Sunday, October 09, 2011

1st Tamworth Textile Triennial

In 2008 I was lucky enough to accompany Elisa to the opening of the 18th Tamworth Fibre Textile Biennial. It was a great weekend and we both met a collection of passionate, creative people who most definitely didn't fit any cliches of knitting needle-wielding 'cloth-based crafty person'.

The show presented a wealth of interesting ideas and at the time I wrote about a distinctive modernist approach to materials in that a large proportion of participating artists worked in a distinctively transformative manner. Hard substances were twisted, tied and moulded to simulate softness and equally soft substances were used to simulate that which was robust.

In some ways you might argue that the artists - at least those selected - were almost uncomfortable to use simple thread, cotton or wool in a 'traditional' way for fear of being 'typecast' by the broader arts community. By subverting materials and substrates, they were perhaps more confident in the presentation of conceptual ideas and could rationalize the artification of any resultant objects.

This is a problem that is also encountered by photo media artists as with various craft disciplines. Art photographers in particular often suffer from a form of anxiety in that a straight, unmanipulated image - in their mind - 'needs' embellishment or support (ie text, sound or secondary elements) to be accepted as a 'serious' piece.

Pictorialism is taught as a flawed movement, yet the number of young photo media artists who fall into the same trap is extraordinary. Equally, many - myself included - find it difficult to allow images to speak as singular entities.

At the end of September Elisa and I attended the next edition in the form of the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial. As before, the collection of artists was inspiring and rich in it's diversity.

Themes in the work - as you'd expect - overlapped to a certain extent with the previous show but equally some were more dominant than others. This could be the curatorial hand but it could also be indicative of the concerns of textile-based practitioners.

Hearing some artists talk about their work it seemed very clear that whilst many worked almost monk-like over prolonged periods on their art objects, some practices bordered on self-flagellation. A few artists very clearly physically 'suffer' to make their work and process is integral to the production of the objects.

Whilst broader concepts of work, effort and repetition have been historically celebrated in robust artworks, when 'work' marries with 'beauty' the art industry tends to have problems reconciling the two. This becomes even more problematic when pattern and what might loosely be termed women's work are integrated. It is sad that conceptual work is often then ugly and deliberately unresolved to fulfil expectations critically. ie. it almost needs to look like a 'work in progress' or very obviously 'WORK' with failings, waste and all.

Even with me being aware of these issues, I readily admit to being initially dismissive of some work in both editions of the Tamworth show that I have seen. That which was refined, resolved and polished appeared at first glance effortless and lacking in substance. This is however a failing on my behalf as an audience member and only highlighted my (as surely others') technical ignorance.

Artworks - and the representation of WORK - shouldn't have to appease the lowest common denominator aesthetically and by doing so it will inevitably be simplistic, populist and ultimately lacking in substance.

Michele Elliot
One of the first artworks you encounter as you enter the Tamworth Regional Art Gallery is that of Michele Elliot. Two large paper circles, each with 1,000 small wooden pegs inserted in them, are loosely attached to the wall approximately 2 metres apart. Between these two forms a thin, red thread runs from peg to peg. The work is aesthetically beautiful with the threads overlapping and creating a complex texture and interesting variations in density resulting from the differing thread lengths.

It was only later when listening to her artist talk that you realise the effort you are looking at. As an example, each of the 2,000 pegs was hand-made and the threads were installed in situ by the artist and a gallery assistant. This effort is supposedly to be repeated in each subsequent installation of the work as the show tours over the next two years.

Further to ideas of connectedness and the fragility of relationships, I was particularly interested in the idea of how these 'nodes' might be affected by the install and deinstall. What should happen if the pegs were damaged or happened to fall out? Will the work be repaired or will the entropy be celebrated? A question was also posed about the deinstall process. According to the artist the threads should be simply cut through at the end of the show… poetically this is particularly interesting. More photos of the work can also be seen on Michele's website.
Tania Spencer
Not far from Michele's work, a three dimensional form by Tania Spencer hung suspended from the ceiling. This large work, made from fencing wire, appeared to float effortlessly yet it surely was extremely heavy. From one particular angle a distinctive pattern revealed itself, yet the work appeared visually chaotic from others. Tania spoke during her talk about the physical strain involved in the production of the work and these contrasts - hard pretending to be soft, heavy pretending to be light and three dimensions appearing as two - overlapped with similar ideas explored by Alana Clifton-Cunningham. Alana's work - in particular from the previous edition of the Tamworth show - was armour-like visually yet made from soft, woollen materials.
Lucy Irvine
The arguable hero work of the exhibition was that of Lucy Irvine. Many metres of reticulation pipe were assembled over three large wire mesh shapes to make a gnarled, organic form that seemed to cling to the wall. This visually striking work - reminiscent of some alien fungal growth - invited inspection from multiple angles and it's complexity and intricacy was very rewarding. Lucy's artist statement describes the production of the work in performative terms yet - as mentioned before - at first glance the refinement of the work doesn't betray that process. ie. it doesn't look improvised in any way. I particularly liked the ideas that it - in my mind at least - explored in regards to organic vs artificial nutrition, water vs fire and native vs introduced plant forms.

Contrasts and conflicts have always intrigued me in art works and in the reasoning of those who make them. It is always difficult to gauge whether they might be intentional or flaws but nonetheless it proves fruitful ground.
Rodney Love
Rodney Love's work - a collection of figures shrouded by a cloth - was installed on top of a plinth which approximated his own height. This made the viewing of the work in close proximity obviously very difficult but nonetheless invited effort and curiosity from viewers. He was rather dismissive of his personal reasoning behind this particular work in his artist talk and statement with his rationale being that the ambiguity in the work should encourage narrative development (or access) on behalf of the viewer. That said, there were many conflicts in the work that I found interesting and that require addressing.

The major one being that the figures are chaotically arranged under the shroud yet the shroud itself is refined and beautifully made. The later aspect appears then ritualistic rather than a simple, respectful covering of the recently (and seemingly randomly collected) deceased. The dead are ceremonially arranged symmetrically in most cultures - ie. graves are set in grids - so I'm not sure about the chaos in the work. Ultimately, it reminded of a key work from Walker Evans and how aspects of that work overlap with ideas explored here. That is, without it's caption but within context (together with FSA photographs of depression-era America), it's ambiguity could prove problematic.
Walker Evans, 'Squeakie asleep. Othel Lee, known as Squeakie, son of Floyd Burroughs, sharecropper'.
As with the last edition of this show, I could write something about nearly every artist and this is but a small selection of the work on show at the 1st Tamworth Textile Triennial. It will be on in Tamworth until November 26 then will tour to RMIT in Melbourne from February 2012 and other venues across Australia until late 2013.

As a post-script, it was sad to hear of the lack of funding and other forms of support for the event from various quarters. It borders on shameful that such a rewarding, dynamic and historically significant event struggles for media coverage and 'bigger' funding.

One only needs to see the often intense emotional response that some viewers have to textile work to see how enriching such events can be on both community and creative levels. Typecasting of such events and work on an arts administration level borders on farcical.

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