Monday, April 27, 2015

On the Brink, the Tensity of Change Exhibition Label

Turncoat: Conversation Piece: Nature’s gift of regeneration, 2015, wedded sari silk
Materials, merino and silk fibres, silk rods, mulberry bark, wool yarn, recycled silk saris, and other donated recycled miscellany, donated polyurethane cast fox bones, silk and rayon embroidery threads

My piece for the exhibition derives from a conversation among several local women & one bloke, regarding living in the Dandenongs, and the changes experienced sometimes over a thirty year period.  I lived in Kalorama myself over twenty years ago but then left to re-establish myself overseas.  I realized that I spent my whole time here (almost 7 years) living in fear.  I found the forest dark and foreboding but really there was no rational explanation for my fear. You can’t live with ‘tensity’ in an environment because you don’t feel at home. Eventually for peace of mind, you need to move away. To live in the Dandenongs you need to mitigate your love for the environment with fears against trees falling on your house and you, the place being razed by fire, the wind roaring like a steam engine buffeting and causing falling debris to bash your house.  And if you chop down or ring bark the trees, you’ll have land slippage with which to deal and find that may cause an entire tree to fall on your house.  I saw it happen up the road and the tree fell uphill. People have been living with these concerns since the time the Dandenongs was settled.  I also needed to fit the theme within the overall objectives of my work, and I’ve wanted to do a wearable piece based on Fred Williams’ paintings for some time now.  Williams lived in Upwey during 1968 when the Dandenongs were ablaze.  The Dandenongs show a pattern of going up in flames every ten years or so.  Fortuitously, Williams’ experience has also informed the conversation.
Allusion to a Fred Williams' painting of Upwey ablaze (fibres soft)

Fibres felted, with fox bones cast in polyurethane by Elaine Pullum

As a way into the conversation I asked invitees to bring along a piece of fabric or garment with associations to change and also something or remnant of, they’d be willing to part with to be incorporated into the felt.  Because most of the participants were women I was shown and given items such as a tea cosy, doilies, fabric used in women’s rituals, and to make baby slings.  I felt that they were very feminine items and most ordinary – the very special ones brought to show and tell by Sue were too special to part with.  To be given things associated with women’s work, handiwork, with how women pass the time (or did so in the past) or collected for their hope chests were both technically and conceptually challenging.  However, working with these as my raw materials I not only came to a renewed appreciation of the handiwork, but it also illuminated the reasons that I’m drawn to fibre and wearables.  For the very reasons that it is in general woman’s domain, women’s work (well unless you consider that some men are also fashion divas and my father made clothes), because my hand or touch, even my body, is intrinsically part of its making. Not to be overlooked is that these sorts of textiles, including my own work, are generally located outside the mainstream.
Donated materials which included a tea cosy and natting

Pre-felt was made with the donated materials

Seedlings cut from pre-felt

Observations, experiences, memories that came out of the conversation are written in the work.  I do like to incorporate stories and words into my textiles and find this quite a challenge to do with felt, as it’s so resistant to most ink and paint.  So I’ve taught myself to write with my sewing machine and with each piece my skill increases, though it remains imperfect – as imperfect as my handwriting. Since I have difficulty marking the felt fabric, I usually write freestyle using the machine needle.  In my laziness (and to experiment with effect), I have also had words printed onto fabric that I have felted in.  But the ruching that occurs in the felting tends to ruin the ‘neatness’ of the text.  It in fact distorts the text, which I don’t mind, as even memory can distort how something was actually experienced. In this instance too, because the fabric upon which the text was printed is polyester, it’s tended not to ruche as usual, though felted in.  Stitching as Rozsita Parker shows us in her brilliant anthropological study The Subversive Stitch, has since the 17th century, often been used by women in their samplers to subvert, express dissent, and their individuality.  Stitching/embroidery are feminine but also feminist.  Like those earlier samplers you may need your magnifying glass to read and decipher some of the words I’ve written on the Turncoat.

It’s interesting to notice what draws you to a particular medium. What makes me work with textiles and in particular fibre? What makes me single out wearables?  I suppose here the answer is that it feels so good (there’s a feeling of well-being) to wrap yourself in a felted garment and it’s also more intimate.  How unique to also be able to wear your story and memoir, like second skin.  I could just have easily done a piece to stretch over canvas and viewed as a picture but you’d be less likely to want to touch it and it would confine it to the gallery wall, or any other sort of wall.  Felt usually begs to want to be touched, tried on and that’s part of its aesthetic.

Conceptually, because of the narratives shared during the conversation my piece subverts the theme of the exhibition.  It is not about tension, tensity, or of living on the brink.  But about accepting the gift that can come about through change. It is about women building community, how community was built around a conversation about change – but it could have been any topic. The garment has three sections – innocence (hood); experience (the arms or shawl); revaluation (back). Innocence, encapsulates the reasons for moving to the Dandenongs, my favourite being ‘I swapped the system’s slave for art’, or ‘I moved for the trees and forest’, 'to find community'… Experience is about discovering your beautiful sanctuary can also be menacing; and revaluation/regeneration, considers that there are positives to extract from the ashes. For me living in the Dandenongs the second time around, it is about feeling at home, releasing the tension.

The sole man who attended the conversation (I did invite a couple) had been raised by his mother and was comfortable among women.  He added a different dimension, not only in the X-Rays shared digitally, which I had printed onto fabric but as well, in the moral of his story regarding change (X-Rays of his broken hip.).    He spoke about the gift of a broken hip, not derived from motorbikes or his other daredevilry activities, but ironically, through falling off a stool - a gift that began a journey of spiritual awakening. Having survived bush fire, Fred Williams was taken by the regeneration after the fire.  In his paintings he showed the visible scars but also new life rising from the ashes. 

What about those bones you may ask? – I’m fascinated with bones excavated on TV shows like Time Team and History Cold Case and the harking back regardless of the centuries of change and because of change in technology we can have such brilliant insight into the past. There are there in Williams' evocation of a devastated landscape.  The dead and bare anatomy of trees that at most times regenerate with dazzling and eerily colourful foliage. The dead have a way of coming back to life to touch us, to inform us. 

Bones tell of our mortality and they are a great leveler.  Also these could be the bones of contention.  I’m not denying climate change, but I/we who participated in the conversation also point out earth’s resilience.  We may kill ourselves off, or we may through our intelligence, and coming together for conversation discover ways to save ourselves.  The planet will recover – in different form and perhaps with different life forms.

Postscript. Only 100 words are permitted for the exhibition label at Burrinja to provide a context for viewing.  Some of the artists find it too much, whereas I find it difficult to say in under 100 words what my piece is about - because there are so many layers. Feel free to inform me what you think this garment is about.  Special thanks to Lyn Forrest who donated the tea cosy, that became the seed pods, and who also suggested the title 'turncoat'.