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Memories, identities, survival strategies and perceptions

One of my earliest memories is a winter’s day when I was less than three years old.  I am sitting in a kick sled,  my legs covered in mauve-coloured leggings. My mother had crocheted them out of coarse, itchy, but warm wool. My brown chequered winter coat was also handcrafted by my mother. My sister has equal, only of a slightly lighter tone. I also remember in detail some domestic textiles with  proper name in my childhood home. “Sohvafiltti” the Sofa Blanket provided comfort and consolation. The slightly brutal name of “Oksennusfiltti”, the Vomiting Blanket carried a history of an occasional travel sickness on a summer picnic.


In the early sixties Finland was still going through the last repercussions of post-war scarcity. Common every-day skills, such as textile craft, provided a vital share in most families’ economies even in urban surroundings. When the housewives gathered for their sewing circles it was not mere coffee drinking and tattling, but also a social framework for  common survival strategy.

Personal histories and experiences are a point of departure for many contemporary textile artists. Such themes as recollection, identity, cultural traditions and confrontations, globalization and social marginalization are subjects of interest in contemporary art in general. These topics are also strongly present in today’s European textile art.  Conceptual ideas based on processes or traditions of making and using textiles are more and more superseding the pursuing of elaborate craftsmanship and elegant use of materials and colours.

The every-day characteristic of textiles together with the values traditionally connected to these materials provide a fruitful ground for new perspectives. In most parts of the world textiles are of vital importance to man, giving protection and comfort. They provide also one of the oldest means of showing one’s social status or cultural identification. One of the strongest national symbols – the state flag – is a textile classic. Although present in everybody’s life, textiles are not neutral by gender. In Europe they belong to the woman’s world of home and nursing. Both making and maintenance of textiles are a part of women’s daily duties.

Many of the artists in the field of contemporary art, who apply textile materials or techniques in their work, have a background in some of the traditional disciplines of fine arts such as painting or sculpture. The artists I have chosen for this exhibition have a degree in textile art or design. Is the approach of the artists from within the textile field in some respect different from the fine artists’ works?


Recollection is one of the starting points for the works by Niran Baibulat, Kristveig Halldórsdóttir and Petter Hellsing. They deal with personal or common memories, each with different means and perspectives. Niran Baibulat’s “Folk tradition” derives from the artist’s memories of preparing traditional Tartar pastries with the women in her family. The seemingly simple installation carries several meanings. The traditional dishes refer to a cultural identity as a member of Tartaric ethnic minority. In culturally homogeneous Finland of the 60’s and 70’s belonging to a minority easily meant a feeling of “otherness”. By exhibiting the recipes of the traditional dishes together with the instructions for crocheting her pieces, she shares her personal experience. At the same time she questions the artist’s role as the sole author of an artwork. Art is a process which may be continued by the public.

Kristveig Halldórsdóttir awakens a common childhood memory. “Sour Responses” displays the physical reaction produced by the sour taste of rhubarb. Most people coming from the area where rhubarb is grown, remember the extreme experience of tasting the plant, the grimace, and a new bite. The reflex, which children can’t hide is captured in a set of digital photographs. Halldórsdóttir engages the life long memory of a man with ancient history of mankind. She parallels the digital snapshots with a sheet of papyrus she has made from the peels of the same plant. The familiar raw material can be recognised in the result with tones of greens and reds. Yet the nature of the papyrus associates to ancient documents and early history of collecting, storing and transferring information.

“Fire” by Petter Hellsing deals with forgetting, dilapidation and mortality. His installations are inspired by remains of an abandoned and gradually  demolished upper class house. The bourgeois past meets contemporary social marginal by the traces that the homeless people have left to the site. Hellsing’s materials bear a history, which appeals to the collective memory of the western civilization. “Fire” is an installation project that has been presented in various ways and locations. Some of the exhibition spaces have been outside of the conventional art scene, for example the subway station in Östermalmstorg - a place that has a double value of being the rough environment of a  subway, but on the other hand it is located in  the most upper class area of Stockholm. Petter Hellsing works with a close contact to the specific site, the physical atmosphere in the room and the social environment.

The values habitually connected to textiles are protective and decorative, and mostly passive – softness, warmth, hiding, sheltering, colourful, patterned, ornamental. Eva Holubíková turns these characteristics into an urban survival strategy in her works dealing with open city space.  “THE AFAD-ENDSTOP” is a site-specific installation and process work originally carried out  in Bratislava. The work takes actively over hard city space with soft and commonly mastered means.  Holubíková’s colourful and humorous work of  crocheted pieces comments town planning, public services, social power relations and citizen activism by spirited do-it-yourself –approach. The process of planning and building a bus route with a completed terminal point was given a finishing touch by the bus service that actually once run the route.

Snežana Skoko uses the social nature of textile tradition  as a framework for her performance. In her sewing circle coffee drinking, fortune telling and idle gossiping has taken over the social scene of common survival strategy. Skoko uses this symbolic scenery to question the state and position of textile art in the contemporary art field. In “Destiny of textile art / demitasse” she criticizes art institutions, such as annual exhibitions and biennials, for fabricating art and serving only as a setting for appraisal of status, hunting for prizes and adding another line in one’s CV.  Her messy coffee table with banal future telling calls for deeper meanings and more topical, less trite concepts in contemporary textile art.

Both the tradition of textile craft and textile art in European culture are dominated by women. The issue of gender has been presented by numerous artists since the 1990’s. The viewpoint has been feminine. The dress and undergarments have become an icon of the feminine body, pink satin and laces for sexuality, an apron for the housework. John K. Raustein and f. marquespenteado present a male angle to the issue. John K. Raustein’s “Handy Man Towel Wall” gives a humoristic comment to the stereotypical roles of men and women, and the artist’s experiences as a man in profession dominated by women. Raustein’s embroidered art apparently refers to the division to men’s and women’s works, which derives from the daily duties in pre-industrial society and still strongly affects the gender roles of today. The “Handy Man Towel Wall” installation speaks more subtly about the positions and functional or decorative roles reserved for each gender. Besides the masculine motifs the Towel Wall also extends a domestic ornament into a monumental scale.

“In double bodies / Corpos em dobro” by f. marquespenteado is an installation based on interviews around perceptions of masculinity amongst Portuguese men in London. The video interviews show immigrant men discussing  their ethnic masculine identity. The textile installation of five more than life-sized male dolls gives a more general picture of the contradictory and often very confined role permitted to a man in the western society. f. marquespenteado implies to power relations, violence and sexuality with his choices of motifs, composition, textile patterns and technical treatments of the material. Textile patterns are limited to two: the questionable flowers (sweetness / weakness) and the permitted stripes (power / strength).

Globalization, its effects on national identities and the constant traffic of materials around the globe are elements for Isolde Venrooy. “Not for commercial use” brings the tradition of quilt making into contemporary art. Originally patchwork quilts made a use of left-over pieces of clothing and household textiles. The majority of today’s household left-overs originate from multiple packing materials that protect the commercial goods on their long journeys. Venrooy composes her “carpets” out of recycled cardboard boxes which come from all around the world. The signs and patterns on the boxes refer to their origins and bring symbolic values and narratives to her work. With irony she questions the originality of established national symbols. The title “Not for commercial use” reminds about the commercial colonial history  through the Dutch the heraldic lion.

Ainsley Hillard, Sally Williams and Astrid Krogh make a use of new technologies in their works, yet their starting points come from traditional textile techniques, materials and patterns. The technology is not only a means of executing their art, but an essential part of the work’s concept. Each of them deals with perception and seeing, but their approaches are different. “Parallax” by Ainsley Hillard  is a site-specific installation  produced for the Fremantle Arts Centre in Australia. Weaving, perception and spatial experience are the key elements of the work. “Parallax” displays a series of photographic images of  the exhibition room, transferred on semi-transparent woven structures. Hillard’s technique is a new version of traditional ikat-weaving. The slow repetitive act of weaving distorts the photographs resulting a misty, vibrating, floating image of the room in the same room. As the audience looks at the installation from within, it creates a impression of multiple points of view – the parallax.

Sally Williams uses new technology to uncover textile landscapes unseen by the naked eye. By the aid of scanning electronic microscope, 3-D software and digital printing she makes textiles the motif of her works. Williams’s microscopic images, like “Green spaghetti”, turn familiar, cosy material into a dynamic flow. The idea of soft, protective and decorative material is shaken. On a close look an embroidery stitch is threatening, pretty tutu -dress looks like iron fence, natural felt like a junkyard, soft fibres turn rigid and rough. The large size of her completed prints intensify this impression. Can textile (art) be dangerous?

Light, colour, and changing pattern are the elements of Astrid Krogh’s “Polytics”. “Polytics” is a site-specific work committed by the Danish Parliament to give light and colour to a dark corridor in the Folketing. “Polytics” is not a textile work either by material or structure. Although it is easy to associate the piece to printed floral fabrics, it is not even inspired by a textile pattern, but a painted mural frieze. The work  brings in the problem of classification. It is certain that this radiant composition of neon tubes, with a pattern changing every 45 seconds, is art. Excellent art. Is it textile art because of the background (education) of the artist, or because of the associations to printed textile patterns? In the end it seems that the final classification – in the case that somebody wants to do it – can be done only by the context in which the artwork is  presented.

It seems obvious that textile as an approach to art has a potentiality to bear implications which appeal to our self-concept, personal and shared memories, basic security. At its best.  Whether speaking of place, technology or context, all the works of this collection have a conceptual idea based on deep understanding of the textile material, processes, traditions and values. It is the backbone that justifies the artwork.