yellow, weaving & rubble walls
In Norwegian artist Tone Kristin Bjordam’s videos colour unfurls across the screen. Liquid colours are suspended. It is easy to imagine we are seeing textile dyes. We are not, but their liquid swirling suggests a magical dye pot better behaved than the real thing. Bjordam’s “imaginary landscapes and paintings in motion” are explained in part via the artist’s family background in geology. In 1927 the artist’s grandfather discovered a rare mineral deposit containing aventurine feldspar (also known as Sunstone), mica and quartz on the family’s farmland in southern Norway. Some believe that Sunstone was used to help the Viking’s navigate in cloudy weather. Fact or fiction, the thought of materials mixing and freezing into a solid state millions of years earlier has a beauty that informs her liquid practice today.
The range of change that is visible to our unaided sight is vast. British artist Jilly Edward’s attention to place and her close observation of change relates here. Fields of yellow rape seed seen on a train journey from England’s southwest to northeast – flowing from warm and bright to new green growth in the colder north – inspire her recent work.
Other artists share in the labour and effort of collecting colour. German artist Wolfgang Laib harvests single materials from nature to populate his contemplative installations. Pollen, in particular, is used to create accumulations of saturated yellow colour. Much like a tapestry weaver, he trades in labour rather than rarity.
There are other yellows that also demand great effort to acquire. In her book Color Victoria Finlay describes the pollen of the purple crocus flowers harvested for the spice saffron. “The paradox of saffron farming is that everything has to be done in a hurry (if you don’t pick the flowers by noon you have missed their potency, and they bloom only once), and yet it is such a painstaking process that nothing can be rushed.” Bjordam’s mixing of colour only exist in each particular and every changing combination for a split second; Laib’s investment in the labour required to collect his materials is crucial to the meaning of his finished work; the crocus bloom demands slow work undertaken at a specific moment. Time runs fast and slow – urgent and unhurried.
Icelandic artist Hildur Bjarnadottir’s Tea Leaved Willow (2011) is a vitrine containing balls of wool dyed with plants the artist’s grandmother planted forty years earlier. (Edwards used lichen as dye before accepting – as many artists have – that the material is now too rare to harvest for dye.) If Laib harvests from the present – and perhaps everyone but the geologist does – Bjarnadottir harvests from both the present as well as a past labour initiated by her grandmother four decades earlier.
When we are willing to look, nature provides us with glorious colours. Some like the mirrored beauty of Bjordam’s grandfather’s find are hidden beneath the earth. Other colours depart with the changing seasons. The American author Toni Morrison reminds us of a colour starved winter in her novel Beloved:
Bring a little lavender in, if you got any. Pink, if you don’t. And Sethe would oblige her with anything from fabric to her own tongue. Winter in Ohio was especially rough if you had an appetite for color. Sky provided the only drama, and counting on a Cincinnati horizon for life’s principle joy was reckless indeed.
Beloved is set in pre-abolition America and within the brutality of this context Morrison’s characters where to have a particular need to find joy within themselves. But the idea that colour may be one of life’s principle joys stretches far beyond this historical context.
The drama provided by the sky can work. It just depends on the sky. And the horizon. No two are ever the same. A holiday taken in a remote corner of Cornwall’s Lizard Peninsula in the far south western tip of England impressed upon Jilly Edwards the hugeness of the sky and the very edges of an island. Beneath that sky lay landmarks: rubble walls, ancient cow breeds easily mistaken at a distance for rock formations in the landscape and granite covered with yellow lichen. Imprints on the land built up over years of use. And yellow – Laib’s pollen yellow; the fragility of saffron farming; colour as one of life’s principle joys.
Like a rubble wall, tapestry weaving is surface and structure in one. Norwegian artist Ann Cathrin November Høibo exposes the woven structure leaving warp threads dangling and visible, knotted off in bundles at the top and bottom of each suspended work. Some works leave half the warp unwoven. This is not about woven perfection. It is about the beauty of the woven structure.
The Colombian artist Cecilia Vicuña writes early in her book quipoem of the relevance of land to her work:
It all began in the dust.
I walked to school on a dirt road, sinking my feet into floury dust.
Playing at making my tracks a marking.
On some level this may be every weaver’s work – playing at making my tracks a marking – fixing a physical impulse in material. Edwards tracks her journeys in tapestry. Collecting sights and feelings along the way that are then fixed in thread.
Dutch designers We Make Carpets take the idea of tracking to the opposite extreme. They create patterns that resemble textile floor coverings – but ironically it is the structure that is stripped away. For example, a recent installation in Tokyo was comprised of hooks bought in 100¥ stores in the city; 8000 pink, blue and yellow plastic S hooks placed in a pattern on the ground. The work is both back breaking to install and incapable of withstanding even a single step.
Korean artist Kimsooja’s 2016 exhibition at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul included Geometry of Body (2006-2015). The work is the artist’s yoga mat rubbed and scuffed with her physical imprint built up over nine years of use. It is a diary of physical effort: ritual and rhythm.
Edwards explains of her recent tapestries, “These works have also involved divisions, so many are segmented with small gaps between the elements.” Each tapestry presents a focus – a ritual and rhythm – guided by sights seen but also physical effort, labour and finally also instincts. The latter are inevitably far harder to confirm, to pin down or hem in. This may be fair. Inspiration can be as glittery and shifting as Tone Kristin Bjordam’s grandfather’s geological find. A thing by which we navigate long journeys in uncharted territory.
 http://www.tonebjordam.com/ [accessed September 20, 2016]
 Telephone interview with Tone Kristin Bjordam September 21, 2016.
 Victoria Finlay, Color: A Natural History of the Palette, New York: Ballantine Books (2002: 232)
 Toni Morrison, Beloved, New York: Penguin (1987: 4)
 Cecilia Vicuña, quipoem, ed. M. Catherine de Zegher, trans. Esther Allen, Hanover & London: Wesleyan University Press & University Press of New England (1997: 18)
(image credit: Tone Bjordam)
Jilly Edwards catalogue essay