Research point – textile collections in a museum

A Research Point in the OCA course recommends visits to contemporary and historical or ethnographical textile collections. For contemporary, I wrote about Sensorial Loop here. Now taking a slightly different slant, in the past few weeks I’ve seen textiles in a number of non-textile-oriented collections, and have been musing over the different approaches taken in their display.

First up a trio at the NSW Art Gallery (which has the advantage of allowing photographs of most items in its permanent collection – although no flash allowed, so apologies for photo quality).

This magnificent Atsuita No robe is displayed centre stage in a section of the Lower Asian Gallery. It dominates the room in a large free-standing display. The space allowed both inside and around the cabinet together with the raised stand adds to the drama and visual importance of the piece. It is the only obvious textile piece in the area, which also contains ceramics, paintings and drawings, netsuke, etc. The lighting in the gallery generally is dim and the spot lighting enhances the textile and allows clear viewing of the detailed work.

The robe is Edo period (1603 – 1868), circa 1800, and is a theatre costume. The whirlpool and dragon design is in silk and gold, using ikat dyed threads for the warp (information provided on signage). There is further information and a photo on the gallery’s website (click here).

The workmanship of the weaving is just amazing. I’ve never seen ikat dyeing used in such a crisp, formal way – in fact it took me a long time examining the work to accept the information. The use of colour is very effective. I particularly like the flashes of brighter colour in the whirlpools.

This Kalinga skirt cloth from the Phillipines is a more modest cloth, more modestly displayed. It is in a back corridor in the upper Asian Gallery, quite a bright area. The piece is mounted in a frame behind glass -I had difficulty getting a reasonable photo, so apologies for the reflections of lights and the ceramics displayed on the opposite wall. The Gallery website has a much, much better photo – click here.

Once again the signage was very informative. Also once again I had trouble believing it, originally thinking it was embroidery rather than floating weft decoration (I’m still not totally convinced – I think there is a combination of techniques). I first took a close look at this cloth in February – notes and a schematic in my sketchbook here. The dangling beads and shell pieces reflect the triangular shapes in the cloth, and add an extra touch of colour and texture to the textile. They must look very effective when worn as a skirt.

The final piece I have chosen from the gallery is La Somnambule, by Rosslynd Piggott, made 996-97. Unlike the earlier two pieces of costume and clothing, this was obviously created as an artwork although elements are drawn from clothing design. In keeping with this there is much less information provided in the gallery – names and dates for artist and piece, plus a brief list of materials (silk, hooks, coathangers, perspex, stainless steel). There is much more descriptive and interpretive information, plus photos, on the Gallery website (click here).

This work is displayed in the Contemporary Galleries, at one end and rather separate from other work. This provides a sense of space and quiet that fits well with the piece.

It is a very beautiful and intriguing piece. I find it quiet and gentle, although the many hooks in one of the “nightdresses” and the unravelling in both could suggest more sinister ideas. The mirror-shaped perspex suggests a reflection and possible distortion, or perhaps a displacement “Alice through the looking glass” effect. Looking now at the photographs the disproportionate sleeves look somewhat reminiscent of a straight-jacket, but I didn’t get that sense when looking at the work itself – the beautiful, gleaming silk doesn’t fit that notion. It is much more a fragile, dreaming sensation.

Each of these pieces has been displayed in a different way by the Gallery. Each is in the company of its peers. I feel the Gallery has done an excellent job of considering the nature and requirements of each individual work, and appreciate the value clearly given to textiles as cultural and artistic artifacts.

In Canberra a few weeks ago (blog post here) we had some time in the National Gallery of Australia before going into the Renaissance exhibition. We wandered into a gallery of Impression and Post-Impressionism works, enticed further by one piece after another (including Sonia Delaunay‘s Dubonnet), and came to a large case of costumes from Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and other Ballet Russes companies that followed. No photography is permitted in the Gallery, but I have included a link below.

There were 9 or so costumes in the case, with diffuse lighting above and spot lighting from the very high ceiling. Signage explained the fragile nature of the pieces. Unfortunately the case was at the end of a cul-de-sac in the gallery layout – it gave a good view at a distance to bring visitors in, but you couldn’t move around to see the sides and backs of the costumes.

A dress designed by Giorgio de Chirico for the Ballet de l’opéra russes á Parie production of Pulcinella in 1931 and 1932 particularly attracted me given the current OCA work on painting and printing. There is a photo on the Gallery’s website here. The full skirt has been stamped and painted with blue paint in simple triangles and dots. It is clearly hand-done, and achieves a very lively and spontaneous air. The bodice has been painted with large scrollwork and a fleur de lis kind of shape. There are curious stuffed shapes on the shoulders, yellow puffed sleeves and for me there is an overall almost cartoonish feel. I can imagine the skirt lifting and swirling as the dancer moved.

Another favourite was attributed to Picasso, elements from a production of Le Tricorne. Detailed information was given putting the costumes and production into their historical and design context. The costume, including men’s breeches, was fairly plain, but there were little bobbles that I thought may have been crocheted attached to the seams – again with lots of potential for movement during the ballet. Other costumes used raw edge applique and tassels sewn on, again with a cartoonish, raw, fresh and handmade appearance.

Overall the quality of information provided and the variety of textile work used was very interesting and satisfying.

The final exhibition is Travelling the silk road: ancient pathway to the modern world at the National Museum of Australia, also in Canberra. The exhibition is organised by American Museum of Natural History, New York. It had only been open a day or two when we went and a few things weren’t quite set up (a film show, a few of the exhibits not working).

The exhibition is telling a very big story – the “Silk Road” was many routes through many cultures and countries over 600 years. It cleverly does this by taking the visitor on a journey to four cities on the road. It is educational, entertaining, interactive. You can walk in dappled light under a grape vine and smell the spices and scents of the markets while camels snort in your ear (the lights bright spot lights, the grapes plastic, the scents under sliding covers in barrels so you could try to guess what they were, the camels recorded and thankfully not spitting). You can tell the time using the “stars” and a model astrolabe (set at a height convenient to children). You can find links in culture and technology on an interactive map (set at a convenient height…). There was a huge setup explaining a karez underground irrigation system – I’m glad to have learnt about this remarkable achievement.

I feel really conflicted about this exhibition, because in many ways it was wonderful but I found it sterile and distancing and unsatisfying. It was so artificial. It was so well intentioned. It was so cheesy. It was so polished. It provided nice little chunks of information conveniently packaged for my consumption. I should add that my companion knows far, far more about the Silk Road than I do, she has visited three of the four cities featured, and she really enjoyed the exhibition.

Focusing back on textiles, there was no stinting the information and carefully designed displays on all the stages of silk production. Entering the exhibition you immediately see a huge replica of a Tang era loom, dressed in gleaming rich golden yellow silk. There are shuttles, a thread winder, bobbins, a roll of woven cloth… of course I tried to read too much into it – the position of the beater looked impossible, the roll of finished cloth on the cloth beam had never been woven on that loom, whatever, whatever – not relevant to the purpose of the exhibition. I liked a display based on a reproduction of a scroll that illustrated all the processes of sericulture, harvesting the cocoons, through winding off, processing and weaving the silk. I was pleased with myself for recognising Michael Cook on a video (I used to follow his blog wormspit). There was a lot of use of modern silk in patterns based on possible silk road trade goods. Further on there was an interesting set of items showing the diffusion of designs from textiles to ceramics to architecture.

I think the problem for me as a textile obsessive is that in a way the silk wasn’t real – it was a tool, a part of telling a wider story. In terms of entertainment and education it didn’t matter that everything was a reproduction – and large pieces of bright coloured cloth are much more eye-catching than tattered, stained, precious remnants woven by someone’s hands centuries ago. I don’t want slick presentation and everything given to me, I want some spaces for my imagination and a sense of my own discovery.

With all this negativity I don’t want to put people off visiting this exhibition. It has a lot to offer. I just tried to make it something is isn’t – something that fits into a research point about an historical or ethnographical collection of textiles.

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