The Battle of the Colours

Funny how even a shop called ‘Blue Earth’ turns all red.
Moodboard Fall 2017

This Fall the streets will turn red. Already the shops in the high street show clothes in all hues of red. It makes me happy. It’ll bring warmth and colour in those many grey days we have around here. If people dare to wear it, of course. For some people find red threatening. The power the colour carries also means that about the first advice about professional attire is not to wear red, out of fear to attract hostility and aggression. In fact, that colour interpretation relates to that other Fall. Confused? Read on, all will become clear.

According to my favourite colour expert, Michel Pastoureau, the history of colour is always the history of the society in which it features. In this sense colour – and indeed its manifestations in fashion – is not superficial at all: it offers elements to understand society better. And one of the reasons why I like Pastoureau so much is that he always includes illustrations of materiality and craftsmanship to make the point.

This booklet offers a good summary of all Pastoureau’s ‘colour books’.

Pastoureau’s work is complex and detailed. I can heartily recommend all his books: they’re full of fascinating stories and delightful insights. Let me share a few with you.

Nowadays about 75% of Westerners name blue as their favourite colour. To make us understand how remarkable this is, Pastoureau goes to great lengths to demonstrate that for most of human history it was red that was most preferred. The battle of the colours will take place later, let’s stay for a while with the supremacy of red. 

Think of the caverns of Altamira for instance: they’re Unesco heritage because of the 150 drawings they contain, estimated to be some 15.000 years old and mostly in reds. 

Also Unesco heritage: the amazing wall paintings in Pompeii (80BC) where the intense red greatly contributes to the powerful experience. Almost in passing Pastoureau points out that, contrary to what many think, the garments, the private houses but also the temples and the sculptures within were, in classical times, full of colour.

The first dyes were vegetal, including ochres, which turn colour when burnt, and the popular madder.  The latter is a plant that carries the pigment in its roots. Which begs the question how humans got the idea to go searching underground for tinctorial matter? 

Over the centuries animal colourings were added such as kermes and the New World cochineal, the story of which has been wonderfully written by the American historian Amy Butler GreenfieldIn the middle of the 18th century an estimated 350 ton per annum of cochineal was exported to Europe, providing Spain which had the monopoly, with a revenue which almost equalled that of silver. 

The New World cochineal lives on cacti, only the female yields the dye (1777).

It goes without saying that garments dyed with cochineal were very expensive and thus became a symbol of power and luxury.

Pastoureau gives the materiality of colour a great deal of attention: he tells the stories of the successive chemical and technological advances in the craftsmanship involved. And he offers, to our contemporary eyes, surprising illustrations of that materiality. 

For centuries brides at the countryside for instance would wear red, not of the cochineal variety of course – which was too expensive and also forbidden for ‘ordinary folk’, but the local dyers mastered the red vegetal and animal pigments the best. Red was in other words a good material choice for a radiating bride.

Dyeing was a labour-intensive, intricate activity (Barthélemy l’Anglais & Jean Corbechon, Le Livre des propriétés des choses, 1482). On the right both bride and groom wear red: their festive attire accentuates the significance of the sacrament of matrimony (detail Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, c.1470).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also like the story of Louis XIV’s brother who allegedly introduced high heels at the 17th-century French court. The idea was to make up for the short posture of both brothers, which failed utterly because the new trend was taken up swiftly by all courtiers. Fascinatingly the heels were bright red – on the outside, which provides historical support to the failure of contemporary designer Christian Louboutin to obtain trademark protection for his signature red-lacquered soles.

Both at his marriage and when he was 63 and in full royal gear, Louis XIV sired red-heeled shoes (Antoine Dieu, Marriage of Louis of France and Marie-Adélaïde of Savoye, 1678; above right detail after Hyancinthe Rigaud).

In comparison, the Louboutin red seems conservative.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much less light-minded is the Church’s use of colour. In fact, the original Bible hardly contains colour references. It’s only over the centuries and across translations, especially in the vernacular languages, that the Bible becomes increasingly more colourful – in itself an illustration of how colour testifies of changes in society.

These changes resulted in an ambitious colour symbolism that from the 5th century onwards exercized its influence in many domains of religious life (liturgy and costume for instance), social practises (garments, ceremonies, heraldic arms and insignia) and artistic and literary creation. And that for about a millenium. That’s powerful cultural heritage indeed.

With regard to the colour that concerns us here most, the Christian symbolism was founded on two principal references, namely blood and fire. And each was considered in both its good and bad aspects.

Blood in its positive connotation is of course the symbol of life. Even more specifically, it’s Christ giving his blood who has saved mankind, thereby warranting eternal life. In his footsteps followed the Church’s martyrs who accentuated the promise of salvation and the community of believers. This red sanctifies, fertilizes and unites. It’s also the colour of the very powerful Christian concept of caritas.

Both the so-called mystic press on the left and the Lamb of God above illustrate the growing symbolism attached to the blood of Christ (French miniature, 14th-15th century; detail Jan Van Eyck, The Ghent Altarpiece, 1427-9).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But inevitably blood is also associated with violence and impurity. That’s why crime, sin and above all revolt against God were depicted in reds. Hangmen and torturers often wore red garments which had, of course, the additional advantage that their ‘activities’ were not too visible. In more general terms red became the colour of control, inhibition and sanctioning: think of a “red list”, the red pen used to correct exams, the “red line” not to be crossed. Red thus became very much associated with power and authority – which is also why the colour became the exclusive privilege of society’s elites, religious, political and economic.

It’s no coincidence that the guilds’ coats of arms were predominantly red (Ghent, 1524). The power of heraldic red continues to play even now, with 75% of the current UN members having red in their flag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beside blood, it’s fire that features prominently in the Church’s colour symbolism. Biblical divine interventions are often accompanied by fire, as in the case of God speaking through a burning bush to Abraham who’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac. The most powerful image in this respect are the fiery tongues of Pentecost. Here we have divine love that regenerates, purifies and fortifies. Hence also the association with more mundane manifestations of seduction and love, remember the wedding dresses. Alas, fire is not always benign. Undoubtedly the strongest reference in the medieval mind is Hell, with the Devil as the personalization of temptation and evil. In that sense it wasn’t surprising that heretics were burnt – with no hope for salvation.

The two dimensions of fire in Christian symbolism: on the left the fiery tongues bringing regeneration on Pentecost (Hunterian Psalter, c.1165-70), above eternal damnation for heretics (Chronicle From the Creation of the World until 1384).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In sum, these four interdependent dimensions constructed a powerful symbolism that coloured the High Middle Ages very red indeed. But things were about to change.

A first crack in the red supremacy came from an unexpected rival: blue. The Romans disliked it, interpreting it as the colour of the barbarians. In the medieval West, it hardly features socially or artistically and it carried no religious or symbolic connotations.

Note the same bright blue for the Virgin’s coat and the sky. Interestingly, the angels are both blue (on the earth) and red (circling God in heaven) (Nativity, in Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, c.1415).

This raises the question whether the promotion of blue was prompted by technical advances, newly discovered pigments for instance or better ways of mastering the dyes. Pastoureau argues that the ideological mutations preceded the chemical ones: it was the association with the Virgin Mary that set kings, later all nobility, to adopt blue. 

Hitherto depicted in sombre colours, referring to her bereavement, Mary gradually sires a blue coat – which also becomes more bright and luminous. And that brighter blue, miniature artists use to paint the sky, which was black or golden before. This is also the period which saw the construction of the Gothic cathedrals with their famous blue stained windows.

The ideological promotion of blue through the Virgin, queen of the heavens, had some serious material consequences too. Blue upstarts so to speak broke through the dyeing guild’s monopoly and set up their own, rivalling organizations. Severely affected in their economic activities, the red dyers resorted to moral warfare to protect their position. Pastoureau tells of two instances where the red dyeing guild tried to convince their stained windows colleagues to represent the devil in blue – in an attempt to discredit the colour altogether. They failed.

I found one example with both red and blue devils. It’s probably not surprising that this Last Judgement (c.1500) adorns St Mary’s, Fairford. Being one of the so-called wool churches, it’s a testament to the wealth of the wool trade in the Cotswolds region. The stunning windows are 
the only surviving set of medieval stained glass in England. I think the blue devil above rather cute but that must be my wicked modern mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red’s downfall continued with new sumptuary laws and sartorial decrees that the civil authorities increasingly promulgated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The purpose was threefold: economic, moral and social. These laws and regulations fought against luxurious and thus unproductive spending. They also condemned new fashions which were considered frivolous, indecent, scandalous even. And above all they aimed to reinforce the boundaries between the different social classes so that all, in their appearance and ways of life, would remain in their stations.

The Reformation of the 16th century concluded the case. Not surprisingly in view of the powerful symbolism set out above, red to the Reformers represented the Papist Church against the many corruptions of which they so ardently fought. Red thus lost its positive connotations and became exclusively negative. Most particularly, red became associated with sin, pure and simple.

Being banned from Paradise was not a pleasant experience (Ulm Münster, 1461).

And this is where the other Fall comes into the picture. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Wisdom, it’s the sanctioning red angel who expulses them from Paradise. But with original sin also originated the need for garments. The fact that we wear clothes, is a continued testimony of our inherent sinfulness. Fashion is not only superficial and frivolous, it’s proof that we humans are flawed. It’s therefore right and proper for clothes not to express status, let alone pride: they must contribute to our awareness that we need to be modest and humble. The Reformers had much less faith in salvation or charity, the perspectives were bleak. Hence a much muted down colour palette, if not dominantly black.

Compare these two Holy Families: on the left the Protestant Rembrandt
uses a very muted palette (1634), the Counter Reformation diplomat Rubens (above) paints his colours as bright as can be and even includes a frivolous parrot (c.1614).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although in reaction the Counter Reformation re-enforced red in all its splendour, in more ordinary circumstances the West has actually adopted the more neutral palette of the Reformation. The dark colours that are dominant in office surroundings for instance still refer to a work ethic that since Max Weber is related to Protestantism. Pastoureau concludes more generally that red has almost entirely been banned out of our daily lives, including the public sphere. 

This conclusion struck me to the point that I went out to test it in my home city. And indeed, there is surprisingly little red in Ghent (I’m discounting the reddish bricks and roofs, and publicity signs). And where it is present, it refers to the authority of the Church, and by extension to the old civic powers. Interestingly the positive connotations are in the majority: who wants to see it, finds evidence of divine and mundane love, charity and the power of the city. The references to violence and revolt are much more muted.

Without the truck you might miss the muted red in the roof windows of the Cathedral,
the Beguinage church tower is already somewhat more obvious,
in the Counter Reformation charity building there is no more holding back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright red gate of the medieval belfry reminds us of the value of the city’s freedom.
 The so-called Dulle Griet (1431) was moved to Ghent to fight the Spanish. The impressive canon, stretching over 5 m and weighing more than 12 ton, now stars mostly and predictably in selfies. 
The fire reference in the streets is benign: in case of emergency the water supply will be easily found.

 

The least you can say is that the much-discussed circulation plan, recently introduced to give pedestrians and cyclists more space, brightens up the city centre.

The only modern exception, where red was relatively recently introduced in the public domain, are the sea, rail and land traffic systems. Here too though the reference is old, with the red indicating control and inhibition.
Why green was introduced, is unclear: the symbolic contrast red/green is unprecedented historically. Some (in the book unnamed) countries contrast red and blue – which is a surprising reference to the battle of the angels and the devils. In Japan they use green but call it blue.

A postbox in front of my favourite building in Ghent: the Castle of the Counts.

There is the material suggestion (also not in the book) that red is simply very striking to our eyes. This might explain why telephone boxes (now extinct on the Belgian streets) used to be red. We still have the red post boxes (but not in the author’s France).

Because Pastoureau pays so much attention to materiality, I don’t think he would disagree. But his conclusion is much more powerful: although red is no longer the preferred colour in the West, it remains the strongest colour symbolically. That’s why red still provokes such strong emotions. With reference to the historic symbolism we understand better why that is so. And it’s fun to adopt a different mindset and observe the battle of the colours.

Where once was the entrance to the red light district, the Ghent artist Jan Van Imschoot painted several scenes of the local history (2000).
Detail of the wall painting: seductive red stockings.

So, do wear red clothes this Fall and decide whether you’re creating your own private Counter Reformation, or simply want to add more blood and fire to your life – in the positive meaning of spirit, charity and love, obviously.

And on a wall very close to where I live, what should always be the final word.

The Craft of Use

We’re not materialistic enough. Now here’s a challenging thesis. And it’s convincingly argued by Kate Fletcher, Professor of Sustainability, Design and Fashion at the University of the Arts in London. Bear with me, an incident in a different branch of the arts introduces the theme beautifully.

A strange debate recently in Belgium centred around the question whether or not it’s acceptable to destroy a piece of art – and on what grounds that can be judged.

Tuymans, The Swamp. Photo Karel Hemerijckx.

The internationally renowned artist Luc Tuymans made the floor painting The Swamp for a cultural happening at the end of which the painting would be burned. With the explicit approval of the artist, of course. But the manager of a poverty organisation objected because the painting had an esteemed market value of half to one million euros. After lots of to-and-fro-ing, the painting was not burnt but hacked into pieces. The full destruction will eventually take place out of public sight.

The point seems to be that we cannot deal with transience: intentionally planning that things change, or indeed disappear, meets resistance. But what’s demonstrated most is how we, collectively, are completely stuck in a consumption society – and we no longer understand its implications. The manager interprets art purely in monetary terms. Tuymans himself manages the market very skillfully by creating scarcity of his work. In other words, all parties in the debate are strongly embedded in the consumption ideology of our times. Yet it can be safely assumed that the manager cherishes other values. And the artist claims a kind of sanctuary, a space where different values reign.

This space is where Kate Fletcher situates her work on the Craft of Use. In fact she’s far more ambitious than Tuymans: the point is not so much to create a sanctuary and in the rest of the space continue to go along with the dominant values, but rather to explore already existing practices and ideas and see how far they will get us in the definition and realization of a radically different system.

Fletcher’s focus is on fashion. And what is so wonderful about her project is that it not only aims to reshape the way we think about fashion but also firmly places it in a much broader discussion on sustainability and the good life. I said it was ambitious.

Fashion is the poster-industry of consumer materialism, frivolous and superficial, hence rather easy to dismiss. Yet Fletcher insists on fashion as a true cultural force, in the sense both that it’s the carrier of the dominant values of our society and that it has the potential to act as a vehicle for true, deep change. Fashion fuses fundamental human needs, the provision of livelihoods, creative expression, social processes, the material dimensions of well-being and pleasure. On the downside, it fully illustrates the dominance of market thinking and the inability of efficiency improvements to outrun the negative effects of economic growth on labour conditions and climate change.

At the heart of The Craft of Use lies a very simple idea of change: pay heed to the tending and wearing of clothes, favour their use as much as their creation. And in so doing adopt a more ecological idea of fashion that recognizes what happens outside the market as rich, powerful and valuable. The subtitle makes it plain: this is the search for “post-growth fashion”. There we have it: the point is to change the entire system.

We’re all “locked-in” into dominant ways of thinking about fashion, about economics and society.  We find it normal to engage with fashion by exchanging money for product. We chase the thrill of a new purchase, only to feel deflated at home where the satisfaction rate rarely holds out. We also expect the clothes to look dated or even fall apart in six months. We don’t hesitate about discarding rather than adapting or repairing – and so we consume again. And the ever growing volumes at an ever increasing pace neutralize the ecological efforts of the fashion industry.

And how do we feel when discarded clothes become art? Monika Droste, Transfixed Clothes (1981), Collection of the Wallonie-Brussels Federation.

To return to the challenging thesis at the beginning of this post: much in the same vein that the Dutch designer Christien Meindertsma argues for the knowledge about the origin of raw materials, Fletcher claims we’re not materialistic enough because we don’t really care about the materials or indeed the garments. If we had respect and appreciation for the intrinsic material qualities of things, we would treat them differently – with attention and care. But consumer society suggests that it can fulfill our needs, for symbolic value for instance or social meaning. Hence the continuous replacement purchases. In that dynamic the clothes’ materiality, their intrinsic qualities aren’t relevant. To the industry the post-purchase lives of garments are equally irrelevant: the sooner it can seduce us to consume again, the better. 

This to Fletcher is the crux of the system: if the focus continues to lie with the product, we’re reduced to being – and remaining passive consumers. We hardly exercise our judgement. It’s hard for instance to get any information about the conditions in which the garments are manufactured. We let ourselves be distracted so that we also don’t evaluate our own needs and how they relate to consumption. We don’t actively engage with things. We don’t exercise our awareness. And thus neglect the development of our sensitivity to ethical responsibility.

When in other words consumption is such a powerful force, and it generates passivity in fashion activities, it also spreads that attitude to other domains. And we no longer see what its effects are: we’re discouraged to exercise our judgement in other areas of life too, we fail to identify our real needs, we feel powerless to act in the world. We’ve interiorized the idea that the market defines value – there is no alternative. Which also means that ideas or practices that cannot be marketed, have no value – remember the Tuymans debate.

Fletcher argues that we must resist this dominant ideology. We cannot accept that our lives are assessed by the market alone. Our aspirations and the simple (and not so simple) things that enrich our lives, the engagement with others for instance, do not connect with the economic logic of continuous growth. We thus urgently need an alternative discourse, both to solve the problems of sustainability and to realize a qualitative interpretation of human well-being.

If this sounds like a major task, Fletcher doesn’t deny it is. But she offers us the concept of use as a simple way in. For keeping garments in active use can involve something as simple as approaching a piece with attention and imagination. It’s inconspicuous consumption. It’s appreciating resources in greater detail, stretching them qualitatively and quantitatively, approaching them creatively, folding them into others’ lives, infusing them with human warmth, memory and storytelling. 

Research has revealed that the post-purchase life of a garment is the biggest source of both individual satisfaction and environmental impact. This is why use must be at the centre of post-growth fashion. 

Craft of use refers to a set of practical skills, knowledge and ideas associated with using clothes. They’re little noticed and within the current fashion system little prized. What Fletcher and her team do in the book, is bring together stories and portrait photography that illustrate and value the practice of use. And the main point is that there are already many “alternative dress codes” out there: people buy secondhand, they share use or transfer clothes between generations, they mend their garments, “open and adjust” them, cherish the patina of use, etc.

This is what satisfaction with use looks like.

Let me share my two favourites from the book. One person suggests that with a new dress you should also be able to buy an extra piece of fabric, so you could adjust the garment to your own wishes. Showing her own favourite eveningdress, the woman in the photograph on the right tells the inspiring story of a woman in her eighties who at some point had decided not to buy any more clothes. She’s worn out the rest of her wardrobe and now only wears eveningwear.

What the book illustrates above all, is that many people already have, in their own ‘ordinary’ way, broken through the dominant economic system. They listen to their own needs and preferences, they use their awareness and judgement and bring them into the world. They’ve thus become agents in their own interpretation and practice of fashion.

Fletcher insists that the designing process itself must include users’ wisdom and produce more flexible products. Interestingly, at the end of World War II, the Make Do & Mend movement already inspired material resourcefulness with army blankets. Half a century later the A-Poc project presented the fascinatingly flexible design of Issey Miyake (1998). 

This is disruptive stuff. Once beyond-the-market activity is included to stretch the definition of fashion, the power balance shifts. Production becomes only one part of the system, existing market priorities lose their dominance in favour of alternative networks that favour non-utilitarian, non-economic values.

Use is resourceful and satisfying. It infuses the system of fashion with different goals such as self-reliance, diversity and quality. To use is to act, to forge a more engaged future of our own choosing and in so doing provide us with an opportunity to develop the capacity and skills to navigate our own route not just through our fashion choices, but also through life: we become the makers of alternative routes. Consumers become citizens who bring to the fore different interpretations of identity, agency and the good life.

What I find most fascinating is that this is about ‘ordinary’ people. It’s not grand theory: it’s practical wisdom gleaned from individual, subjective lives. Its practitioners may not even be aware of it but they fulfill a pioneering role – which can inspire us, precisely because it’s so much in reach of us all. What’s more, this “clothing competence” can equally spread out and support growth in our character for instance and in our choices as citizen. Stories of “material resourcefulness” thus become tiny lessons of change – in the various domains of life.

Fletcher makes the association with craftivism which is an explicitly political approach. Obviously, there’s also a strong reference to the ideas, practices and values of craftsmanship such as I have been presenting in this blog. Or to summarize the whole argument really simply: after a garment is sold, the user is in charge. Fletcher calls all of us to use that power. The idea and practice of use is a path to approach not only fashion but life itself differently.

Let me conclude with two practices of my own. Fletcher insists that she “present[s] the practices of garment use not as a neatly packaged ‘how to’ list for using things well and with satisfaction, but as rich ground, as compost, in which ideas and practices of use can be cultivated.” With her, “I leave it up to you to care for what grows here, to train it in different directions, to enjoy its blossom, to cross-pollinate its flowers with new ideas, to eat its fruit, share it with others and replant its seed in new and different ground.”

My sister knitted one jumper in her life. And when it was finished, she didn’t like it – and gave it to me. Years later moths liked it very much.
What I could save, got recycled into a festive attire for a new member in my sister’s happy bear collection.

 

 

Note the buttons above left, the zip on the right and the fringes in the foreground, each belonging to a different secondhand skirt. 
I very much hope I can wear this new trinity in my eighties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Craft Agency

Everyone in Flanders knows Bokrijk: it’s a popular school destination from the 1970s onwards. And very boring I remember it too. The Provincial Open Air Museum presented a stilted version of the past, with old farms and chapels for instance transported from their original settings, and loads of old utensils and machines that breathed dust and irrelevance.

Something has changed between the traditional clog workshop and the Bokrijk 
presentation at the latest edition of the Interior Biënnale Kortijk (2016).

 

 

 

 

 

Textile is not very prominent in Bokrijk but Flemish fashion designer Tim Van Steenbergen will experiment next year on this restored loom (Photo Bart Dewaele).

It took some time, which is okay when we all want things to slow down, but Bokrijk is increasingly transforming into a social laboratory where the relevance of cultural heritage is clarified and where cross-pollination projects with a multitude of partners feature prominently. The Museum presents an ambitious programme that enables the past to say something relevant about today – and the future. Contemporary craftsmanship is at the core of this programme, with its capacity, among others, to make us think about mass production.

I’m delighted that craftsmanship gains an increasingly prominent position in societal discussions. There’s of course the danger that this is a hipster trend, soon to be obliterated by another. I think craftsmanship deserves better. To follow Bokrijk’s lead, to think about mass production equally means thinking about its effect on the climate, about the way we relate to objects and ultimately to one another. For if we define ourselves exclusively as consumers, there is no human connection, bar competition in the upcoming sales perhaps. Consumers don’t think about the circumstances in which objects are made, the often miserable lives of their makers and the total absence of appreciation for their expertise. Consumption itself is seldom fulfilling and it casually robs its practioners from their agency.

The question then becomes how we can anchor craftsmanship solidly into the debate about society and keep it sustainably relevant. And whether what we could call craft agents can help us think differently about objects, meaningful human (inter)action and the good life.

Craftspeople come in all shapes and sizes. I picked two radically different examples to explore the point: the students of the Master in Textile Design at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) and, first, a 19th-century Norfolk fisherman.

There’s nothing hip or trendy about John Craske (1881-1946). In fact, very little is known of his life. And it’s to the English biographer Julia Blackburn’s merit that she threads together what little she could find of what most would see as an ordinary, insignificant life.

Yet John Craske managed, it seems, to survive through his craftswork – literally. When he became ill in 1917 and was pronounced, in the subtle language of the time, “imbecile”, his sea life was over. Having been born into a poor, for generations seafaring family, this was a financial debacle. It also turned out to be a mental disaster: when he wasn’t in what he himself called ” a stuporous state”, Craske desperately longed for the sea. The family doctor recommended that Craske went to live by the water, because “only the sea can save him”. When that wasn’t possible, Craske created his own solution: he recreated the sea, painting on any surface he could find. Later, when he could no longer stand for any length of time, he took to embroidering seascapes, sea related scenes and ultimately, based on the reports on the wireless, the Evacuation of Dunkirk. 

  Postcard painting (The Duigan Collection)
A rare boot at rest: Craske mostly & most realistically depicted storms. And included prominently his signature.

 

 

 

 

 

Rescue at sea

& detailed embroideries of his former livelihood.

 

 

 

Craske’s death prevented him from finishing the Evacuation of Dunkirk (NUA Gallery, Norwich). The embroidery is over 3,3m wide & 64 cm high.
Detail of the action at Dunkirk.

Threads is a delicate book. While Blackburn rescues Craske’s life from obscurity, she also weaves through her own, very personal stories. There is little definition whether Craske’s work is art rather than craft, nor a conclusive judgment whether his life was ultimately meaningful through his work. If anything, the storytelling is kind and compassionate. 

The loose ends of the Dunkirk embroidery.

And by quoting from her notebooks and reporting searches that yielded nothing, Blackburn shows the messiness behind the biographer’s own craft. To expose such loose treads is to invite a slower pace and the acceptance that not all efforts yield result. Life is sometimes messy, as the reverse sides of Craske’s embroideries equally show. Interweaving his pictures with her writing, the story becomes a meditation on resilience and creativity. And how craftsmanship can pull us through illness, immobility and hardship. 

Put differently, we’re shown different types of agency, nothing with grand impact but powerful nonetheless. This can inspire us with regard to the power of the imagination in what is too easily seen as an ordinary life. This is about patience and mercy. About the consolation of art/craft. About attention to small detail and an open mind, ready to learn and apply unknown techniques to depict what’s in one’s eye’s mind. John Craske impacted immensely on his life because despite serious financial and mental hardship he refused to submit his agency. 

I very much hope the Textile Design students and alumni at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK, Ghent) don’t need to experience such hardship in order to master their craft. They have in any case the glorious space of the Ghent Design Museum where ‘Plain / Purl. 10 Years of Textile Design KASK’ now shows. The subtitle of the exhibition ‘Textile between Art and Design’ makes explicit the tension Blackburn mostly left unmentioned: it invites ideas of debate, controversy, dissent and contrast.

The accompanying catalogue explains that Textile Design in Ghent has very much at its core the students’ own investigation. They’re actively encouraged to research, experiment and practice through the varied textile landscape. This also implies that KASK puts a high value on maintaining a certain distance from the direct demands of the workplace and society. Its higher education programme is clearly envisaged as a sanctuary with ample space for theoretical contextualization, critical reflection and research. But it’s no ivory tower: interdisciplinary experiments and collaborations are very much encouraged, there is an acute awareness of textile’s climatic and social impact, contemporary questions summon innovative disruption.

Two untitled works by Louise Bourgeois (2008), presiding over Sophie Schreinemacher’s experiments with wood & rope (2016).

All this has found its expression in the exhibition. Functional design and visual art join side by side, in a non-hierarchical way, as are the young, experienced, student and internationally known makers. Visitors are encouraged to touch some of the works and thus get connected and engaged themselves.

But the most telling aspect of the exhibition is the fact that many of the works on display are not finished products. They’re experiments, encounters at the crossing of different disciplines, illustrations of a particular stage in the research process.

They’re presented in a collage or in a row, not so much to suggest uniform design but rather a shared philosophy of an open mind. Of agency to impact on materials and techniques. On objects, people and society.

These are clearly other craft agents than was John Craske. Yet they also practice creativity to deal with life. With its messiness perhaps. With the fact that there’s too little mercy, too little attention to detail or circumstances. That pressing societal questions need an answer but also time – so as to cut loose superficial trends and embroider a real, sustained alliance with so-called ordinary lives. To find, with patience and resilience, the right perspective on meaningfulness. 

Fien Embrechts, Embroidery on latex (2008)
Britt De Groot, Research Laser Cutting (2011)
Bettie Boersma, Finding Form for Perspectives (2016)
Hella Jongerius & Jongeriuslab Bovist, Vitra (2016)

This seat with Alice and the rabit running late, sits at the heart of the Design museum, now transformed into a place of time slowing down, of encounter and exploration. The core of textile craftsmanship has in the exhibition become an open space to connect and feel the fabrics.

Textile is very much alive. Its crafts agents featured here show us how it’s embedded a myriad of concepts, values and practices that remain powerful and relevant today. If we manage to feature craftsmanship more prominently into the debates and practices of society, we may not find a hipster Wonderland but contribute to the co-creation of the good life. 

 

This is the Craske’s smallest surviving painting: the ship’s red sail is a single brush stroke. Who would argue that Craske’s aspiring to peace of mind and fullfilment can no longer inspire?

Make Haste Slowly

We all have a relationship with time. A difficult relationship, mostly. To inspire us to think differently or at least with more differentiation about time, there is (among others) the Dutch philosopher Joke J. Hermsen. Recently Hermsen supplemented her time-work with an excellent essay entitled Melancholia of the Unrest (accompanying the Dutch Month of Philosophy 2017) and with Kairos Castle, a delightful exhibition at the Castle of Gaasbeek, near Brussels.

 

In Greek mythology Chronos is the god of the practical, measurable (clock) time, of which we never have enough (or so we think). His grandson Kairos is much less known and according to Hermsen the god who deserves our attention, now more than ever. Kairos is the god of “the opportune moment”: if we are sufficiently open to him, Kairos can break the clock time for us and create a different experience of time. This “Kairotic moment” is a sort of interval, “in between” time (the term is Hannah Arendts’, one of Hermsen’s philosophical heroes), that holds unexpected insights and new possibilities.

Kairos is mostly represented with one lock of hair: attention and good timing are primordial to grab the opportunity when it presents itself. Which is why a sense of restfulness, awareness of oneself, openness to the world and a preparedness to wait are so important. These are not qualities contemporary society treasures: the exhibition offers a rare and delightful opportunity to practice.

The many layers of the Castle of Gaasbeek (building started 777 years ago!) make it a perfect location to experience time differently, to explore different layers of time.

Kairos Castle is Hermsen’s argument put into practice: let’s create more time for stillness, for reflection and consideration, for attention and concentration. And the exhibition makes this literal: you can of course choose to pass by unseen (among others) the five long videos – or you stop, sit and get drawn into a different world, a different time. And when you find yourself in that different time, you’ll experience an interval between looking and understanding. Perhaps art first alienates before there’s recognition. Perhaps you don’t even understand what you’re seeing: there’s a hitch, a faltering, a necessary delay of judgment. And it’s exactly that “in between” that accommodates new thoughts, forgotten memories perhaps, a different insight. The general idea is that artful suspension of clock time frees the mind, as if it empties itself of clutter and gets ready to think and feel differently.

Are we stuck in Chronos, or can we draw our own time? (Maarten Baas, Grandfather’s Clock)
Recognize the book from which this ‘Nouvelle croyance III’  (Georgia Russel) is made? Erasmus above would have approved of the initial alienation.
The empty harnass suggests space for new thoughts & action (Antony Gromley, DOMAIN XCV, 2014).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susanna Hertrich’s Chrono-Shredder.

Kairos Castle is meant to bring us into an intermezzo in the time regime of grandfather Chronos, so that we can practice opening up to the strong qualitative moment that inspires insight and or change. I’m happy to say it worked for me: time was “shredded” while I visited the exhibition. I had no idea of the clock time when I came out. And it was a great experience.

But in fact the exhibition represents only half of Hermsen’s argument: if we stop there, we’ve missed her point – for where is the action? Ideally, I would have come out of the castle and grabbed Kairos’ hair lock. To do what exactly? 

“Alles op sijnen tijd – Tout à temps”: Hermsen transposes this crucial adage from the Castle’s kitchen to society in general.

In fact, Gaasbeek Castle contains the ultimate answer: the adage “All in Time” on the kitchen chimney refers literally to the different layers of time. And that includes time for action – which must always be preceded by time for reflection. The point is thus not so much to escape time as to master it differently so that new things become possible. 

Here Hermsen aligns herself with the Dutch humanist Erasmus (1466-1536) who advocated Kairos to princes whose rashness or sloth could ruin nations. Note that time’s mastery concerns both quick and no action: at all times it’s a question of identifying the “tempus legitimum” with circumspection and sagacity. In Erasmus’ words this becomes “Festina lente”, or “Make haste slowly”: select the right moment, take your time to consider carefully whether it is indeed the right moment – and only then act, courageously and swiftly. 

Yet the question remains: what does a philosopher, whose task is essentially to think about the good life, mean by action? Why is the part on agency so crucial to Hermsen’s argument?

Hermsen has often argued that the true Kairotic moment carries the promise of change. If all is well, it enables us to act when the time is right. But in her latest essay Hermsen examines the world and concludes (with many others of course) that all is not well. People are restless and people are melancholy. The philosopher shows great awareness for how this affects people individually but here she presents a collective viewpoint: Melancholia of the Unrest is Hermsen’s most political book so far.

There have been the elections in the United States, the Netherlands, France and, still to come, Germany. There’s the Brexit. There’s individualization, globalization, digitalization, climate change, economic and social disruption. There’re the humanitarian disasters whether in the context of migration, terrorist attacks or war and famine. I think we all agree that “times are a-changin”.

Hermsen isn’t satisfied though to ascertain what seems obvious. She presses us towards the poignant question of how we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to deal with things not going the way we expect them to, with disappointment and loss – with change.

And her own answer is disconcertingly simple: it’s neoliberal market thinking. It promotes far reaching levels of technocracy. It puts people under high pressure to perform and rejects ‘non productive’ behaviour, including suspension and nuance of judgment. It breaks down structures that in the past supported a sense of community and collective engagement. In sum, it assesses everything, all the time and exclusively, on its consumption value.

In such a system which additionally holds the individual responsible for virtually everything, qualities such as simple friendliness or a caring attitude crumble because they’re not market relevant – not to speak of more complex values such as solidarity or citizenship. We’ve all been reduced to “hyper consumers”. And who doesn’t know people who feel exhausted, alienated, emotionally and morally empty? These people also see no reason nor have the strength to imagine the future differently: this is yet another version of the TINA-syndrome. So people are scared. And fear further isolates them, heightens their feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness and depression. Neoliberalism in short undermines resilience and the possibility of agency. 

Hermsen’s definition of the societal malaise is eeringly recognizable. Yet she takes her own role as agent seriously and points us towards a clarification. For if melancholy is the problem, it can be the solution too. If we stop navel-gazing into our own confused times, we discover that melancholy is part of the human condition. Even a child can experience melancholy. And often a sense of transience and dissatisfaction is a precondition to creativity. Other times and other cultures too can inspire us to turn melancholy into reflection and creative imagination, and when the time is right, into action.

There is in other words no need to fear melancholy itself. But we must find a more diverse, richer way of dealing with it. More specifically, Hermsen’s aim is to steer away from melancholy’s “pathological” version that pushes us collectively towards depression. It’s the “healthy” version that we need to strengthen. Slowing down doesn’t have the purpose of acting less but better. If we can create space for feelings of confusion and loss, we may learn to acknowledge them to ourselves and express them to others. We may even recognize them in others – and thus create a common ground in which feelings of connection, empathy and solidarity can grow. And if we can put our powers together we may find creative ways to turn change for the better. 

This is of course Kairos. What others call disruptive times, Hermsen sees as society reaching a tipping point. Hence the urgency of her argument. Hence her insistence on stimulating as many conditions as possible so that we are capable of grabbing the lock of hair – and live a better life.

The Babel confusions by Maarten Van Valckenborch (ca. 1600) & Dani Karavan, Haritz-Slit (2014) contrast with ‘Love’ by George Meertens (2010).

We need to do this collectively. For a society to draw power from critical times, it needs to steer away from confusion and fear and find a common language, values and ideals. It needs connecting stories. Perhaps above all it needs time – a different kind of time that enables us to think slowly before we undertake swift action. Hermsen believes that art can bring about Kairotic time. Because the temporary suspension of judgment, needed to appreciate art, can (also) inspire kindness and love and thus break through the neoliberal mechanisms. And so we are back to the power of art in Kairos Castle.

Hermsen also emphasizes the importance of education in order for society not to slither towards depression. Evidently rejecting the current priorities (here too) with utility and efficiency, she strongly advocates the so-called soft values – that will allow young people to build resilience and hold faith in agency in a world full of complexity, diversity and change. A possible third solution, which Hermsen mentions in passing, is travel as opposed to tourism.

I agree with most of Hermsen’s arguments. Of course it’s a good idea to incorporate the values of Kairos and more generally what in English is so beautifully called a liberal education in, for instance, the reforms being planned in the Flemish educational system. There can’t be too much counterweight to the utility thinking that continues to emphasize the direct match between education and the workplace. And forgets the common truth that two third of the present toddlers will have jobs that do not exist yet. We need to invest in the future, of course.

But it’s important to address the present as well – and seize the right moment for the greatest possible impact. The problem is that most people Hermsen wants to help, do not read her books, do not go to exhibitions like Kairos Castle and have already gone through the educational system – to no avail, apparently. So what to do? Should we give them up?

I suggest another ‘channel’ through which to reach a broad segment of the population, namely work. Many of the people who’re past the educational system are scared into feelings of emptiness and powerlessness because the forces of globalization and disruption seem too large for them. Depression is already the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, with an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015 according to the World Health Organization. That sounds like the conditions for hasty action to me. But the omnipresent TINA-thinking offers no way out. And the current predominant political rhetoric makes large groups of people susceptible to polarization – which only increases their isolation and alienation.   

Yet there are alternatives. In an earlier post I pointed out that disruption can also employ the current transit phase of society to change things for the better. Organizations that are committed to social innovation focus on human needs and the power of communities. Often there is also a clear sense of urgency about bringing back meaning and dignity into work. More generally an alternative attitude towards work, whether in social or commercial enterprises, is one of the most promising paths towards a better life for many. As I summarized before, this includes trust, flexibility for individual talents, room for growth and agency.

Since I started looking into meaningful work, I’m astounded about how widespread its principles and benefits are known and acknowledged. The critical question then becomes why, despite some very successful examples – and the continuing rise of individual cases of depression and burn-out, there is so little agency. Perhaps Hermsen is right after all: perhaps we first need much, much more investment in the right conditions. I hope with her that Kairos’ time will arrive soon. Go and experience Kairos Castle, your time runs out on June 18!

May this blog’s invitation come from the only work (alas) that contains textile: Kairos Castle is expecting you (Pipilotti Rist, Expecting, 2001).

 

January Blues

Blue Monday has come and gone, yet the January Blues will still be with us for another ten days or indeed longer. Wondering what to do about this, it struck me that each component of that set phrase carries a ‘two-faced’ meaning (at least).

Take January, derived from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transition, time, doorways, passages and endings. The traditional portrayal is a man with literally two faces: he sees both past and future. Janus is thus about time – and how we deal with it. In January we seem to hang somewhere in between. The parties are over, there are no big festivities in sight and Spring (light!) seems a long long way away. Interestingly, the gates of the Janus Temple in Rome were closed only during peacetime, which was very rare: the common practice was open doors meaning war and conflict. We have not had a peaceful year, yet Janus has closed it. And opened another, must we expect (more) conflict? Or put differently, ‘something’ has ended, do we trust it will be followed by a new beginning? And what might that entail?

Janus flask, 1st century AD (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
An interesting modern Janus. I’m not sure though what the hole might signify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a similar vein, the other component of the phrase, blue is equally ambiguous. As most of us, the French historian Pastoureau and the French-American artist Bourgeois associate the colour with rest and peace. Yet blue clearly also evokes melancholia and dissatisfaction with the way things – we – are. How can it ‘work’ both ways?

In On Being Blue the American philosopher and writer William Gass defines blue as ‘the color of the interior life’. And we all know that interior life isn’t always as restful as it could be. Gass’ inquiry itself is not very calm. I must admit the booklet rather unnerved me as I didn’t get a grip on what it was trying to say or do. I started reading it a number of time – and put it away in frustration. Learning a little more about Gass himself helped. He’s usually associated with American Postmodernism and he conducts experiments at the level of a sentence itself: he’s for instance much more interested in the sound than in the meaning of the words. And because he finds readers overall too hung up on content his euphonic style aims to free them from the linear conventions of narrative. No wonder I was flabbergasted! It’s nice of Gass though to define this different way of experiencing the beauty of language (in his collection of essays A Temple of Texts) in textile terms:

The act of reading [is the act] of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s done.

In fact the colour is almost a pretext for the listomaniac Gass who demonstrates, repeatedly, how a small word of four letters can delight us with so many shades, tones, flavours, meanings, connotations and expressions. On Being Blue is above all a inquiring reflection on language – and the melancholia it provokes. 

Melancholia is also very much present in Bluets by the American writer Maggie Nelson. Here again is a little booklet that testifies to the love of blue and combines it with the loss of love and (bodily but also mental) health. Again it does not associate blue with being restful or at peace. Nelson also seems to have something with lists and challenging ‘ordinary’ narrative: her ‘story’ is made up out of numbered paragraphs, the function of which is not immediately obvious. And she too seems to be weaving: personal feelings, experiences, anecdotes and thoughts add up to a quest into obsession and the (im)possibility of human connection.

Both Gass and Nelson offer wonderful lists of expressions in English that contain the word blue. And they are many, certainly compared to Dutch – are we to think of Dutch speakers as less interested in ‘the interior life’? To leave something blue blue (iets blauw blauw laten) for instance means to leave something for what it is, obviously not a good start for a quest of any kind. And to run a little blue (een blauwtje lopen) is to be rejected in love – a failure in connection that most likely will cause the blues. There is only one common expression that surprisingly has a totally different meaning in either language: in Dutch a ‘blue Monday’ stands for ‘a short time’. What’s even more intriguing is that blauw used to have the figurative meaning of ‘insignificant, null, of little value’. Among a number of assumptions about this etymology, my preferred one is the so-called wool-colouring hypothetis.

Display of indigo materials in the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent.

In the textile regions of the Low Countries the wool dyers were a powerful guild. And thus introduced their interpretation of dying with indigo into the Dutch language. The laborious indigo process takes various stages. First the wool is soaked into a yellow looking dye. It’s only when the wool is hung up to dry and thus exposed to the oxygen in the air that the colour turns blue. Traditionally the soaking was done on Saturdays, the drying on Mondays. On a blue Monday then the wool dyers couldn’t work: the day was thus ‘of no significance’. Or rest – that isn’t valued.

Summarizing where all of this has got us, both January and blue carry a multitude of meanings and associations which together form an altogether ambivalent mixture. Perhaps that in itself is the current attraction of the phrase: we ourselves feel ambivalent. Especially in a month that is still defined by endings, we’re uncertain and reluctant to contribute to the creation of new beginnings. And it seems we’re not very good at dealing with uncertainty and risk. 

Yet already in 1986 (1992) Ulrich Beck defined the Risk Society as a new stage of modernization in a way that matches our experiences: society’s characteristics, its power structures, its knowledge and authority norms, its definition of identity have changed – are changing. What is distinct about this stage of modernity is that the risks are the product of the modernization process itself, that is, they are man-induced. According to Beck risk society is thus characterized by an absence, namely the impossibility of attributing the hazards externally. That means that (most of the) risks we’re facing depend on human decisions and are thus politically reflexive. The awareness of the ecological problems for instance is illustrated by the now common concepts of sustainability and the precautionary principle.

It seems that Beck mainly wanted to warn against risk management as an exercise in bureaucratic rationality or technocracy, including the contempt for the public perception of risk. This is a powerful plea against both TINA (There Is No Alternative) and downplaying the anxieties of ‘ordinary’ people who, because modern risk is spread unevenly, have reason to fear it. This is written more than thirty years ago! But we don’t appear to have done much with Beck’s analysis. 

And it begs the question what is to be done now. If it were up to me I would argue for more reflexivity, for more people involved in that reflexive exercise and thus being equipped to partake. In Flanders the reform of secondary schooling is very hot right now but I’m not sure it includes the tools we’re talking about here. I fear we forget too often that ‘school’ is derived from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’. And surely leisure must be blue according to the common association of the word: it requires a certain peace at the level of the interior life, so that being open to new experiences and learning new things become possible (again).

Reflexivity requires time and space. It requires the revaluation of rest. And it requires resilience, in the first place to be able to stand in ‘the heat’ of uncertainty, to feel and live it fully – before taking action of any kind. Of course I believe that ‘making’ in the earlier named sense of aspiring craftsmanship, flow and kairos can induce a good climate for ‘enlightened’ reflection. 

To stay within the theme: blue weaving in what is actually a knitting pattern
& linear felt lines – to return to a more restful narrative?

 

 

 

 

 

Here I would like to suggest another path which, of course, many others have favoured far more eloquently, including the English writer Jeanette Winterson: turn to beauty! This is for once no advice to do something but to be. Accept that we live at a critical conjuncture, don’t resist it but wallow in it so to speak. We don’t need more instant opinions or immediate debates. We need space to be and wonder, stillness to reflect and define better the quest of the good life. When we are touched by beauty, we are ‘null’ and ‘insignificant’ in terms of of economic utility – and that’s the point. Let’s create more space outside productivity and consumerism and thus bolster our sometimes fragile human nature. Think of it as a temporary respite that allows restocking on energy. In Winterson’s words:

Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield,

and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out.

Put differently, art can sooth us and thus strengthen our resilience – which we’ll need when it does become time to act. I’m very much looking forward to Kairos Castle at Gaasbeek near Brussels: conceptualized by the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen I expect the exhibition to refer to her argument for restful space, in order e.g. by art to become spirited again. But the exhibition opens only in Spring. I also know visiting a concert or an exhibition isn’t always possible and it generally involves doing a number of things. So what to do about our January Blues?

Perhaps it doesn’t always need to be arduous. We are talking about a temporary shield after all. It can take different shapes at different times, as long as it replenishes us in terms of wondering inquiry and energy. Wouldn’t simply listening to or looking at beauty do the trick right now?
Years ago I experienced great flow compiling a handmade booklet with (to me) beautiful blue images. Nobody ever saw it.

The ambivalence of being & wanting blue.
Composing the collages was fun
yet the eye has remained very blue indeed.

 

 

 

 

But low and behold, our ‘modern’ times have created not only man-induced risks but also marvelous ways of summoning sources of inspiration and joy – and the ability to share them. I happily put you on your way with my textile discography and three citations from my Pinterest board Feeling Blue.

Don’t leave the January Blues (here by Natalie 
Foss) blue blue, go for an inspiring & spirited quest for
beauty & don’t forget to wrap yourself kindly.

 

Courage Is Not Beyond Us

So here it is: the New Year. How new does it feel so far? Is it possible that a little disappointment creeps up on you because it isn’t all that different? Because actually, deep down, you knew it would be like this? Well, perhaps it doesn’t need to be – if we don’t expect an entirely new life because a rather accidental number has changed. If we are a little more creative about what to expect from ourselves and others. A little more kind than usual, that too. 

Trying to be kind to myself, I decided to read a (for me) new book whose title intrigued me. It’s about Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting, not exactly a combination of words you would expect. As so often, it’s the accompanying volume to an exhibition, this time in the Museum of Arts & Design in New York in 2007 – thank God for the invention of the book!

The adjectives in the title do not call for a revolution or throwing ‘old’ things out. On the contrary, the exhibition and the book advance the exploration of the vitality and potentiality in existing phenomena, in particular craft techniques and materials. They call for disruption, in the sense of shedding prejudices and presuppositions in order to innovate with respect of what remains valuable. That sounds like a good attitude to me for the New Year! 

The Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting exhibition and its accompanying publication assume the value of handcraft as a cultural and political practice as granted. They also assume that what has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’ has been revalued sufficiently as to no longer needing particular emphasis. I very much doubt whether either assumption is valid. Beyond a very specific incrowd, high level artists and those who in the broadest sense surround them, there is very little cultural let alone political appreciation of what crafts (or indeed art) may contribute to contemporary debates about, say, mass production and consumption versus sustainability, gender equality or indeed the definition of the good life in global times. 

All such suggestions are, of course, present in Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting but the emphasis lies very much with the overthrowing of a status quo which engages the incrowd itself. Knitting here is understood as the creation of structures from a single continuous yarn, lace as interlocking structures in patterns that permit light to pass through them. It’s obvious that these are far more fluid and generous definitions than what we’re used to – and that’s the point. The people involved here will not bow to hierarchies and value systems that have fragmented the world of aesthetic and functional objects for so long: they bring together art, craft, design and technology and rather than focusing on the supposed differences, they emphasize their common ground. The point is to put forward and to demonstrate a much broader and more inclusive definition of art. This is important, in itself ànd for broader reference. To the latter I shall return shortly, for now let me show you my idiosyncratic selection of its results in terms of artistic practice.

In her Time Signatures the American artist Barbara Zucker examines the aging process – something which we all (have to) subject to. Starting from the complex patterns of her own face and that of others, she magnifies them to the point of abstraction in works that are deliberately made of ‘aggressive’ materials such as aluminium or steel. Zucker thus transforms lace, once the symbol of fragile beauty, into an exemplifier of our univeral nature.

The Canadian Cal Lane transforms mundane objects, often of an industrial nature such as spades, wheelbarrows or steel beams. Quintessentially masculine objects, once relied upon for their durability, strength and function, become delicate, decorative skeletons. Their thus attributed beauty and fragility are a comment on stereotypical notions of gender, productiveness and commodification.

The Dutch artist Niels van Eijk learnt traditional lace-making techniques from his 85-year-old neighbour. He applied them to the fabrication of lamps without bulb: the fiber optic cable he uses breaks at every knot, which is how it emanates light. Ironically his lamps look very much like some old-fashioned crocheted construction which only under close scrutiny betrays its radical adaptation of the tradition.


      And then my absolute favourite: the American artist Janet Echelman who brings the traditionally private practice of lace-making very much into the public sphere. And she does so unabashedly: the sheer magnitude of her sculptures does everything to emphasize their intricacy and delicacy. The images of She Changes (Porto, 2005) show how exciting roundabout-art can be: fiber and the effects of wind currents resist the often fixed and imposing nature of art and stress instead fluidity, transition and transformation. 

I chose intuitively. And I discover with you that these four artists work with lace: structures that let through the light. They do so in unusual ways and with unusual materials – and that’s where the subversiveness comes in. Conventional expectations are disrupted in order to present work that is more open, more inclusive.

This is courageous work in a world that seems to close down, to define the ‘incrowd’ in ways that won’t give chances to ‘outsiders’ or newcomers to participate. The irony that it’s essentially domestic crafts that break open established hierarchies and categories adds to the sense of subversiveness. The quality of the work is so high that its practitioners could easily have stayed within their own safe incrowd and be applauded there. Yet they’ve ventured out, out of an inner conviction I presume that other things are possible, that traditions can be challenged in a way that is innovative ànd respectful. This is a rather unusual illustration of the thesis of the English historian Eric Hobsbawn that traditions are invented in the sense that they are part of a community, that they serve goals of communication, shared aspirations and the search for collective meaning – which are in themselves not ‘natural’ or indeed fixed.

And so what perhaps at first seemed like an interesting but nevertheless ‘unworldly’ artistic initiative, may serve as an inspiration to be radical and subversive in our very own lives. Perhaps it’s time not to focus on the darkness of the so-called cultural or identity struggle but go against the fragmentation of the public space and let in the light. Perhaps it’s time to examine the vitality and potentiality of our traditions, respect them but innovate them nonetheless. Perhaps it’s time to recognize Peter Frankopan’s lesson that we need a broader viewpoint on globalization, including more constructive attitudes which may set us on the path of disruptive renewal. This (also) is not a call to revolution, it’s trying to impact from the inside. We’re all part of society after all, so why wouldn’t it be possible for each of us, in our own ‘incrowd’ meetings, to be courageous, to challenge prejudices and presumptions and put forward broader, more inclusive definitions that emphasize the common ground and thus impact on our collective lives?

Courage seems like an old-fashioned term, or rather its current interpretation seems more often than not to go in the direction of being hard, in terms of Europe’s safety for instance or the safeguarding of Western privileges ànd bowing to the anger of ordinary people who are essentially afraid. It’s no use to dismiss them out of hand and think ‘we’ know better. I for one don’t. I’m out of a job right now and it’s not at all obvious to keep emotional, financial and social anxiety at bay. But becoming harder on other people isn’t going to help me either. More generally, it must be possible to acknowledge anxiety and anger and yet determine that next to those powerful emotions can stand courage. That’s subversive for it goes against the current lack of nuance in the public debate. It’s also radical to attest to conflicting emotions and make a conscious decision to make one of them – and not the others – the touchstone of one’s actions. 

Courage is not an easy emotion. It’s also something most people don’t even aspire to – because too high reaching, too unattainable. I disagree. I think we can all in our own ‘small’ ways be courageous and thus contribute to the debate about what the good life might be. This debate is too rarely explicit. But if we start by acknowledging that we’re all human and thus very much fallible, couldn’t we mean more for each other, in terms of kindness, encouragement and the emphasis rather than on differences, on our collective universal nature?  In a box installation I tried to visualize courage and its constituents in our own lives.

I see courage as red. It’s a testimony to its strength – if we are prepared to take a radical and subversive stance, of which the degree doesn’t need to be exaggerated.

Courage to me starts with awareness: making an effort to see, hence the emphatic eyes in the installation. The open arms of the Vredeseilanden– figure very much refer to the attitude of an open heart and mind of my previous post. Perhaps courage is above all a generic attitude of trust, giving up the illusion that all vicissitudes of life can be controlled and working instead towards more resilience. It’s about taking risks, in defiance of broken dreams, going up those stairs and occuping your space, with or without allies. It’s not necessarily grand, it’s about persevering and trying to speak with your own voice. All this doesn’t (necessarily) imply a lonely struggle: learning what toolkit may be available and spreading that knowledge can be very much part of the process. And to me, this doesn’t come as a surprise, the toolkit definitely includes inspiring books. 

A doll’s eye mechanism symbolizes awareness,
however tiny, stairs are there to be climbed, a chair to be claimed,
the capsules of the false locust (Robinia Pseudoacicia) represent the loops of life one sometimes has to negotiate, the tiny speaker says it isn’t about making noice
but speaking with your own voice,
& books may be helpful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would happen if each of us, in the very simple ways that present themselves in our ‘ordinary’ lives, were prepared to challenge stereotypes and conventional expectations? If we made a conscious decision to emphasize our common ground? Couldn’t a broader and more inclusive definition of humankind and citizenship energize the debate about the good life? Wouldn’t the New Year then become new after all? 

 

On the broken shard stands a tiny light bulb, hoping for a small but ‘radical  & subversive’ portion of Enlightenment.

 

 

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says … ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

The Invitation of the City

Donald Trump called Brussels “a hellhole” and Belgium “a beautiful city”. Twice wrong, Mr Presidential Candidate.

Of course there are problems in Brussels, as there are everywhere. But it is a beautiful city. Blaming the lack of assimilation of the Muslim population as Trump did, is miscasting the issue. Essentially this is about the fate of multiculturalism for us all, or to put it more simply: how do we see the contemporary city and how does – can it relate to the good life?  

Overall Flemish people prefer to live in a village or in suburbia. Historically this was stimulated by the 19th-century governments which were predominantly catholic and which feared the socialist influences of the city: they supported more rural communities with initiatives such as cheap train tickets. Flanders thus has a tradition of commuting to work and of living a long distance from it (as far as that is possible in Belgium). Hence significant traffic problems which seem to worsen every month. More broadly the so-called ribbon development (a textile reference by the way) causes problems which will only increase in the near future: it tests the environment obviously but also public services that are already strained such as the post, buses and energy distribution. The Flemish Master Builder Leo Van Broeck therefore calls for a ‘condensation’ of our living together.

Perhaps what’s needed above all is that Flemish people get to love the city. Many of them work in Brussels but they commute in and out: they don’t know the city very well. Maybe they got lost once too often, both literally and linguistically, with Dutch being rarely spoken. Or perhaps they associate it with the complicated politics of Belgium and more generally, with problems that are seen as typically urban. Brussels is decidedly multicultural. And that unmistakenly adds to the unease. After the terrorist attacks of March 22 Brussels held an international campaign  #CallBrussels to convince foreign tourists to come to the capital of Europe. Why not organise such a campaign for the Flemish as well?

I was/am lucky: my family often went to Brussels and I associate it with culture, history and art, with good food, fun and discovering interesting and exciting things. Brussels is a great place for exploration. So let me try and share some of my enthousiasm with you. I’m leaving out the standard tourist attractions, delightful though they are. It’s both a humble and a more ambitious tour I’m suggesting. Ambitious because I hope to show how the city invites us to reflect upon some of the components of the good urban life, humble because it’s based on what I encountered on an ‘ordinary’ day in Brussels in terms of colours and fabrics. The day was not so ordinary though: I spent my recent birthday in Brussels ;-).

I found the city most welcoming to my purposes: already at my arrival in the Central Station of Brussels, enormous socks (introducing ‘Atelier Veritas’ of the eponymous chain which sells among others craft materials) promised me a rich textile harvest.

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By the way, the men in green (right) were part of yet another day of action against
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the government plans about ‘adaptable’ work which I mentioned in my last post.
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The city supported my festive mood.

The day was truly festive: I followed a rich trail of secondhand and vintage shops where I found a few really nice pieces to add to my wardrobe and to start dreaming up new box installations and other craft projects. I also visited the Vossenplein, literally the Square of the Fox but in French called the Place du Jeu de balle. This is part of the charm of Brussels: why use literal translations when with two appelations you can refer to the complexity of history? In this case it was the metal factory Usine du Renard that is reflected in the Dutch name, the square that came in its place was reserved au jeu et à la récréation (to games and recreation) and included a trail for kaatsen or jeu de balle, a ball game which resembles the Basque pelota.  

vossenplein4vossenplein3Every day the Vossenplein holds a market which is a delight for treasure hunters like me, with all sorts of objects and trinkets, it seems you can find anything in any material you may want. Some patience and persistence are necessary for there is little order in the amazing offer. And haggling is part of the fun! 

 

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Textile work in an art gallery close to the Vossenplein.
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Street art, emphasised by the contrasting colour of street machinery.
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A yarn bobbin used to set off beautiful jewelry.

I also enjoyed being surprised by textiles and colour virtually around every corner. 

 

Even on the street floor colour is omnipresent, like in these tiles which I found all over the city. They must be part of a series, inserted in the streets as part of a particular project? I don’t know but they’re fun.

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street-craftNear the Vossenplein I found an intriguing book on Street Craft. On a terrace nearby I started leafing through the book and realised I had given myself a great birthday present! Just before my coffee break I had taken photographs of glass containers which featured historical figures in elaborate attire: were they meant to promote selective waste disposal? And then I discovered in the book a similar project in Berlin which aims to embellish ugly everyday objects in order to make people smile.

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Metalheads (2007) by Mentalgassi, a Berlin collective which regards the city as its playing ground.

 

 

 

 


img_1086I found another historical figure, in a window of a building for rent. Is it really the case that people find such images attractive to the point that they can be encouraged to take action? How intriguing!      

I was now set on finding more examples of urban (textile) art which according to the book aims to reinvent the public space. The environment is very much part of the creations that want to embellish the city at the same time as engaging the community of ‘ordinary’ passers by into claiming that public space.

Street craft invites curiosity and engagement.

What to think of this car for instance? It seemed it was parked in its drab Brussels street, simply to add wonder and fun to it.

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Indeed, why not use the back of a car to add colour to the street?
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Of course the front seats can’t stay behind. And the crown on the work:
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a dashboard full of animals & flowers.

 

 

 

 

 

To my delight I also came across urban crochet. This type of street craft, often called yarnbombing, covers buildings, trees, bike racks, statues and much more in crochet or knitting. It’s guerilla action primarily aimed at eliciting a smile from the unexpecting passer by. The creations are by definition temporary: they endure the effects of wind and rain.

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Yarnbombing
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in Brussels.

And they depend on the goodwill of the public to extend their ephemeral existence for as long as possible. Yarnbombing is a new phenomenon that arose in the new millenium. And it can be found everywhere.

 

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Crocheted circles on the bridge of 
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the Amsterdam Eye.
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The yarnbombing of this bus in London took Knitta Please 4 days and a tón of yarn.

 

 

 

 

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a street sculpture by Ishknits in Oakland.
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Steps in Helsinki and

Yarnbombing is fun. It transforms existing street furniture into colourful statements that indeed make you smile.  But there’s much more to it. Not surprisingly the creators of textile street craft are mostly women, extending their traditionally intimate sphere into the streets. Often working in collectives such as Knitta Please, Craftivist Collective or Ishknits, these women reinterprete domestic techniques by playing with subject, context and proportions. And the reinterpretation is often gender inspired. Not only has street art, long dominated by graffiti, tended to be very male, the public space itself carries a masculine culture. To encourage people then to reconsider their daily environment is to open the possibility of reinterpreting its gender stereotypes. And much broader, street art invites us to reimagine a more inclusive public and community life.

The street art of women such as Olek or Sarah Corbett of the Craftivist Collective wants to contribute to the public debate. The visual impact and the immediate character of their creations encourage the public to think, to question, to participate. The Polish born, New York based artist Olek wants to bring colour and life, energy and surprise to the public space. But she immediately acknowledges that for many, especially living in the city, life is not easy. With the old fashioned crochet technique she often uses she represents both the complexity and the interconnectedness of modern times. And she insists on strong public messages about large political themes such as the bank crisis, climate change or the condition of freedom. By thus ‘invading’ the public space she hopes to get people out of their comfort zone into a more activist stance.

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‘I’m Still Proud to Say What I Do for a Living’.
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A yarn call for environmental awareness.
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‘There is no such thing as part freedom’.

 

Liverpool based Sarah Corbett also addresses the ambiguities of modern life. She wants “to make people stronger and to encourage them to use their talents and possibilities to become part of the solution rather than of the problem.” It’s safe to assume that she defines “the problem” rather differently from Donald Trump. But it’s equally city related and it includes the many forms of social injustice – or the question of the quality of collective life. Corbett uses cross-stitch because in true craft tradition, she likes the fact that it gives her time to think. And what she thinks about is what people may need to feel more at home in the city. Her suggestions, spread throughout the city in the form of gentle cross-stitched messages, focus on agency: it’s passively undergoing change that hurts people and makes them feel like a refugee in their own city. Corbett wants to reach out to people and empower them to help change the world, one stitch at the time. 

Corbett shows how craft can be the tool for positive activism: because it’s naturally slow and quiet, it allows the crafter to reflect deeply upon the issues he or she wants to address. And when craftivism shows itself in the city, it invites conversation. Passers by often respond spontaneously: they feel the invitation is safe and respectful. And it works! Lots of people feel empowered and they join in, whether it’s through stitching themselves or spreading the messages via social media. Corbett now trains people into “gentle activism” that is encouraging and hopeful. At the heart of Craftivism is the belief that even humble actions can be transformative. The transformation will be slow, in the way that crafting is. Yet as the confidence in our own agency grows stronger, it can more effectively affect the public world that is indeed complex.

Or how an exploratory tour through Brussels sparks reflection upon what the good (urban) life may consist of. And what it may require from us. I can’t wait to see an explosion of craft messages in all our streets. 

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corbett-change2corbett-change3

 

 

 

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

 

Be Your Own Spider

You’ve already noticed that I read ecclectically ;-). How do I choose, you may wonder. Well, sometimes a book is recommended, by a friend, a reviewer I trust, a bookseller. Other times, I simply go into the bookstore and I let myself ‘get caught’ – by a cover for instance. Or by the back cover, a much underrated part of a book! Take this example:

blauw7Years ago I saw this picture in a bookshop in Amsterdam and I was intrigued. I bought the book 😉

In this volume of a series on important late 20th-century artists, Louise Bourgeois, a French-born American (1911-2010), takes centre stage. She is a complex artist. She seems to explore any medium at hand to develop her artistic vision:lb-boek1 the richly illustrated monograph shows sculptures, paintings, prints, installations … and fabric works! The blue figure, which turns out to be called Endless Pursuit (2000), is only one of many examples of the sampling tendency in Bourgeois’ work: the taking apart of existing materials in order to invent new possibilities. The same applies to the fabric works below, all Untitled (2000/ 2001/ 2000). How delightful for instance to turn old tapestries into a modern totem. But I knew nothing of the background of the artist or what she tried to convey. I also had a sense her work was ‘difficult’.

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Remember the pastel colours, they return later 😉

totem1Or perhaps it simply wasn’t for me at the time.

 

I forgot about the book and about Louise Bourgeois.

 

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The original ‘Lullaby’ is a series of 25 silkscreens Bourgeois made in 2006.

Until this Spring at the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna: imagine my surprise that the artist whom I had considered difficult, had become the subject of a children’s book! Amy Novesky’s book is attractively illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault – but I didn’t recognise the images: there are much more colours ànd textile references than I remembered.

I did get a summary of Bourgeois’ life story, with a prominent role for her mother’s tapestry workshop. There is also some reference to the dysfunctional family in which she grew up, with Bourgeois’ father rarely at home (his philandering remains unmentioned in this book) and her mother dying when she was still a student.

I was intrigued again. And discovered yet another book, entirely devoted to her ‘Fabric Works’.  There I readlb-boek2 that in a virtually artless period (1955-66) Bourgeois returned from New York to Paris and opened an antique shop specialising in children’s literature and illustrated books. The children’s book with her story is not so strange after all! Alas I must omit a lot of Bourgeois’ multifaceted work: my focus here as in Cloth Lullaby will be textile.   

Louise Bourgeois has had a long artistic life. But recognition only arrived in the late seventies, with her definite breakthrough on the international stage with a retrospective in MoMu in 1982. It seems that recognition also ‘liberated’ her in the sense that she could finally comment on the artistic translation of the psychic wounds of her childhood. Yet many commentators insist that her work is not so much autobiographical as it is archetypical: it refers to universal themes as fear and hurt – and the need for recognition. As Bourgeois put it herself: “All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs we have. It’s about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognised, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognising oneself.” (LB 1988)

What is fascinating is that it’s through fabrics that Bourgeois attempts to recognise herself: she ‘sculpts’ with her own old clothes and turns them into records of her emotional life, into self-portraits in fact.

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Blue Days (1996)
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Detail of Cell Clothes (1996): “The cold of anxiety is very real.”
Femme-Maison 2001
Femme-Maison (2001)

 

 

 

 

 

The body is also omnipresent in Bourgeois’ work. She strongly believes that emotions live in the body – strong, intense, past and present.

rood-hoofd
Untitled (2002)
Arched Figure 2004
Arched Figure (2004)
The Child 2003
The Child (2003)

 

 

 

 

 

And her representation of memory and emotion is very much determined by her use of colour. She herself says: “Color is stronger than language. It’s subliminal communication. Blue represents peace, medition, and escape.” Note how much this runs parallell with the analysis of Michel Pastoureau which I mentioned earlier! “Red is an affirmation at all cost – regardless of the dangers in fighting – of contraction, of aggression. It’s symbolic of the intensity of the emotions involved.” (LB 1992)

The Waiting Hours 2007
The delightful textile book, The Waiting Hours (2007)
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One of the so-called Cells: Red Cell (Child) (1994)

Would it be disrespectful to call Bourgeois a colour funda-mentalist? 😉

 

 

Red is omnipresent in Cloth Lullaby, presumably to indicate the intensity of Bourgeois’ artistic endeavour. This is no art pour l’art, the artist is deeply and personally engaged with the universal themes she explores. lullaby-clothesIn fact, the particular, such as the usage of her own clothes, gives body to the universal. As Novesky puts it: “Louise gathered all the fabric of her life […] and she cut it all up. And then she spent the rest of her life putting it back together again.” That seems like a fair synthesis. In the family business 17th- and 18th-century tapestries were repaired and resold: rentrayage, to make things whole again, is a dominant theme in Bourgeois’ work. The technique of assemblage that is so present conveys a deep urge for ‘wholeness’ that appears forever elusive and invariably infused by anguish. Her personal unhappiness is never very far way, yet she keeps exploring the hope that the damage can be undone or patched up. This is the driving force, the ‘endless pursuit’ illustrated earlier, behind everything she made: can one recover from the past? Is it possible to put back together the fragments that loneliness and neglect have scattered? In other words, taking clothes apart refers to Bourgeois’ fears of abandonment and disintegration. And sewing them back together is a form of reparation.

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Untitled (2005)

Cloth Lullaby rightly gives Bourgeois’ mother a very prominent role. In her pursuit of reparation the artist herself shifted her emphasis from the theme of the neglectful Father, to the capable Good Mother – patient spinner, weaver and sewer. It is not difficult to see how the background in Arsenault’s drawing (left) refers to a spider web (right) such as Bourgeois produced time and again. The reference is very much deliberate: “I came from a family of repairers. The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of the spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs.” (LB 2007) Clearly this is what Bourgeois strives for: to let go of the anger and start again. It may be an endless pursuit but with every work the artist attempts to capture the past and thus allow a new present, to be her own repairer. 

The spider features largely in the artist’s work since first drawn in 1947. Seen over time, the changing forms of the creature reflect the development in Bourgeois’ oeuvre itself. The ‘Spider Works’ – and they are many – are both about fragility and about self-protection. 

The spider enters Bs work 1947)
The first appearance (1947)
spin-london 2007
Spider, sixty years later (2007)

The spider is a symbol of learning: one can capture one’s psychological condition and repair emotional wounds so as to rebuild the web of one’s life. Is it surprising then that the spiders turn (in)to tapestry?

spin-tapiss5-2003
in 2003 its body has become tapestry.
Spider 1997
In 1997 the spider protects the tapestry in a cell-structure,

 

 

As a patient spider Louise Bourgeois relentlessly re-created the past: her entire oeuvre can thus be interpreted as work-in-hopeful-progress. And the great news is: she did recover from her childhood traumas and her artistic intensity grew more gentle. This is illustrated by the change in the colours she used: pastels enter the scene and mark the transition from an aggressive fury to softer, more accepting emotions. As Bourgeois explained herself: “Pink is feminine. It represents a liking and acceptance of the self.” (LB 1992)

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An early occurance in: Pink Days and Blue Days (1997),
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pink weaving in: Untitled (2002),
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completed with ‘pods’ in: Untitled (2007).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spider 2007
Now pastel & soft (2007)

The best illustration of Bourgeois’ growth and achievement is the conversion of ‘her’ spider. This is why the pastel spider adorns the cover of The Fabric Works: it illustrates almost intuitively the path that Bourgeois has travelled personally and artistically – and both very much linked. Spider (2007) is widely understood as an ode to her mother. The drama of the separation, from her father as well as from her own self, is resolved. She can allow softness both in material and in colours because she has allowed it into her own life. From 2005 onwards, the long journey of suffering thus has reached a ‘wholesome’ conclusion: “To create is an act of liberation.”

Liberation is also letting go. Once more Louise Bourgeois: “Fear is a passive state. The goal is to be active and take control … If the past is not negated in the present, you do not live. You go through the emotions like a zombie, and life passes you by.” (LB 1998)

The historian in me is not sure that the past must be negated: to explore it may of itself enable an active life. But I was (and am) inspired by Bourgeois’ emphasis on taking control over one’s emotions, on awareness and self-careThis is the essence of mindfulnessAnd I let myself further be inspired when in a box installation I explored the concept of letting go and its promise of repair.

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The central image is based on a nightmare that kept repeating itself years ago: I’m a child standing in a room full of grown ups and I’m being attacked by a crow. The adults ignore my anguish. I can’t understand why I’m being abandoned and neglected. Feeling utterly lonely I fear disintegration when the crow would get to me. And “the cold of anxiety” is “very real” indeed. Until I discovered in yet another repetition of the dream that there was a door behind me – and I myself could open it and let in the light, which scared off the crow. I never dreamt the dream again.

 

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The fun of assemblage: actually Icelandic fish skins to be recycled into fish ‘leather’,
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a holder to fix rainpipes,
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and a crystal ball that was the centre piece of a discarded chandelier.

 

 

 

 

 

Any box installation uses assemblage, here of photos taken long ago and of objects mostly found at car boot sales. Together they create a new ‘whole’ – and express the hope of wholesome integration. In reality I was being torn by conflicting loyalties – and feeling utterly alone, surrounded by non-understanding and disdain for at times clumsily expressed sensibilities. Conceptually this installation is about the function of agency in the integrating process: if we actively acknowledge our fears and emotions, they loose their at times disabling power over us and we can let go of them. The past need not control us, we can learn from it. We can be our own spider and through the process of reparation, weave a ‘new’ life. Or to confuse the metaphors, the installation suggests snakeskins, symbol of renewal. In that new life, we can practice self-protection better: the pin of the ‘neck collar’ indicates where one’s boundaries lay – don’t come closer. And good self-care further promotes growth and enrichment which will strengthen the light and colour in our lives. “Being a self” is difficult. It’s a mission the ‘endless pursuit’ of which may at times be intense, painful, angst ridden, complicated, unrecognised, discouraged. But it’s also the herald of purpose and meaning. And I believe it to be worthwhile. 

I found the accompanying quote on the blog of Bart Moeyaert, writer and artistic leader of Flanders & the Netherlands being Guest of Honour at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in about a month’s time. The quote needs a little explanation: in Dutch the word for ‘glove’ is composed of two words, being ‘hand’ and ‘shoe’, hence handschoen.

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You think of letting go, and you draw a glove.

In the installation I visually separate the two again – and concentrate the notion of self-protection in the needle felted hand. It’s obvious that Bourgeois’ spiders served as inspiration. I very much intended to associate the spider-hand with Bourgeois’ emphasis on the possibility of reparation and thus integration and wholeness. Whatever caused the ‘darkness’, the hand can let in the light. It’s also the tool par excellence to repair and make things. And being ‘assembled’ from wool, the self-care it administers is naturally gentle and accepting. Agency is very much part of life-in-hopeful-progress.

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

bleu

vert

noir

 

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My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

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How exciting can shoes get?

tintin

And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

touch
Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
desirsm
‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

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Details of a Madonna lily,
plooien
a pilgrim’s
plooien2
cloak,
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and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

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In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
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A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.