Sunday, November 23, 2008

Period Costume Drama in Tamworth

There's no mystery to it. Nothing more complicated than learning lines and putting on a costume. - Morgan Freeman on acting.

Just as some of the artists in Momentum (at the 18th Tamworth Fibre Textile Biennial, November 18, 2008 - January 18, 2009) explore personal identity as a thematic, others address the identity of fibre-based art itself. This manifests itself in an essentially modernist approach to the use of materials and techniques.

This often intense engagement with surface speaks volumes about the issues fibre-based artists encounter in both the contemporary art and social realms.

The post-modern myth that 'anything goes' is still very much institutionally (academically, socially and in the commercial market) twisted to 'anything goes, but not...'

Costume as a broader concept seems to be applied not only as a motif but also philosophically in that some of the artists manipulate the viewing experience via the creation of an illusion - hard pretends to be soft, soft pretends to be hard and robust pretends to be fragile.

This is not to say that the intent of the artists is to hide the nature of their chosen mediums but rather that they are exploring the multiple personalities of fibre-based materials and techniques.

Just as photography as an artform is skewed by the viewer's misperception of 'reality', so too cloth often suffers the same fate via a focus on the utilitarian aspects of the functional.

Cloth is however much more complex than that. It regulates our temperature yet at the same time is an intricate sign system. It both protects us, disguises us and is integral to ritual. It is a teaching tool, entertainment device and it places us in a series of complex social groupings.

The creative engagement with these multiple personalities makes for fascinating viewing.

Alana Clifton-Cunningham is showing a series under the umbrella title of Second Skin. Whilst these works address various ideas including identity, scarification and ritual, to me they immediately evoked imagery of armour and defence.

This speaks directly to the skewing of perception. That which is soft and malleable appears hard and immovable. Whilst beautiful they have an inpenetrable feel about them which is especially heightened by the use of wood and leather in some of the pieces.

Perhaps we could look at them as many other forms of clothing. They hide our nakedness and protect us from the world yet at the same time fetishise our bodies by hiding or extenuating this nakedness.

These are quite charged works that brood quietly at first glance but speak louder when given more thought.

Immediately next to Alana's work is a piece that is even more complex in it's contrasting ideas. The camouflage aspect of Annabelle Collet's piece Neo - Camo Installation seems to explore ideas of disappearing into a crowd in a semi-covert way.

This especially so given the military imagery of medals, stars, etc. Where this gets interesting is the balance between a military uniform and commendation. The uniform is key in a denial of individuality to enforce a collective doctrine yet the plummage of medals is both heavily ritualised and one of the few individualised aspects in the system.

Whilst medals and stars aren't necessarily competitive, they could be seen as a last bastion of the individual. However, does the military imagery imply a malicious intent or a distrust of that which surrounds he/she who is camouflaged?

This work initially left me torn as the contrasts were perplexing. I found the medals out of place as they conflicted with the ideas on social engagements that the piece explores. It is one of those works that stirred me and forced an engagement, so in that regard it is successful.

Further along, we find the work of Melissa Hirsch who also skews the multiple personalities of fibre to good effect.

Her works Red Orange Staghorn Coral and Bleached Sea Fan Coral are extremely intricate and completed using nylon fishing line. Something exceptionally robust and destructive is used to recreate a fragile and delicate ecosystem.

The complexity and labour-intensive work involved in creating these pieces speaks to both the time it took for the natural equivalent to develop as well as to the time it will take for the artificial to decompose.

The bleached piece looks at the damage the man-made has done to the reefs themselves. This manifests in overfishing, pollution and climate change. The nylon - as with other plastics - is very much our disturbing legacy.

Another artist addressing environmental issues in Momentum is Mandy Gunn.

Her work - Burn Out Series - contains a seemingly soft, lush surface. In fact, they are made from finely cut threads of tyre inner tubes. The illusion of comfort and weightlessness contrasts vividly with the dark, heavy, toxic and flammable nature of the materials.

These carpet-like forms, hung from the wall and visible at the beginning of the walk-through form a stunning, high contrast focal point as you first enter the show.

Mandy had mentioned that the tubes came from a variety of sources. The homogenisation and assisted decomposition of the material then becomes interesting with their personalities becoming subservient to a collective mass.

The exhaustive and decadent connotations of the rather apt title point to a fundamental concern with reuse.

In a similar vein is the work from Liz Jeneid. Her Tea Party contains 55 delicate cups made from used tea bags in which the porous and soft is used to create the illusion of the non-porous and hard.

Tea has many functions in social engagement. It is used to comfort, for reflection and reassurance as well as a tool - or excuse - for pause. Does the fragility of the device used then speak to the fragmentation and instability of these interactions?

As the cups are displayed in a rigid grid system, they seem almost Orwellian - Victory Tea perhaps? - when compared to eccentric tea-based sub-cultures.

It could be that the work in it's repetition addresses the commonality of experience and/or the cyclic nature of life. We associate tea with times of day and certain events, so does the grid imply the certainty that these events will occur?


Rodney Love has also been posting about his Tamworth experience.

momentum - tamworth regional gallery from leslie wand on Vimeo.

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