Maps of Modern Life

Historically, embroidery samplers taught women the rudiments of reading and writing. Dutch artist Tilleke Schwarz’s contemporary versions of this tradition challenge the viewer to think. Created through observation and intuition, these modern samplers confound traditional expectations. Tidy rows of stitches are replaced with abstract, layered compositions; “Home Sweet Home” and similar aphorisms of domestic duty are transformed into a jumble of politically correct phrases, computer codes and malfunctioning technology signals; and a delicate palette of carefully coordinated threads is exchanged for boldly coloured background cloth and unruly metallic skeins. That said, these textiles have far from severed all ties with their historical counterparts. Through a cacophony of text and image each continues to build upon the considerable legacy the sampler commands as storyteller. But in place of traditional alphabets or apples are nonlinear post-modern narratives that speak of “modern society and the strange way we deal with mass communication.”

In the space of the museum or gallery, we are conditioned to resist the desire to touch textiles. Photographic images also deny the viewer the opportunity to touch. But if one were able to feel these textiles, a brail map of textures and their possible codes of meaning would appear. With few notable exceptions, Tilleke hand embroiders, proclaiming a general “dislike for machines.” The ‘signature’ added to each work is a machine-stitched label of capital letters in blocky Verdana font that states the simple facts: “Tilleke Schwarz, The Netherlands.” Most of the sewn text is written in English, to allow accessibility for her international audience. Phrases and symbols appear for a variety of reasons ranging from associations with the origin of the reference, to the humour a saying imparts, or a sound that catches the ear or the tip of the tongue. One thing unites them all: the unlikely combinations of words and symbols that pepper each piece are cleaved from their original context. As a result, words and symbols are reassigned new associations and meanings that chart the bombardment of significant, as well as absurd, information that inundates our senses every day.

While time is vital to these works (both from the perspective of production as well as contemplation) there is also an urgent quality to this work that could be likened to the rapidly scrawled mark of graffiti; a quick turn of phrase or observation left curiously exposed for public consumption. But unlike graffiti the artist’s skilful and experimental eye for colour, texture and composition rewards the viewer who reads the work from a variety of distances, through a variety of conceptual approaches. Contrasting textures abound, from the heavily worked areas sewn in a variety of skilfully crafted stitches to bold areas of fabric left entirely bare. Couching stitches hold down the thickest and trickiest of threads that run like veins across the surface of the fabric. Works such as 100% Checked, Business as Usual, Mark Making and Play with me even include a tangled web stitched in this technique that attaches metallic thread to the cloth which otherwise proved too fragile to stitch into the fabric. Elsewhere the Japanese fashion label Kenzo or a densely worked Pink Panther appears: signs that Tilleke describes as “a mixture of graphic quality, content and fooling around.”

While narrative has long played an important role both for the historical embroidery sampler as well as the broader field of the visual art, this tradition is now unflinchingly updated with a post-modern jumble of repetition and critique of the absent meaning behind the phrases and symbols of modern life. An early work, Themes (1987), depicts an empty sheet of paper complete with a woven red line (the muslin fabric’s former role was as a soup strainer in the kitchen) that looks like the printed margin of a blank page of paper. Sewn text falls around, rather than onto the centre of the white page, which instead contains a tree of life stitched in white thread on the white background and half a fading flower. Elsewhere the ‘page’ has begun to tear and unravel. The text captures both the mundane as well as the poignant with references to the artist’s first car as well as the comment, “I am allergic to themes” written out of frustration at the tendency of textile curators to rely on themes when organising exhibitions. A cat, a recurring reference throughout, makes its debut. The blank narrative page continues to appear conceptually if not literally throughout works to date, requiring the viewer to contemplate and then ‘read’ connections and conclusions from the symbols and phrases provided. In a sense, these stories are told in pieces, leaving the viewer responsible for the sequence, both within and across the work.

Another early work, Beware of Embroidery (1993), establishes reveals distinctive approach to composition. Stitched on a bright yellow background, the dramatic palette of the embroidery sets a tone of humorous warning. Looking back through sketches for the work, one can see a Sweet n’ Low packet flanked by a miniature bottle of Britain’s ubiquitous breakfast seasoning – Brown Sauce – and detailed graphs that plot floral motifs. A snap shot of a neon yellow sculpture of Madonna provides reference for the dominant background colour of the piece, which the artist explains taught her a useful lesson in the “impact colour can have on a traditional image.” In the finished embroidery, a flying mouse pulls an aerial banner advert for Sweet and Low through the sky. To the right a figure that looks to be split in two sits beside a hollow facemask: emblems, perhaps, of contemporary life’s impossible quest for unity or logic.

The methodology driving this work, as Beware of Embroidery’s title suggests, eludes easy definition. The artist warns against a literal reading of references. Instead each work allows us insight into the textures, shapes and perhaps most importantly the humour Tilleke sees in everyday life. Archaeology is certainly at work. As new references are unearthed and translated into stitch, they are combined with familiar patterns and shapes. The layers exist side by side, complimenting but also challenging each other. The voice is not overtly subversive, but instead records a contemporary world filled with increasingly illogical data. It is a world that can no longer yield to the sequential order of linear narration, but must instead be constantly redefined by its contradictions.

The oddities of foreign life observed while travelling overseas appear in many works, most pointedly in Count Your Blessings, a work that retells numerous warnings encountered when travelling in Australia and the United States. The increasingly litigious nature of American culture is highlighted in a take-away coffee cup lid stitched with “caution may be hot/sip with care”, as are more sensitive, but equally odd observations. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, for example, displayed the warning: “members of aboriginal communities are respectfully advised that a number of people depicted in photographs in this room have now passed away.” Nearby, the same museum explains, “the well-being, feeding and maintenance of the fish in this room have been considered with great care.” De-contextualizing the absurd details that govern politically correct protocol today infuses each work with an ironic sense of humour. But beyond humour is an acute observation of the bizarre and often unsettling ‘facts’ that inform our daily lives.

Following the mild stroke suffered in June of 2004, Tilleke created Re-do, a work that suggests the need to begin again or take another stab at something. She describes the piece as not only referring to “the reusing of designs and scraps of old material” but also “a reference to me… regaining my strengths and lost functions.” Rainbow coloured medical information scrolls across the top of the piece in a manner similar to the constantly changing billboards of Times Square updating the shifting numbers and codes of the New York Stock Exchange. Arrows to the left hand edge of the work also suggest web pages, containing further information to scroll down and through. But it is information cropped out of sight, making today’s world impossible to absorb in a single glance. In this work and subsequent pieces the organising frame of the embroidery is also challenged with half stitched images that look to be quite literally falling off the side of the ‘page’. While elements such as the embroidered CT-scan clearly reflect the current concerns of daily life, others such as frogs around the pond and teddy bears are more enigmatic. What is certain is that narratives personal and public are intertwined. A stitched scribble sits beside what look like figures sewn centuries earlier – powerful reminders that despite the chaos of today, embroidery on cloth is an ancient tool for recording life.

The dark orange 100% Checked (2005) tackles the ongoing security we now endure during travel. Unusually, machine stitching is used in the title of the piece “so it will be like a foreign item,” Tilleke explains, “like when you pass security and no matter how beautiful your suitcase looks you get a security tag on it.” While the subject matter of the work is both timely and dark, such observations continue to infuse even the most mundane irritant with humour: “Security measures have a great influence on our life and make us behave more strangely than ever,” she explains. “Therefore I added my secret access code from a locker in Helsinki and a quote from a declaration that a package ‘does not contain any unauthorized explosives, destructive devices or hazardous materials.’ So strange to inform the addressee about what is not in the package. Also I kept wondering what authorized explosives look like. The package just contained an art book.” Traditional cross-stitched peacocks, flowers and the levitating souls of ghostly cats appear beside the mirror image of the American outdoor clothing brand Timberland (just the type of hiking boots you wouldn’t want to have to endure unlacing in airport security). The possible connections to be made are both endless and in constant flux, for just as soon as you begin to assemble one thread of the narrative another catches your eye and draws your attention away.

Delicate black outlines dominate “Play with me” (2006), with the notable exception of a highly patterned lizard. Several individuals gaze out of the bottom of the composition. Their faces are wiped clean of emotion. They do not joke, nor do they question the patient horse nearby that is being used for gymnastics; the kite flyer perched on the gymnast’s bottom; or the skateboarder, hovering above on a thin wedge of a stick. The outline of a sleeping cat can be found, as are increasingly fragmented phrases that trail across the composition. Rather than a didactic call for personal health through athletics, the piece seems to suggest a slight uneasiness not only with the technologies that occupy our daily lives, but with the repetitive summersaults we undertake. Here the world stuck on repeat, unsure of how to break unproductive cycles and begin productive ones. Instead the participants seem to watch from the sidelines with an inquisitive gaze that thirsts for the viewer’s opinion. “Do you see any sense?” they seem to question.

In the recent WYSIWYG (2006) (a lengthy acronym for “what you see is what you get”) attention is pushed from the centre of the embroidery and out to the margins of the composition. Because the majority of image and text fall to the sides of the piece, a bold void is left centre stage. The title both epitomises Tilleke’s practice and humorously denies the complexity of work that brims with intentional as well as accidental conceptual content. If we are to subscribe to literary critic Roland Barthes theory, put forth in the “Death of the Author” that “a text’s unity lies not in its origins” (that is the artist) “but in its destination” (the viewer) then it is us – the viewers of the work – who are ultimately responsible for the reading and interpretation of the artist’s text(s). The responsibility is, in many ways, returned to us to stay alert both to the beguiling stories the artist intends to tell, as well as the stories we each can privately assemble from these striking maps of modern life.

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Programme Leader of Textiles, Fashion and Fibre at the Winchester School of Art, England. December, 2006.