Suspended in Time: Helene Soubeyran

Suspended in Time: The Textile Art of Hélène Soubeyran

French artist Hélène Soubeyran’s interest in textiles was piqued by two events. The first, in 1970, was a piece of what we now refer to as shibori dyed cloth her father brought back as a gift from Cameroon, Africa. “Love at first sight,” is Soubeyran’s explanation of the importance this fabric has had to her life. The second was a visit to an archaeology museum in the early 1990s, where she happened upon a display of soil extracts in resin test tubes. Her Cameroonian gift led Soubeyran to the world of resist dyed fabrics, while her later encounter with geology has provided ongoing inspiration for her most recent body of resin cast textile sculptures.

Based in the south of France, Soubeyran spent much of the 1970s creating resist dyed scarves and clothing, which she successfully sold at local markets. The fabrics were popular and allowed her to adapt her working hours to meet the needs of raising her young family. From this early interest in pleating and resist dyeing, larger more sculptural works evolved. “At first I was interested in patterns,” she explains, “but after a few years I became more interested in shapes, rather than patterns. I began to make big pleats into structural shapes.” In addition to fabric, she explored a variety of materials from “nylon to silk, cotton, paper and newspaper, anything that I could shape in my hands. Inspiration came from what Soubeyran refers to as “the pleats around me: the landscape, mountains, the pleats of the body’s skin, vegetables, animals. Shapes that are crinkled and can open, like a butterfly or flower and movements that fold in and out.”

In the early 1990s, ill health caused Soubeyran to dramatically alter her working practice. “I had the need to gather: compiling, making things smaller and more concise. I needed to concentrate, to gather together this spreading way of working and to be more inside. This was a physical necessity for me.” During this reflective period Soubeyran came across the samples of soil extracts displayed in a resin tube, which she explains, was “the second shock of my life, the first being the African textile.” In response to her urge to gather and order, she arranged two decades of work spanning 1974 to 1994 into chronological order and decided to cast the entire mass in a single resin block. When compressed and hardened it measured 80 cm wide by 1.25 metres tall. “One block of all my creations,” she describes emphatically. After casting, the block was sent to a marble factory and cut into pieces, sections of which Soubeyran continues to work with today. “I have things called fragments. All of these I have to polish and sign and decide how to display. I still have a few that are not ready to be shown.”

“It is whole trip about pleats,” she explains of the polished resin sculptures. Cut to varying proportions, some are reminiscent of oversized slides, no longer in need of a microscope, and bearing cross sections of magical samples. The fabrics, once pleated for the purpose of resist dyeing, are now settled in new pleated configurations. Like multicoloured slices of cabbage, each layer is carefully arranged into the folds of the previous path. A progression is apparent throughout the layers reflecting Soubeyran’s early interest in dyeing and colour followed by a more subdued palette that coincided with her explorations of shape.

Does she ever miss the feel of these fabrics, the touch that inspires so many of us to relish textiles? “They are not ephemeral anymore,” she concedes, “but preserved perfectly, like petrified wood.” I wonder, in this bold act of preservation, if the chronology as truly perfect? “I thought it would all be in the right order,” she chuckles. “But transporting the huge compressed bag, before the resin, caused some movement. The order did not stay absolutely perfect. But a geological researcher told me not to worry. Nature is the same. Layers move.”

I ponder the intensely personal nature of this project and the sheer amount of time it now captures: decades – a career in fact. But Soubeyran assures me that she no longer needs this work and would be comfortable with it all leaving her studio. There seem to be an endless multitude of variations to pursue with the arranging and casting of other materials, but she finds the idea unappealing, explaining, “That would become decorative. This block has the whole story of my life. I am not worried. I have many other ideas. In my hands I have the talent to fold very easily everything. It is spontaneous; always something comes out from my hands.”

Embroidery magazine (Jan./Feb. 2008: 32-35)