The Power of Slow
Curated by Anne Jackson
Annika Ekdahl, “The Theatre in the Park” (Gallery 1)
As observers frequently comment, woven tapestry is a slow art. In her recent book “Textiles: The Art of Mankind”, Mary Schoeser writes, “As tapestry demonstrates, simple equipment is no barrier to complex patterning (it just takes much longer to create)…”(1) In Western culture, with its addiction to speed, instant access to stimulation and burgeoning technologies, it may be counter-intuitive to argue for the value and power of the slow.
The slow medium of tapestry apparently operates at a huge disadvantage in the contemporary arena. The need for professional artists to be paid for their work means that many have abandoned the medium as totally uneconomic. The remaining tapestry studios around the world manage to survive, and continue to collaborate with artists on prestigious commissions. However, large-scale tapestries made by contemporary artist-weavers are now most often seen in retrospective exhibitions, where works are borrowed back, and tapestries are included from artists’ years at college, when they could produce large works with dedicated equipment and space.
In other areas of contemporary practice, artists like Chuck Close and Grayson Perry are exhibiting large mural works in Jacquard weaving, an industrial process for creating a woven surface. Perry in particular has re-inspired thinking about skills-based craft and artwork, including tapestry.* But he, like other commentators who discuss such work, refers only to historic post-Raphaelite tapestry, seemingly without awareness of contemporary tapestry artists.
In the most recent issue of The Journal of Modern Craft, Joan Key writes of ‘“Craft” as a device in “art” practice…The question is not to decide whether an activity associated with craft can produce a work of art, raising distinctions that are notoriously fraught with difficulty, but to view this hybridization as a creative possibility.”(2) There are some hopeful signs, but generally what Lucy Lippard called the “dematerialization of the art object”(3) has continued apace, with increasing possibilities now offered by digital media.
The prospects of contemporary tapestry achieving mainstream artistic recognition have always been dim. Clement Greenberg, the arch-Modernist, first poured scorn on any artwork involving skilled hand-work in the 1940’s. The art-craft debate was begun. Modernist tenets still hold quite a strong sway in the art world. Along with everything else, it remains profoundly unfashionable to engage in work that is perceived as overtly enjoyable. The artist is meant to strive and struggle, not sigh contentedly as s/he sits down before a beautiful, even-tensioned warp and picks up the first richly-laden bobbin of the day.
However, according to critic Edit Andras, tapestry has a place in “our mediated and virtual world, where one can not trust the things which do not have a human touch.”(4) Alongside the evolution of smart phones, iPads, tablet computers and whatever comes next, the slow art of tapestry reminds us of the human timescale. In life, days still pass, seasons still change and each heartbeat is roughly the same as human heartbeats have always been. Woven tapestry as a contemporary practice continues. Perhaps the technology is so simple and archaic that it answers a vital primal impulse, to intertwine threads and create a fabric. The roots of tapestry stretch back into prehistory, and in its way, it flourishes like a wiry weed between the paving stones of the mainstream art world.
The artist-weaver knows all about slowness. The working day passes in intense thought, leading to hundreds or thousands of choices, sometimes pick-by-pick, as the work progresses. This usually produces only a narrow strip of weaving, centimetres or inches deep. But it is something created by the mind, hand and will of the weaver, belonging entirely to him- or herself.
The power of slow is also located in the materiality of tapestry. The fabric builds, and the image emerges. The intensity of time demonstrably spent, the yarns woven across the focussed plane of the warp, create a concentration of materials, colour and light. It is visual thought, caught and beaten, wefts pushed down like geological layers. The warp that was previously exposed is now covered. The idea conceived by the artist is a day closer to being fully expressed.
Carmen Groza, “Consensus” (Gallery 4)
An instantaneous thought can emerge as a large-scale tapestry if the idea is strong enough. A quick gesture, executed in moments or minutes is then transfixed on the warp over days, weeks or months. There is a digital quality to the “pick” in tapestry. Generally, the individual warp is either covered, or it is not. The mark held in the tapestry surface is different from a painted or drawn mark, which can be accidental, contingent or partly erased. The tapestry mark may look like one or more of these things, but its manifestation is fixed in the iron grip of the surrounding warps and wefts. However fine the line may be, it is either there or not-there. This tension, or fixity, generates a visual vibration, a power. The mark retains its instantaneous liveliness, within the underlying rhythm of the tapestry weave.
This quality is inherent in the work of tapestry artists whose style could be characterised as “painterly abstraction”. The transformation of painted gesture into vibrant tapestry surface is exciting. Forms dance in compositions that appear spontaneous, but have been rigorously thought through. The tapestry is about balance, colour, and movement. Some weavers explore further into abstraction, towards an Agnes Martin-like minimalism. The surface becomes subtle, verging on monochrome. The underlying grid of the warp and weft, and the marks and colour variation on the woven surface, create a singing sense of meditative stillness.
Many tapestry artists choose to work with more representational imagery. The influence of photography in contemporary work is strong, and many weavers also have some background in painting. The genesis of woven tapestry, in Europe at least, was wholly pictorial. Derived from wall paintings and illuminated manuscripts, the field of the medieval tapestry would be alive, top to bottom, with narrative. The surface would be rich with decorative elements, architectural features and figures. Famously, mille-fleur tapestries were composed entirely of flowers and greenery, exquisitely woven. Consciously or not, tapestry weavers continue this ancient lineage. Historic tradition is wrapped up in contemporary experience and expression. Some knowingly utilise medieval motifs and references in their compositions. For others personal memories, iconography and symbols are depicted where angels, saints and devils might once have been shown. The story-telling function of the medieval tapestry is alive and well.
Kathe Todd-Hooker, “So Many Chances” (Gallery 1)
In the work of some artists, a strong touch of surrealism comes through. Impossible landscapes rise up, figures levitate, birds fly and all is encompassed in swirls of dreamlike colour. There is a feeling of weightlessness, perhaps of another world, or of distant memory. The delicacy of effects achievable in tapestry may promote this. The fact that the weaver works upwards might even make him or her susceptible to thoughts of weightlessness, flight, and the suspension of objects above the woven ground, as if in the sky.
Another strand of imagery is explicitly concerned with the earth and the natural world. Some artists work directly from landscape, while some refer to the planet, the elements and the fear of a deteriorating environment. The resulting works can evoke a strong sense of both beauty and pathos. Tapestry can be a useful medium for exploring such challenging topics. Its approachable quality and the association with “comforting” textiles make it possible to say unpalatable things, express a sense of alienation and ask difficult questions.
After the long weaving process, the tapestry is literally cut free. The image is manifested, the idea expressed. The power of slow has produced this artefact, which then moves into a more public arena. It could be a museum, gallery, public building or other privileged cultural space. Increasingly, it is likely to be a private home. In any case it becomes available to a more general, non-specialist gaze. In ideal conditions, such as a museum or gallery, the viewing of a tapestry, as with a painting, is a combination of absorbing the detail and the whole work, leaning in close and stepping back. The evident human striving to express something through this medium catches the attention. The amount of effort required to produce a tapestry comes across as intriguing, maybe even ridiculous. Perhaps incited by the sensuousness of the surface, there can be an almost physical response. A painting can evoke a sense of distance from its flat, shiny, “hard” acrylic or oily surface. The tapestry is more likely to draw one in seductively. The viewer hesitates, spends time. This is the power of slow.
In this increasingly fast-moving world, it’s evident that there are very few female computer games designers, and not very many male tapestry artists. Perhaps, as Roszika Parker and Griselda Pollock have argued, “the sex of the artist matters”.(5) Other media deployed in the field of art textiles, such as stitch, are definitely associated with the feminine, domestic sphere, but tapestry is from a different lineage. Although tapestry-studio weaving remained an almost entirely male preserve until the mid-twentieth century, the spread of art education, the Art Fabric Movement, the Lausanne Biennials and feminism have brought us to a situation where most woven tapestry practitioners are women.
Male or female, professional weavers are practical. Because of the slowness inherent in the medium, the entry-level price for tapestry is always going to be high, even for a smaller work. Weavers have often adopted the strategy of working on a more domestic or miniature scale. Can these works be identified with the “feminine”? They demand less space on the wall, less money to buy. The smaller piece is more accommodating, likely to fit in with existing interior decor schemes, and is therefore more immediately saleable. The weaving can be done in a smaller space, picked up and put down, even on the move in a train or vehicle. Full days don’t have to be committed to a large and expensive studio. If patience and adaptability are actually feminine characteristics, then the willingness to work in whatever scale one can manage might also be seen as an expression of “the feminine side” in contemporary tapestry. Whatever the scale of the work, it retains its intensity and contained pictorial quality. The power of slow still functions. Are miniature tapestries a reminder of their grand forebears, a “taster” for the large-scale work? Or does the intensity of colour, composition and surface mean they can hold their own, however small? Sometimes, a weaver works on this scale because it conveys exactly what s/he intends it to, creating a big explosion of meaning from a small-scale source.
Kari Guddal, “Darkness Walking” (Gallery 4)
For all its powerful materiality, tapestry is unequivocally an “optical” art form, in the modernist sense. Although it is pleasant to the touch, its function is as a purely visual object. Contemporary tapestry has evolved because of the optical qualities generated by light falling on yarns, and the compositional possibilities of warp and weft. But because it doesn’t fit other rules of the game, it doesn’t fall easily into established “art” categories, and therefore largely has to fend for itself. Its historical associations with the artisan, and more recently with the feminine and domestic, possibly don’t help. As Pollock and Parker say, “the way a work of art is viewed depends on who made it.”(6)
In the context of the disembodied digital age it may seem ludicrous to consider whether tapestry even has a future. But, on a fundamental level, remarkably unaltered, it has been around for a very long time. Perhaps the power of slow will ensure its continuing longevity. As weaver Annika Ekdahl says, “A tapestry is woven in real time. There are no shortcuts. Weft by weft is like day by day, step by step, breath by breath. We know that.”(7)
* Grayson Perry once expressed interest in how long it takes me to make a tapestry. When I told him he responded, “I’m working on a huge tapestry at the moment. It will take three days to weave!”
1. Textiles: The Art of Mankind, Schoeser, M., Thames & Hudson, London, 2012, p.171
2. Readymade or Handmade? Key, J.; Journal of Modern Craft, Vol. 5, Issue 2, July 2012, p.206; Berg, London
3. Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966 to 1972, Lippard, L.R., University of California Press, 1973
4. Tapestry from an art historian’s perspective, Andras E.; ARTAPESTRY2 catalogue; European Tapestry Forum, 2008, p.16
5. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, Parker & Pollock, G., Pandora, London, 1981, p.50
6. Ibid., p.69
7. My Wish for Tapestry? I Hope This is the Truth, Ekdahl, A.; ARTAPESTRY2 catalogue; European Tapestry Forum, 2008, p.20