This one really is for the academic quilting followers, so you are completely free to ignore it, but I am committed to sharing my academic work with anyone who is interested, so here goes.
The most interesting part of this for me is the transformation that came over the piece when I rubbed the paint, and particularly the almost elemental red oxide over the stitching. This paint colour looks organic – which I suppose rust – red iron oxide is. One of the reasons I was so pleased that it looked like Native American rock art is it seemed to fit really well with Benjamin’s interests in the origins of art in his wonderful essay, ‘Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction’. He thinks about the earliest art and what it was for and what it meant. He comes to the conclusion that it had a ritual or sacred purpose, and that wrenching it from that context, as we can when we have mechanical means of reproduction, destroys much of its meaning. We don’t exactly know what cave paintings were for, but they mean less on a souvenir tea towel than they do in the cave.
One of the things that I am really interested is the claim that arts-based or studio-based approaches to scholarship produce different knowledge or produce knowledge differently, so, what can we learn by making art that we couldn’t learn by an interview? or do we come to know it in a new way – in our bodies as well as our minds, for example? Despite the fact that this is often my chosen methodology, I am very sceptical, which I think academics should be. I think that a good interview can yield a great deal of material, certainly enough to provide very useful insights. But in my experience, making art pieces allows me to access and link material that I had apparently forgotten or did not realise I knew. So, I sat down and thought about what I had learned from making this piece, that I couldn’t have gleaned from sitting down and really thinking about Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Destructive Character’.
I think that I learned more about my intellectual relationship with Benjamin than I did about the essay itself. I wonder if I see the ‘auratic’, Benjamin’s term for the power that a work of art can exert over the viewer, because of my own travels, to see Telegraph Rock in Arizona for example, ancient art which is graphic and linear and pigmented in the same tones as this piece. Or does the auratic suggest itself because subconsciously I know that Benjamin is interested in what art does and what it is for and how it began and what it tells us about our human condition in this modern era? Context, as Benjamin tells us, is everything. I understand this in a particular way – seeing the prehistorical in a tangle of threads, because I am making it while steeping myself in Benjaminian thought, indeed in order to penetrate more deeply into that thought.
A lot of modern textile work is about making something evocative of something else: a rusting corrugated iron shed, a section of peeling paint, crumbling plaster on an old wall. It is about rendering one visual and tactile experience in terms of another one. The City and Guilds craft tradition is all about this. It involves preparing working drawings (PWD). But the best textile artists seem to me not to do this, but to produce a version of or a response to the thing itself. The best textile art tends not to be figurative but to be about something. It evokes and connotes rather than depicting or denoting.
This is the case with the deconstructed stitching. It is about technique. The painstaking decorative embellishment of hand-crocheted cotton lace which is at the top of the piece and which I made while young and still dreaming of idyllic bedrooms with voile curtains wafting in a gentle breeze, and the even more superfluous deconstructed stitching produced for itself have no practical value.
It is decorative and degenerative art in one sense. So the two are bound together – they are both decorative and both useless to some extent. In one way, the lace has more integrity as it will at least potentially be put to use on bed linen. The deconstructed stitching has no use value at all, but it does draw attention to the circumstances of its own production. Lace has a certain timelessness and has had a massive exchange value hence all those portraits of Elizabeth I in her ruff and cuffs:
but deconstructed stitching is of its time. The world has already moved on to technological innovation: digitally produced work, work involving chemical processes, work exploring haptic possibilities and technological interaction with one’s environment. But it could be argued that the destructive character has cleared the path for these innovations. Textiles, embroidery and surface decoration needed to break through the status quo, maybe hegemony, of crinoline ladies and bell pulls and pious samplers before it could recover a sense of stitch as being in interaction with the human, holding material stuff, clothes, domestic textiles, armour, nets and so on, together to facilitate life and communal existence:
The destructive character, sweeping away the detritus and letting the air in, allows for a return for textiles with a very clear use value. Although, in a final irony, the new textiles concerned with haptic possibilities: sound sleeves that create ambient soundscapes as the sensors on the wearer pass through the environment and shirts that will measure body functions and provide feedback, belong to the potentially distopic world of elite individuals cocooned from human contact like first-stage cyborgs, like all those people walking their dogs in glorious open countryside with their headphone on or their earplugs in. Textiles again are transcending the individual human and allowing escape from the immediate, just as an embroidered petticoat or glove or tray cloth has always permitted a small aesthetic escape into a decorated world better than the mundanity of this one. Small moments of aesthetic delight taking us temporarily out of the dullness of the quotidien.
Returning to the panel, its scale shows the smallness of the enterprise. The Destructive Character works on a much larger canvas. Benjamin is talking about making a new society. But in its evocation of the prehistoric it does ironically offer a vision, however temporary and fugitive, of a slate wiped clean, of a time full of potential which need not result in the etuis and firescreens of Victoriana, a possible future of right relationship with the environment.
This is just a first attempt at tracing what making the textile pieces can contribute to scholarship, and it won’t appear anywhere in quite this form, but I wanted to document a process of thinking about the work. More pictures, less verbiage next time.