). Editorial publications include In the Loop: Knitting Now (Black Dog 2010) and The Textile Reader (Berg 2012). Her latest editorial project, Cultural Threads, is a book about postcolonial thinking and contemporary textile practice (Bloomsbury 2015).