Archive for the 'Reading' Category

Eavesdropping at a half-open door

“one has to teach the skill of reading even to those who are no longer illiterate”

“uncultured readers… with a vague knowledge that there is something else here, and enjoying the text like someone eavesdropping at a half-open door, glimpsing only hints of a promising epiphany.”

Umberto Eco, on literature, pages 171 and 219.

Some days I have the confronting feeling that I’m a beginner in something I’ve practiced daily for almost six decades. Then I tell myself to stop being maudlin and self-indulgent, and just get on with it.

I have tried to make visible the work of reading. I have complained bitterly when I found reading challenging. I have made reading the foundation of every day. I write about attentive reading, focusing on every line and word… but lately I’ve wondered – am I getting all I can from all this effort? In particular, am I making connections, building usable knowledge. I note correspondences as I go, and the use of indexing glyphs in my notetaking has been useful in later consolidation around particular ideas. Possibly I need to be more alert to the need to extend my glyph set.

In my last post (7-Jan-2020) I tried to link books and authors with fabric swatches. That was step one in an experiment.

The previous data viz experiments were generally useful, giving me space and time to think, seeing from different angles, generating some surprises… I decided to look at where I was spending time reading, and to search for rhythms and flows in the mix of reading. Keep mine-ing the existing tool set and stash. The brief developed:
* Start recording time spent reading.
* Repeat the scarf form. This time with weaving.
* Begin simple, with options to elaborate as the process continues. So plain weave. I put a 2 metre warp of black cottolin on the 4-shaft table loom, a straight threading.

The result is a record of four weeks of reading – 30 November to 27 December. Information encoded:
* Length of weaving is proportional to length of reading. Four centimetres = One hour.
* Beginning of day is marked by 5 picks in cotton – white on Sunday, then darkening greys reaching black on Saturday.
* Indicate book by weft – torn fabric strips.
* Most reading was done in my workroom. If outside the house, a supplementary fine coppery weft was added (“sunshine”). If bedtime reading, a supplementary weft of silvery white was used (for the moon).
* When a book or essay was finished (not many were), mark by 5 picks in red cotton.

Detail – Wednesday 18 December 2019

In the detail above you might just be able to see the cotton picks at the beginning and end of the day. The book swatches all look quite different when squashed down and used for weft.

Umberto Eco on literature

John Berger
Selected Essays

In the morning I read Umberto Eco for 45 minutes. John Berger accompanied me on the bus, and in a cafe waiting for CPR training – a total of 50 minutes and a glint of sunshine.

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

At that time I was reading Jane Hirshfield before sleep – hence the loops of white rayon. I wasn’t taking in much, just trying to find the flow, to get an overall sense, hoping to learn enough to be able to read it again with more understanding. Thirty more minutes, and a total of 8.3 cm.

Classic uses of a data visualisation are discovery (learn something new) and storytelling (communicate ideas). I can’t claim either here. Using standard viz software I would have waited to collect all the data before even starting, then probably run a variety of statistical analyses, experimented with multiple chart types, maybe colour themes and scales, transformations, brought in other data sets for context or comparison… There’s the faintest hint of this in the fringes.

By amazing chance, the number of warp ends was precisely four times the number of days woven. So each piece of fringe is one day. The fringing shown above records the total amount of time recorded reading each day (range from 0.67 to 2.75 hours). At the other end of the scarf the number of books read is shown – from 1 to 4 each day. Note the same information is already encoded in the weaving. This is simply a different chart type.

plump folds, showing more of the fabrics

Despite the proportions, the resulting textile can’t really be called a scarf. It does not drape softly and warmly around the neck. However while it sat on my desk over the last week, I came to love its edges. And to appreciate that “not drape-able” could also be described as “sculptural”

reading scarf sculpture

So perhaps wearable sculpture.

Click for larger image

Reading swatches

A game / experiment: matching reading material to fabric swatches. Maybe it could be seen as a form of deliberate self-training in ideasthesia, but really it started because I was trying to improve my reading plus to make the abstract (reading) concrete (clothing-ish). An extra criterion – the fabrics are all from my old clothes (from larger days).

Antony Gormley On Sculpture

Antony Gormley On Sculpture


This book is highly structured and highly thoughtful. I was going to write “generous” but it’s more like the careful guidance of a teacher, dedicated and wanting to share his knowledge, his message, rather than the lighthearted open hand of a friend.

Chapter 1 discusses his own work, the body in space and time. The second chapter considers works by other sculptors of importance to Gormley. Next was Mindfulness, and the influence of Buddhism on Gormley and his practice. The practice of meditation, and the idea of sculpture about being rather than doing are core. Finally, in Expansion, Gormley takes his ideas a step further. He wrote “Represented movement is a stupid idea for sculpture” (p.78) Instead, looking at stillness, we experience the movement in our own bodies.

The swatch is from a silk-hemp blend fabric that I dyed using shibori-based stitched resist, then sewed into a top. Where the resist prevents dye is as important as where the dye strikes. The first piece of old clothing I re-purposed, I was conscious of the absent body, and also of a stilled moment, rather than the movement, change, impermanence (I was around 30 kg heavier when I made it) over time. My space. My time.

Hugh Brody Inside Lake Ballard

Hugh Brody Inside Lake Ballard


Inside Lake Ballard is an essay I found on Gormley’s website – http://www.antonygormley.com/resources/essay-item/id/134 I would like to visit this installation. Experience the activated space. Think about what it means to stand in Australia.

Hot, bright colours from a linen shift seemed right for this swatch.

Johanna Drucker Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

Johanna Drucker Graphesis: Visual forms of knowledge production

There’s a strong element of the data viz I know, but this book goes far wider. It’s an overview, a survey of the terrain. As well as abstracts and Boolean logic, Drucker considers humanistic, rhetorical arguments produced as a result of making, a poetics of graphical form. Drucker distinguishes between representations of known information and visualizations that are knowledge generators. She gathers together a huge number of references, creating a coherent structure and giving context. At times existing snippets of my knowledge shifted and came into focus, or coalesced in new and intriguing patterns. Many areas were new to me, leading to happy exploration of many rabbit holes even while I was realising how very much more I have to learn. And sometimes a phrase was like a magnet bringing order to iron filings. For example “a reified intellectual construct” provided a structure I didn’t know I needed and opens unforeseen vistas – and that was in a footnote! This is dense and challenging reading.

The subtle gleam of this swatch from a business jacket is lost in the photo, but the sense of purpose, structure, visual complexity in detail and coherence at distance, and hidden depths remains.

Giacomo Leopardi Canti and Zibaldone

Giacomo Leopardi Canti and Zibaldone

From total ignorance, last year I kept coming across references to Leopardi, starting in the last Hobart session of the intensive creative research group. He was the author of what Mary Ruefle describes as “The World’s Bleakest Poem”, and his conversation between death and fashion is quoted in an essay by John Berger.

Leopardi (1798 – 1837) has been described as Italy’s first and greatest modern poet. There’s a lot of misery and death in his poetry. The one quoted by Ruefle begins
Rest forever, tired heart.
The final illusion has perished.
The one we believed eternal is gone.

Zibaldone is enormous, his philosophical and critical notebook in which Leopardi compiled quotes from his extensive reading as well as his own writing and musings. There’s also extensive cross-referencing in a series of indexes that he created. The material collected provided the foundation for Leopardi’s extensive published writing. (That’s three “extensive”s in a row, but what can I do – the word fits!) I now have a copy of the english translation – over 80 pages in the introduction, then 2500 pages of the Zibaldone itself, Leopardi’s own index, and the editors’ notes. The translation itself was a major scholarly effort. Given my own notebook efforts, I was curious to see and learn from a master. Opening at random, page 1335:
“A language that is strictly universal, whatever language it might be, would certainly and necessarily by its very nature be the most slavish, impoverished, timid, monotonous, uniform, arid, and ugly tongue, the most incapable of any kind of beauty, the most inappropriate to the imagination and the least dependent on it, indeed in every way the most separated from it, the most bloodless, inanimate, and dead, that could ever be conceived; a skeleton, a shadow of a language rather than a real language; a language that would not be living, even if it were written by all and understood universally, indeed it would be a great deal more dead than any language that is no longer spoken or written.”
One sentence. One rather difficult sentence. As it happens relevant to an essay in Umberto Eco’s book. So many connections. And to be honest, so much that I don’t understand – even as it draws me in. Reading this is going to be a labour of love, probably falling in and out of love with it over years.

Mauve, paisley and beading feels a good fit for his poetry.

Mary Ruefle Lectures I will never give

Mary Ruefle Lectures I will never give

Just a touch of Mary Ruefle in my reading over the period, to check the poem she referenced. Very interesting to read the two quite different translations. What I’ve read of Ruefle’s work sparkles with ideas and wit. The patterning in the fabric is a modern take on paisley, making a satisfying link.

Umberto Eco on literature

Umberto Eco on literature


When I started reading this book it felt like chocolate – smooth and velvety, warm and luxurious, rich and flowing, but with a sparkle and not cloying so perhaps a hint of champagne. So chocolate, maybe champagne truffles, guided my fabric choice.

As I read further the book became more challenging – I know nothing of linguistic theory (pretty sure that isn’t the right term), and Eco’s careful differentiation of terms was lost on someone meeting them for the first time. Still, it feels worth learning.

Emily Dickinson The Complete Poems

Emily Dickinson The Complete Poems


I’ve tried opening at random. I’ve tried following themes from the subject index. I know Dickinson has a huge following. But I haven’t connected, so far at least. Perhaps I don’t know enough about poetry to appreciate her inventiveness and the power of broken convention.

The fabric is a cheat – from the general stash, not old clothing. I can’t quite see or connect with Dickinson. I suspect this swatch doesn’t really suit her, that I am misapplying convention. Perhaps when I’m more mature as a reader I will get further.

Alain de Botton How Proust can change your life

Alain de Botton How Proust can change your life

Mentions of Proust seem to pop up in much of my reading, his influence felt directly or indirectly throughout the 20th century. But reading In Search of Lost Time is a big investment of effort, and I have the impression that many readers fall by the wayside. I’m reminded of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time – a friend was given three copies the Christmas after that came out. People thought it would be right up his alley, but apparently he didn’t finish any of them!

The plan was that reading Alain de Botton’s book might help me decide whether to take on Proust. Unfortunately…

What a show pony de Botton is! Yes, there’s information on Proust’s life and on his writing, but it’s all very arch and clever, with lots of winks and smirks and witticisms by de Botton as he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader. (I’m assuming that can work in writing as well as on the stage. In any case, he’s putting on a performance so there’s little difference.)

Fortunately for my own specific purpose, I was able to find Proust’s work online. I’m not un-interested, but I don’t think this is right for me at the moment – especially given that in the meantime I started on Leopardi.

The flashy pink snake print rayon number is for de Botton.

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World

Jane Hirshfield Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World


This is a book about poetry, written by a poet. The language is rich and beautiful. My own writing is an arid desert. But Hirshfield opens my eyes, my mind, my ears, and I think I’m almost beginning to see a little of what she is showing me. It’s not easy to read. It’s a joy to read.

One of my all time favourite jackets provides the swatch. All the colours I like, with some shine and an interesting weave.

John Berger
Selected Essays

John Berger
Selected Essays


A chapter in Bento’s Sketchbook was my introduction to John Berger’s writing, a chapter in which he is drawing some irises. Some light silk that I painted using watercolour-like techniques then made into a blouse feels a good fit. Most of the essays I’ve read so far in this current book have been short, pieces written for a newspaper. Some of them have me looking at the world differently, thinking about artists and ideas in a different way. Really, just what I want from my reading.

General Purpose


This fine wool swatch is included for completeness in the project, a catchall for some side-reading.

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street


This book contains sixty short prose pieces. Another conglomerate of fragments? Perhaps more a kaleidoscope of insights into the everyday. Lots of little disparate nuggets that together add up to something more. This blouse fabric has the nuggets. It’s also a little difficult and uncomfortable – there’s a metal in the weave.

Anne Carson
Float

Anne Carson
Float


This green-blue shot silk doesn’t show well in the photo. I wasn’t conscious of a reason for my choice, but with hindsight could it be something as simple as a Canadian named Anne and “green”? That’s a bit embarrassing. I’d like to distract by drawing a parallel to Carson’s poetry… I find it difficult, clever, beyond my reach but I keep trying. Well while true, that’s not an explanation of the choice that will convince anyone.

Actually I find a lot of these books difficult. All the reading was done over a four week period, 30 November to 27 December last year. Only a few are finished – Gormley, Brody, de Botton. Most of the rest are still in rotation.

Dido

I started this post weeks ago, trying to sort out the … connections? resonances? overarching themes? … in the various books. Poetry and the poetic. In Hobart in January, a couple of nights before the first gathering of the Intensive Creative Research class, I made a little form in wire (it was later modified to become the quivering Dido). I was thinking of the flickering movement as we fight for balance, but in my notes that day thought the model too literal. When I showed the form in class, Ruth called it “poetic”, and I had no idea what that meant. It’s only while writing now that I’ve identified that link in my reading – I’m trying to understand “poetic”. That’s not where I thought this post was going to go. It now seems blindingly obvious and an almost banal conclusion – apart from anything else, there are two volumes of poetry and another subtitled “How great poems transform the world”. Curious.

This matching is step one in my little game. There’s more to come.

(Metaphorical) gluttony and indigestion

Apparently it’s now called Freshwater, but when I was a child we would sometimes drive in summer heat to Harbord Beach. A heavy red and white umbrella. Zinc cream. Burning feet trudging through the sand. Staying between the flags, jumping into waves, attempting to body surf.

And some days the waves, churning sand, would catch you up, tumble you around, water up your nose, struggling – which way is the surface? And you’d stagger out, legs trembling, eyes stinging, swimmers dragging down from the weight of sand in the pants, hair drying crunchy with salt. Exhausted. Wanting more.

So I’m mixing metaphors between title and intro, but that’s just how it is right now and we’ll all just have to make do. Because over the last five weeks I’ve been tumbled, and gobbling, and racing back for more.

The blog’s never going to catch up, so a sprint through. Visual focus remains un-balance.
Joel Crosswell in Dirty Paper at Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Bad reflections in the photo. Lots of flickering movement.

Toby Ziegler Your Shadow Rising at MONA

Toby Ziegler
Empty Pond

A grid rather than balance.
Layers, accepting chance, multiple approaches (film, installation, …).

ZERO at Mona
Much more time and need for thought and research on Zero and Nul movement(s).


Stripes rather than balance. Amazing what clever placement of some nails can do.

There were multiple examples of the revealed depth of Fontana. Plus movement, vibration, balance by Bernard Aubertin, Jesús Rafael Soto, Jean Tinguely…

Riitta Ikonen and Karoline Hjorth Eyes as big as plates at Salamanca Arts Centre

Hjorth and Ikonen
Eyes as big as plates
Salme


A wonderful, calming, enriching experience. I chatted for a long time with the two artists, who were incredibly welcoming, forthcoming, encouraging, generous… See more of their project at https://eyesasbigasplates.com/.

Intensive Creative Research with Ruth Hadlow. The first of our group sessions was held over three days in Hobart. “Intense” doesn’t cover it. Work flowing on from it includes my Energizing Objects and Glossary investigations.

Battery Point, Hobart
I walked the harbourside sculpture trail, but found myself more drawn by views of boatsheds, cottage gardens, inventive weather vanes and tardis side gates.

Janet Laurence After Nature MCA Sydney
This major survey shows the depth and wide ranging approach of Janet Laurence. Concentric rings of layered and image-printed fabrics combine with light and film to immerse the viewer in trees, within a tree, in the history of our relationship with trees. Modern and ancient knowledge and technologies are brought together. All our senses are engaged.

A huge tree, killed by drought, has been pieced together in one of the galleries. It is bandaged, glass tubing suggesting life support, or perhaps an exchange between tree and environment of fluid or air. Engraved markings in the bark, and the insects who made them, are celebrated. Is salt rock a blossoming new growth, or the death of salinity? Eyes on balance, I was impressed by the few supports needed to stabilise the tree in the space. A slight discontinuity in deep fissures in the tree showed the small adjustments made to adapt it to its new life.

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John Chester Jervis, National Library of Australia
A trip to Canberra with my mother was focused on the photograph albums of a 19th century ancestor – my great great great uncle. The albums were recently donated by a distant English cousin.

Mum with John Chester Jervis photo album


Mourning locket for Louisa, briefly reunited with photograph of her sister Ellen and brother John

Mum has researched the Australian period of John Chester’s life, from the 1840s to 1871 – https://megshistory.wordpress.com/john-chester-jervis/.

While in Canberra we also visited the National Gallery of Australia, in particular Love & Desire: Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces from the Tate. There were many familiar works included, but there’s nothing like a bit of parochialism.

Ford Maddox Brown
The seeds and fruits of English poetry

The central section of The seeds and fruits of English poetry by Ford Maddox Brown is a study for an enormous painting, Chaucer at the court of Edward III in the AGNSW collection. It’s one of mum’s absolute favourite works, and whenever we have a few minutes spare at the gallery you’ll find us visiting it.

Māori Markings: Tā Moko was fascinating.There has been a contemporary resurgence of this practice, which is of major cultural significance.

Yayoi Kusama
The spirit of the pumpkins descended into the heavens

The bright yellow room presented by Yayoi Kusama is billed as an experience of both claustrophobic and infinite space. I’m sure we weren’t the first to find it puzzling. I’ve been vaguely aware of Kusama’s work in the past, and find the obsessive character of it disturbing and in some sense empty.

We also found our way down to Bodies of art: Human form from the national collection. There we found Number 24, Harry Boyd, by Harry Klippel.

Robert Klippel
Number 24, Harry Boyd

Robert Klippel
small polychromed tin sculptures

It’s hard to believe this massive piece of sandstone was carved by the same man who made the multitude of inventive wire and tin forms which I most recently saw in Mosman as part of Destination Sydney. (I think they’re actually part of the AGNSW collection).

Hossein Valamanesh
Falling

Robert Klippel is definitely one of the artists on my list the research further for un-balance.

Part of the interest of un-balance is the constant potential for complete loss of balance – for falling.

On the information plaque Hossein Valamanesh is quoted: “Leaving aside narratives the work stands for itself and is about falling with grace.” The long bamboo shivered just slightly in the gallery’s currents of air. The work is beautiful and elegant, but I struggle that it seems to be set at the moment of impact, where grace can no longer hold. The ground is so solid and hard. I’d like to see it Falling on a plinth, white or even perspex, curving to swoop joyfully upwards.

No photos, but I’ll briefly mention Hassall Collection at Drill Hall Gallery. No photos – we happened to arrive at the same time as a very large group of people from Canberra and Sydney, and it was hard to get viewing space.

In the last few days I’ve been on another interstate trip – this time to the National Gallery of Victoria, and focused on the opening events of Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor. An amazing experience, needing its own post. While there I took a couple of hours to roam NGV galleries, looking for anything that spoke to me of un-balance.

Francesco Clemente
The Midnight Sun XII

I have no idea what to make of this painting, but I stayed with it for a long time. There are scales. There is a balance achieved in the composition in a way I don’t understand. Research needed.

Paul Cezanne
The Uphill Road


The geometry here is amazing. The roof and tree line, with the path at the bottom, struggle to balance that steep, sliding slope.

Then in the bottom right corner, and possibly among the last brush strokes on the canvas, is the slightest hint of a straggle of weeds. And I think that braces, props up, the entire thing.

Currently hanging next to the Cezanne is The bridge on the Seine at Chatou by Maurice de Vlaminck.

Maurice de Vlaminck
The bridge on the Seine at Chatou


Full of energy and zest, and I don’t think the artist cares one whit that the bridge and the entire village on the right bank is about to slide under the waters of the Seine.

Mari Funaki
Container

A dreadful photo, lots of reflections and blurry focus, but I want to remember the works of Mari Funaki. A much better photo is on the gallery website here. A beautifully balanced insect of a thing which could leap across the room in an instant. That leftmost leg is wide but thin – the whole thing looks like it could tip backwards, at the same time as it seems perfectly in control.

Just minutes later I was looking at this jar – Predynastic Period, Naqada II 3500 BCE-3200 BCE. EGYPT, Diospolis Parva

Jar

Maybe looking at Funaki’s work I should have been thinking of birds rather than insects. And these lines actually would make a good segue to Alexander Calder and his zoo drawings. But not today.

Instead I’m going to finish where I intended to start – at the pile of books that have accumulated over the same five weeks. In no particular order:

Hassall Collection: A masterpiece Collection of Australian Art. Exhibition catalogue.
John Berger. A Painter of Our Time
Dora Garcia I see words, I hear voices
Alexander Calder: Radical Inventor. Exhibition catalogue.
Landscapes: John Berger on Art
Richard Serra, Hal Foster Conversations about Sculpture
Alexander Calder & Fischli/Weiss
Sol LeWitt: Between the Lines
William Kentridge Six Drawing Lessons
Joy Kenward The Joy of Mindful writing: Notes to inspire creative awareness
Ruth Hadlow Granite
Nancy Spector and Nat Trotman Peter Fischli David Weiss: How to Work Better
Joan Pachner David Smith
Anne Carson Float
Lynne Cooke, Karen Kelly and Barbara Schroder (eds) Agnes Martin
Eyes as big as plates. Exhibition catalogue
Sarah Edelman Change your thinking: positive and practical ways to overcome stress, negative emotions and self-defeating behaviour using CBT (Lent to me by a work colleague who thought I was stressed. Can’t imagine where he got that idea!)

All this added to the metres of unread and part-read books already piled up on the shelves.

Five weeks, four capital cities, sixteen books. Good days.

Book: Anni Albers

Anni Albers, edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer and Maria Müller–Schareck, has been published by Tate Publishing on the occasion of the current Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern.

All the reviews I’ve read of the exhibition are glowing. The book is much more than a catalogue, with a series of strong essays delving into different aspects of Albers and her work. I found each of the essays fascinating, enlightening, thought provoking.

dimensional weave sample 20160708

Brenda Danilowitz writes of the paradox of the linear grid of weaving and Alber’s non-linear surfaces. “Her work captures her determination … to undermine the grid, to make it virtually disappear by twisting and looping its threads.” (p 87) Different, but this resonated with my past explorations of the grid, depth in weaving and the orthogonal (gathered together in the page orthogonal).

When discussing Albers as a collector, Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye concludes “When considering the objects she collected alongside the art that she produced, the distinctions between ancient and modern, thread and clay, art and artefact, are productively dismantled.” (p. 109) That breadth of interest and vision, the ability not just to find connections but to take ideas from one domain to another and enrich all, seems very important to me.

Previously I only knew of Albers in the context of weaving. Nicholas Fox Weber’s essay introduced me to the printmaking Albers did later in life. “Albers was perpetually on the watch for processes she did not yet know, for unprecendented ways of utilising known techniques for new purposes.” (p. 153) The words Process, Transformation, Universal, Timeless, vibrate. Albers had a love of making, and I’d add a curiosity, that led to remarkable innovation and achievement. Ann Coxon provided the final essay, discussing Alber’s artistic legacy, and quotes Albers’ own words: “Experimental – that is, searching for new ways of conveying meaning – these attempts to conquer new territory even trespass at times into that of sculpture.” (p. 167) A path I would love to follow.

For me this book, Albers’ work, is exciting, inspiring, invigorating. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of her in the past.

Only last month I had the chance to examine two of her free-hanging room dividers in the MoMA at NGV exhibition (15-Sep-2018). I didn’t include my blurry photos then, but now I am emboldened by seeing what appear to be the same two works pictured in the new book (p.39) – my brush with fame! Innovative materials, a twist on familiar weave structures.

lace & finger manipulated sampler

My own student sample of spanish lace from ten years ago (24-Aug-2008) has none of Albers’ grace and precision, but in combination has me hankering to experiment in wire.

An aside: I do love having this blog to refer back to. While writing this post I’ve gone back to a previous book review – Bauhaus weaving theory: From feminine craft to mode of design by T’ai Smith (31-Jan-2015). I obviously had a struggle back then, but I’ve just got the book out and hope to give it another go. Smith also has a contribution in the new book.

I posted about Albers’ own book On Weaving 13-October-2012. (That book too is now in the pile on my work table). “Excited” is one of my favourite words (and sensations), and clearly I felt it then. I like my venture into unconventional “drawing media”!

One major impact of the new book is from the comprehensive, high-quality photographs. Smith’s book has some small colour plates, the copy I have of Albers’ book has a decent page size, a few colour plates, but most of the photos are in black and white on rather soft, fuzzy paper. The new book shows some of the same works, and many more, in photographs that are larger, crisper, and all colour. They are thrilling. I had no idea the range and inventiveness of her work.

I’ve already begun some new experiments – still working with components, still in my current palette of materials – inspired by this book. Albers work of course is key, but it’s an extension of that and a real pleasure to have such interesting writing to accompany it.

Cultural Fusion / Appropriation / …

It’s time to get unstuck. I’ve been thinking and reading about cultural fusion / appropriation / influence / … for a few months now and it’s time to stop thinking in the abstract. I’m getting stale, plus the new course will be here Real Soon Now.

A few notes and links as I wind up:

Hemmings, J. (2015) Cultural Threads: Transnational Textiles Today. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Academic. A range of voices exploring different perspectives – too much to do justice to in a brief review. I’ve read it once and am re-reading, not just the text but following up links to artists mentioned.

Peck, A. (ed.) (2013) Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade 1500-1800. United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson Ltd. I’ve only just started this book, which is the catalogue published with an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2013-2014 (see http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2013/interwoven-globe).

Vincent Vulsma – see http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/vincent-vulsma/. Vulsma is mentioned in Cultural Threads. In an exhibition in Amsterdam, http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/vincent-vulsma/, he used jacquard woven hangings and other artefacts in an interesting post-colonial critique. If I want to take this line of research further, perhaps this could suggest the path to work of my own, exploring in my art the shaky ground on which “my” Australia is founded (I almost typed “foundered”, a nice accidental pun).

Dorothy McGuinness (http://dorothymcguinnessbasket.com/ and http://www.worldofthreadsfestival.com/artist_interviews/130-dorothy-mcguinness-14.html). In her World of Threads interview McGuinness mentions Japanese, Maori, Peruvian and Mozamabique sources. Some of these are via books, others via teachers and fellow basketry makers. Is there a fellowship of makers sharing a language of hands and eyes beyond political or economic or other differences? That’s a silly, rhetorical sort of question because of course there is. We enjoy making connections, sharing skills, learning from each other.

Jim Arendt (http://www.worldofthreadsfestival.com/artist_interviews/127-jim-arendt-14.html), also in a World of Thread interview, said “Artists don’t deserve permission to trespass in other people’s stories. Those stories are for other artists to tell. Image making is a form of power exercised on the people depicted. If I’m going to do that to others and make them vulnerable and subject to criticism, I am only going to do it with people I love. I refuse to be a tourist in other people’s lives.”

A good code to end pause on.

Reading: The Gee’s Bend Effect

Cooks, B (2014) “The Gee’s Bend Effect” In Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture. (12) 3 pp. 346-363

I’ve written before about concerns with appropriation – see for example 24-Dec-2014 and 12-Dec-2014. Cooks’ article has really challenged and extended my thinking.

The arguments presented and overall flow of the article is complex (to me at least), so I’ll start with an overview:

  • Quilts have come to be seen as a tradition in American culture, although often devalued as domestic, women’s work.
  • Gee’s Bend quilts have received particular attention, with multiple touring exhibitions. “… a popular sensation not only because of their visually stunning designs, but also because the identity of the makers themselves stirred powerful narratives of racial nostalgia” (Cooks, 2014, p 348)
  • The quilts have become even more visible through merchandising (stamps, interior decorations, menus), literature, use in political campaigns…
  • Link to American spirit, endurance through tough times, triumph of values – but without recognition of the failure, horrors, hypocrisy, the exclusion of Black people from freedoms and ongoing discrimination
  • Cook’s three specific lines of inquiry (p 350):
    – “how does the citation of Gee’s Bend quilts inform the interpretation of art made by artists outside of the historical and geographic framework of Gee’s Bend?”
    – “in what ways do references to Gee’s Bend quilts re-entrench traditional exclusionary racial boundaries of the art world?”
    – “how do allusions to a Gee’s Bend aesthetic lend cultural capital, along the lines of economic, racial and gender identity, to work by other artists outside of Gee’s Bend?”
  • On this foundation Cooks discusses the work of specific artists, art historians and critics. A sentence of particular interest to me: “Because of the ubiquity of the quilts in the art world in general, and quilting practices in particular, I am not particularly concerned with whether or not artists consciously intended the references to Gee’s Bend” (Cooks, 2015, p 350).

  • Artist Jen Pack uses mixed media (chiffon, wood) and techniques to create structures with a translucent, quilt-like covering.
  • Art historian Jane Livingston has compared Gee’s Bend quilts with abstract paintings, thereby suggesting an inappropriate hierarchical relationship.
  • The context of the quilts is changed by hanging them on walls for display, rather than using them on beds. “This recontextualisation devalues their original intention and context of the quilts as it seeks to appreciate them as if they were another form of traditional ‘fine art'” (Cooks, 2014, p 353).
  • Given aesthetic similarities, Pack’s work is an appropriation, a commentary on the Gee’s Bend quilts and their entry into the art world.
  • Pack’s work has been connected by viewers to Ghanaian kente cloth, Korean hanbok dresses and Mexican textiles. She finds these connections made by viewers “pretty fascinating to me even though it isn’t the origin or basis for me creating the work” (Jen Pack, quoted in Cookes, 2014, p 353).
  • As an artist Pack has a privileged position, is given authority to appropriate, to play and invent, to create from aesthetic rather than utilitarian concerns. “The similarity of aesthetic design coupled with the intentional change of materials marks differences in the class and social agency of the artists” (Cooks, 2014, p 354).
  • Cooks finds in Pack’s work references to the labour of textile production and the making of a new whole from scraps. Is there an aestheticization of poverty in her work?
  • “What’s at stake in interpretation is the perpetual repetition of cultural appropriation – the major thematic narrative in the historiograph of Black creativity” (Cooks, 2014, p355). Examples are cited from music, poetry and fine arts.
  • Cooks examines the Foreclosure series of quilts by Kathryn Clark, again finding many connections to Gee’s Bend quilts.
  • The links provide additional depth, strength and credibility to Clark’s work.
  • In the artists’ works poverty becomes stylized, there is a nostalgia for the past, there is a celebration of American spirit – all ignoring “the reality of continued exploitation and structural inequality” (Cooks, 2014, p 359).
  • There is a lot more to think about in the notes to Cooks’ paper, including discussion of a reference to Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use”. A college-educated Black woman now discounts the values and context of her home, treating the family quilts as objects of (monetary?) value, of nostalgia, to be displayed rather than used.
  • I’ve tried to test some of these points.

  • Changing the context of the quilts, thereby demeaning the intent and value of the women who made them. Is that how the women themselves view what’s happened? I found an article quoting Loretta Pettway in 2006, around the time of an exhibition at the Smithsonian: “Now I see my quilts hanging in a museum. Thank God I see my quilts on the wall. I found my way.” (Pettway quoted in Wallach, 2006). The change of context has given her opportunities, changed her life.
  • Cooks also raised concerns about the change of materials, to chiffon and to specially bought rather than frugal and clever use of the scraps which was all that was available. Wallach notes of one of Pettway’s recent works: “an explosion of red polka dots, zany stripes and crooked frames within frames (a dramatic change from the faded colors and somber patterns of her early work-clothes quilts)”. Another Gee’s Bend quilter, Mary Lee Bendolph, said of an early exhibition it “spunked me to go a little further, to try and make my quilts a little more updated” (Bendolph, quoted in Wallach, 2006).
    The quilters worked with what they had. When circumstances changed, they welcomed the chance to change their work.
  • Do exhibitions of the quilts feed a romantic nostalgia for past days, ignoring cruel, racist, discriminatory treatment of Black people? Again basing my response on Wallach’s article, no. There is a lot of detail, a lot of bad detail, describing the past treatment of the women and their families. The past is not forgotten and it’s not romanticized. The quilters are able to tell their own stories in their own words. They now describe themselves as happy, as enjoying themselves.

    One could argue that these are the voices of only a few, that many still face discrimination and disadvantage. That’s true. That a few are fortunate doesn’t change the situation of many. I’ve never been to the US, but from TV and newspapers the ongoing issues and wrongs are impossible to discount. I don’t see that celebrating a positive for some is equivalent to denying the ongoing different experience of others.

  • Further to that, the general tone, the reference to the Alice Walker story, leads me to ask – what does Cooks see as a good outcome for the many? If education or success or a little extra money lead to a change or evolution in values, is that bad? Are new ideas and ways of doing things so dangerous? If in the past necessity led to making quilts from scraps for warmth, and now one can choose whether to make a quilt for the bed or the wall, or whether to buy blankets, or fabrics for a different sort of quilt – have people lost something critical in having and making those choices? Perhaps “yes” if it also means turning their backs on others who don’t yet have choices, but is that inevitable?
  • Turning now to the question of appropriation by the artists: Cooks is not concerned about any actual conscious connection to Gee’s Bend by the artist – if a work’s appearance is similar it must be influenced, and if it doesn’t look similar it lacks “mnemonic power” (Cooks, p 354). Ellen Caldwell, the curator of the group exhibition “Recrafting History: History, Nostalgia and Craft in the American Memory” which is referenced by Cooks, has written of Pack’s works “They speak to history, using craft as both the medium and subject. Her colorful patchwork aesthetic conjures conflicting memories of familiar cloth from many different places and cultures: patchwork quilts, Ghanaian kente cloth, Korean hanbock dresses, Mexican blankets etc. As such, she plays with the fluidity of cultural or national identity in addition to memory.” (Caldwell, 2011b). In conversation with Calwell Pack has said “I love learning this about kente cloth! I think all cultures are continually appropriating and fusing aspects from different cultures, it is inevitable and hybridization occurs everywhere we turn at this point. It is something that interests me to no end because of my own heritage (Korean Caucasian) and what I think of as my own subtle version of ‘in-betweenness’ when it comes to expressing gender norms. I think of the work as collages rather than creations, because the fabric is already speaking while I’m using it, it already has a voice I’m just letting it sing.” (Caldwell, 2011a). There is mention of multiple cultures – including Pack’s personal experience – and of appropriation. Like any artwork, Pack’s is open to interpretation and connections made by viewers, including Cooks. This feels to me like a theory looking for affirmation.

    And if there is a connection to Gee’s Bend, and kente cloth, and Mexico, and Korean hanbok (although the work reminds me more of pojagi) – should the artist be expected to deeply research them all and more?

    I’m not convinced by Cooks’ argument, which seems to include some finessing of logic. And yet, and yet… there is an emotion, an anger, a sense of cultural loss and ongoing damage, which I cannot answer. I think of my own country, of my research on proppaNOW (see 5-Jan-2014 and https://proppanow.wordpress.com/), and that same anger and sense of ongoing loss is expressed by Indigenous people here. I compare that to the lilting excitement and fun of Austin Kleon in Steal like an artist (15-Jan-2015). I look at various posts on the OCA college blog – “Whos afraid of appropriation?” and “Stealing from the unknown” and even “So what is research?”. “Stealing” from people who are playing the same artworld / academic game – fine. Where does it become an abuse of power, theft from someone who feels that so much has already been taken?

    The only answer I can find – “it depends”.

    References

    Caldwell, E. C. (2011a) ‘Fabrications with Jen Pack (NAP #73) | New American Paintings/Blog on WordPress.com’. New American Paintings/Blog. Available at: https://newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/fabrications-with-jen-pack-nap-73/ (Accessed: 27 February 2015).

    Caldwell, E. (2011b) ‘Crafting & Curating: “Recrafting History” at Taylor De Cordoba | New American Paintings/Blog on WordPress.com’, New American Paintings/Blog. New American Paintings/Blog. Available at: https://newamericanpaintings.wordpress.com/2011/12/15/crafting-curating-recrafting-history-at-taylor-de-cordoba/ (Accessed: 1 March 2015).

    Cooks, B (2014) “The Gee’s Bend Effect” In Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture. (12) 3 pp. 346-363

    Wallach, A. (2006) Fabric of Their Lives, Smithsonian.com. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/fabric-of-their-lives-132757004/ (Accessed: 28 February 2015).

    Reading: Bauhaus weaving theory

    Smith, T. (2014) Bauhaus weaving theory: From feminine craft to mode of design. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

    I found this a difficult book to read. It’s academic writing, with lots of references to ideas and philosophies and people and work that I don’t know, using words that I don’t know or know only in a more general sense, not the precise-in-this-field sense.

    It was also difficult because of my expectations, my desires. I want to find a compelling reason for hand weaving today. Not a joy of craft or handmade functional/wearable item way, but an expressive or conceptual way in which weaving provides unique perspective or insight. That may seem narrow, or a backwards approach, it may combine with other things or develop or change out of all recognition as I progress in my studies, but to me today “weave” seems to contain more, to offer more, to have more in processes and materials and metaphors and allusions and human history, than any half lifetime could explore. So a “weaving theory” – what answers would I find in weaving theory? None really for my personal quest, not in Bauhaus weaving theory. After reading this book I have more questions – which in the long run is probably more valuable.

    Smith’s book begins with the original manifesto for the Bauhaus published by founder Walter Gropius – an art-craft unity, joining “practical and scientific areas of work” (p. xiv). Weaving was there at the start, and continued throughout the Bauhaus history. And the weavers wrote about their work. “Through texts that explored weaving’s material elements, loom practice, and functional applications, a Bauhaus theory of weaving emerged” (p xv).

    Their early weavings were “pictures made of wool” – not taking advantage of weaving’s specific nature, but translating other media, in particular painting. Later Anni Albers “argued that weaving’s processes, structures, and materials are best explored through direct experimentation on a loom” (p xvii). New fabrics were created from experiment, using advantage of what the medium weaving could offer.

    The book explores the changing goals of Bauhaus, driven by individuals, politics and economics. Gender issues are explored. In 1922 weaving generated significant revenue, more than any other workshop at Bauhaus. However its status was low – “As the social and economic history of textiles haunted the Bauhaus weaving work, the textile medium, it seems, was dismissed as mere labor, as ornamental form without ‘intuition’, whose ‘inner sound’ could only ever ‘simulate internal necessity'” (p 32).

    As time passed the Bauhaus developed a functionalist rather than expressionist approach. The weaving workshop responded. “At once modernist, or insistent on the distinctness of this thing and its space of practice, and acknowledging a specifically modern civic identity … early weaving theory joined together the rhetoric of functionalism, modern marketing, and the new women’s movement” (p 44). “Color and form as an abstract, autonomous terrain of inquiry remain integral to the object, even as it shifts toward use. Utility and formal concerns occupy the same matrix” (p 67).

    By 1931 Gunta Stölzl in her writing “declares that there is a rhetorical cleavage between … the development of textiles for use in interiors (prototypes for industry) and speculative experimentation with materials, form, and color,” she also insists that any ‘cleavage’ between utility and experimentation is also bound within the very structure of the woven prototypes” (p 67). [By this stage the theory is definitely moving away from my own agenda – but I wonder, what is the modern day’s art rhetoric?].

    The third chapter of the book, “The haptics of optics: weaving and photography” struck some resonances for me, beginning with “tactility”, which for me is one of the great strengths and interests of textiles generally. “The Bauhaus weaving workshop explored the possibilities of color and formal composition through the interlacing of threads, tacitly placing it in comparison to painterly composition and architectural function. Yet the specific palpability of threads and cloth surfaces required a new set of terms” (p.79). Photography, able to show the “intimacy”, the textured detail, the tactile nature of a fabric, provided a new language.

    Previously I thought “haptic” was to touch as “optic” is to sight, but here I learnt it is more. Otti Berger “through a subtle and perhaps counterintuitive response to photography, … insisted on the tactility of different materials (the smoothness of silk or the roughness of jute, for instance) as well as the fabric’s contact with the kinesthetic movements of the body within architectural space (with curtains or upholstery fabric)” (p 81). Berger “queried the limits of the visual as modernism’s prized term of formal inquiry” (p 84). There is space and movement within haptic – is this part of the unique perspective or insight I am seeking? Moving beyond the visual to incorporate other senses? (I’m reminded of Hiromi Tango – see 30-Oct-2014).

    Smith continues to examine Berger’s work in the next chapter Weaving as invention: Patenting authorship. In a traditionally anonymous field, Berger sought acknowledged authorship of her textile designs. Her initials appeared on sample books. She took out patents on innovative work. “Berger was not the typically creative author-artist – at least insofar as that would have signaled the deep recesses of her inner life, the projection of her soul onto her work. But neither was she the anonymous factory laborer” (p 111). Berger was an inventor. Smith explores ideas around the inventor as author, the anonymity of textiles, a link back to gender.

    It was in the final chapter, Conclusion: On weaving, on writing that I lost my tenuous grip on Smith’s arguments. “Recall that the Bauhaus weavers, in their practice and in their essays on their craft, absorbed the languages of other media. In their wall hangings, for example, the weavers adopted the formal principles of expressionist painting; in their workshop’s prototypes for architectural textiles, they assumed the functionalist vocabulary of the Neues Bauen; for their fabrics found in Neue Sachlichkeit photographs and glossy magazines, they considered the limits of optical and tactile perceptions; and within patent documents, one weaver sought intellectual property protection for her textile inventions” (p 141), seems a good summary of earlier chapters. Much that followed was beyond my grasp. The subtleties of “media” or “mediums” are clearly important, but I don’t have the background knowledge to appreciate them. “Weaving is not just a set of processes: it is also, as I’ve indicated, a certain mediation of the semiautonomous zones of form and history” (p 172) I want to understand, I suspect is relevant to my own inquiries. The following sentence, “Textiles are so overtly bound up in the modes of production that define precapitalist and capitalist societies, and the gendered problematics that circumscribe labor, that they are rarely called ‘art'”, seems to point to areas I have been keen to avoid in my thinking, that I want to move beyond.

    So yes, a difficult book. It began as a doctoral dissertation, and it shows. There is nothing wrong with either of those things. I’ve learnt from this book and I’m convinced there is much, much more I could learn. I just need to work up to it.


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