Wednesday 21 December 2011

Power of making

This exhibition at the V&A is a celebration of contemporary craftsmanship. I have seen it three times now. My first visit took place soon after it opened, it was packed with people and it was difficult to see the exhibits let alone read the labels and there was no list of exhibits – the handout was a glossary of craft techniques and processes without indicating to which exhibit they referred.

My initial reaction was annoyance that the items were not being given adequate space and there was no list of what there was to see. A good example was Susie MacMurray’s ‘Widow’, a black dress pierced with long steel pins, which was in a case with other ‘garments’. In contrast, in her recent solo exhibition a similar dress ‘A mixture of frailties’ had a room to itself, presumably because in that case it was being treated as art rather than craft.

I later read that the curator of Power of making had been inspired by the way objects are displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, based on their function and how they solve a particular problem. As a contemporary cabinet of curiosities Power of making is successful. It includes a range of crafts and shows how those skills can be used in a contemporary way to make functional and decorative objects.

My subsequent visits to the exhibition were more successful than the first, mainly because the crowds were not so large and it was possible to spend more time looking at the exhibits. There were several fascinating things on show and some of my favourites were ‘Alphabet’ a series of pencil stubs with the alphabet sculpted from their lead points by Dalton Ghetti (shown in the photo), ‘Physalis earrings’ by Nora Fok, and Susie MacMurray’s dress ‘Widow’. Many of the exhibits were ingenious as well as beautifully made, hence my third visit, but I would have liked to have had the time and space to look at them in more detail.

Friday 16 December 2011

Magnetized space

This exhibition of the work of Lygia Pape is being held at the Serpentine Gallery. The centrepiece of the exhibition is ‘Web’, as series of thin threads tightly strung in interlocking, sloping columns from the floor to ceiling, lit so that different parts of the work are visible as you move round it. I first saw it in Venice (from where this image comes) but felt it was more effective here, probably because the space was more intimate and the lighting was more effective at producing an ethereal feeling as the columns seemed to float above the floor.

Other pieces in the exhibition included ‘Book of time’ a series of brightly coloured blocks with sections cut out of them, painted in contrasting colours and applied to the surface in different arrangements. This piece filled the entire wall and was quite fascinating for the ingenious way the shapes had been reconfigured. It complemented a series of paper explorations into folding and cutting and a film of pages from a ‘Book of creation’ being unfolded to produce different shapes and forms. Many of these would be a useful start for thinking about three-dimensional work.

I also found the engravings interesting. These included ‘Weavings’ which are woodcut shapes on Japanese paper and a series of panels of parallel lines with shapes ‘cut’ out of them and placed at angles to the original lines. They seemed so simple yet had obviously taken time to produce and construct and further reflection revealed that the shapes would not fit back into the spaces left for them.

There was a lot to see and think about in this exhibition, but the star of the show was definitely the ‘Web’.

Monday 12 December 2011

Material matrices

This is a solo exhibition by Catherine Dormor at the St Pancras Crypt Gallery. It focuses on the structure and behaviour of textiles to explore the link between touch and sight as registers of perception and is part of her PhD research.

St Pancras Crypt Gallery is a large gallery containing many different sized spaces, nooks and crannies and Catherine has used the space well; it felt full without being crowded. The exhibition includes sculptural work and hangings, as well as video and audio to express properties of cloth such as oscillation, caress and shimmer. The work varies from the detailed properties of cloth in the ‘within’ series of lightboxes, which focuses on individual threads, to the overall feeling of that cloth against skin in ‘skin-flow’ to express the perception of cloth. The image shows Catherine with ‘becoming’ in the main vault of the gallery.

Sunday 4 December 2011

The eyes of the skin

This is Susie MacMurray’s first solo show and it is being displayed at Agnew’s Gallery in London. She transforms common objects such as wine glasses, gloves, feathers and hair into beautiful sculptures that are not quite what they seem at first glance and comment on the human, generally the female, condition.

‘Maiden’ is a traditional glass fronted picture frame enclosing, or trapping, a line of fish hooks attached to the background by human hair. This cleverly references so many aspects of maidenhood, the loops of hair, the fine hooks waiting to trap or be trapped, the idea of plenty of fish in the sea and the fact that the entire line is identical and itself trapped behind glass.

‘A mixture of frailties’ also addresses the female condition. A white wedding dress made entirely of rubber gloves stands serene as it billows out into the room. The fingers of the gloves form a beautiful scalloped edge to the skirt, but what a cautionary tale they suggest. This has resonances with ‘Widow’ another dress by MacMurray presently on show in the Power of Making exhibition at the V&A. By contrast, ‘Widow’ is made of black leather and incorporates 43 kg of long dressmakers’ pins in fine rows forming glittering sharp fringes down the length of the dress.

The show at Agnew’s also includes some of MacMurray’s pen drawings of hair nets, which she has used in previous installations. These are large, well over a metre in both dimensions, and beautiful in their detail.

What appeals about this exhibition, and in fact all of MacMurray’s work, is that the work is beautiful but has sinister undertones, the familiar becomes strange and we are seduced and repulsed at the same time.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Lost in lace

This exhibition, curated by Lesley Millar, brings together a group of international artists who reference lace in their work, some of them quite tenuously others more overtly. The exhibition fills the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and spills out in to the foyer and on to the street over the entrance, so there is plenty to see.

Annie Bascoul, Piper Shepard and Michael Brennand-Wood have use lace as a basis for their work for many years and the pieces they present here are all large and stunning. Annie Bascoul has produced over sized Alencon needlelace to form a wall enclosing a feather bed hung over an erotic French poem written in wire. Piper Shepard has reproduced a point de gaze needlelace flounce by hand cutting and perforating black paper. This again is very large, hanging between the columns of the hall, and in fact shaped to accommodate them so that when it is exhibited again it will bear the memory of this hall. Michael Brennand-Wood has used lace themes in his work for many years. Here he has linked them to military images and emblems to produce roundels that in combination appear to look like reticella lace.

Chiharu Shiota uses black threads in her work to produce a lace-like web that encloses five long white dresses. On the night of the private view, this installation could only be seen from behind a crowd, but visiting later with fewer people around it was possible to walk further into the room and feel immersed and trapped in the web, like the ghostly dresses. Tamar Frank also uses threads to produce a web, but a more geometrical one than Shiota, rather like those string and pin pictures which were popular many years ago. The threads are linked to a light display and they are light reactive so retain a memory of the light even when the lights are extinguished, producing different patterns as you walk round them.

Nils Volker doesn’t seem to reference lace at all but his installation is very effective nonetheless. It consists of a wall of Tyvek bags that are inflated and deflated by electronic fans in such a way that the wall seems to be breathing and moving in quite a mesmerising fashion. Another unusual material is the light sensitive cement used by Alessia Giardino to produce lacelike patterns from city pollution.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the beautiful inverted crystal cathedral by Atelier Manferdini made of strings of Swarovski crystals, which is based on Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona.

In all, twenty artists are represented in the exhibition and the work varies from photographs to textiles, paper and video. The accompanying catalogue is excellent, with numerous pictures of the work in development and showing how the ideas developed. I also have to declare a vested interest because I have an essay in it as well. The exhibition is definitely worth visiting to see how lace can be used as a basis for contemporary work, how it can be refigured in different materials, and how ideas about lace can be challenged.

Friday 11 November 2011

Lost in lace: concealed and revealed

This exhibition, curated by Gail Baxter at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, accompanies ‘Lost in lace’ an exhibition of international artists who reference lace in their work. Gail’s exhibition in the Bridge Gallery uses lace and artefacts from the Birmingham Museum store to tell the story behind the exquisite face of lace. The exhibition shows that although beautiful lace was bought as a fine ornament and to display the status of the wearer it was also the means of earning a bare living for many in the working class.

The exhibition shows many different types of lace, both bobbin and needlemade, from fine Chantilly to homemade tape lace and discusses many aspects of lace linked to social history. There are examples of lace bobbins, prickings and a lace pillow showing how lace is made by hand. Several portraits and items of clothing show how lace was worn at different times, including one of Lady Mason wearing a Bedfordshire lace collar pinned at the neck, with a leaf pattern familiar to today’s pattern collectors. There are also examples of lace from the collection of Mrs Cadbury, a keen local collector of lace who donated much of her collection to the Museum. There is also an interesting little sketchbook belonging to Frank Taylor Lockwood with a charming watercolour of net curtains at his scullery window. In one of the many clever links Gail makes between the exhibits we find he worked at Cadburys during the war and she then goes on to describe how lace curtain machines were used to produce mosquito netting for the troops.

This is a fascinating gem of an exhibition which holds plenty of interest for the lay person and the lacemaker. Newcomers to lace will be amazed at its variety, beauty, intricacy and history while lacemakers will gain new insights and enjoy some of the interesting pieces from the Birmingham Museum store on show for the first time.

Don’t miss it when you visit Lost in Lace – it’s in the Bridge Gallery next to the shop.

Monday 7 November 2011

Bite-size: miniature textiles from Japan and the UK

This exhibition at the Daiwa Foundation, curated by Lesley Millar, celebrates 15 years of collaborative textile exhibitions between Japan and the UK. 51 artists are represented, who have all worked with Lesley on previous exhibitions, and all had to produce a miniature work, which in most cases were displayed on identical white plinths around the gallery.

It was interesting to explore the exhibition without a catalogue to try and identify the artists; some were easier than others and there were some surprises. With so many exhibits it is impossible to describe them all, but some of my favourites were Philippa Lawrence’s Something from nothing, a frothy mass of seared parchment; Clyde Oliver’s Little cairn, made of slate with a pebble carefully balanced on the top; Kiyonori Shimada’s Division, a small sculpture of gathered cotton cloth trapped in a simple wooden shape; Reiko Sudo’s Polygami, an exquisitely folded polyester cloth; and Kaori Umeda’s Red and white, made up of small polyester polyps linked and trapped by red threads.

At a lunch on the day after the opening some of us were lucky enough to hear some of the Japanese artists describing their work and the inspiration behind it. Many of them had tried to include a link between Japan and the UK into their work for the exhibition, for example Chika Ohgi had referenced the star patterns prominent in the sky over London and Yuka Kawai had used materials brought on a previous visit to London. The friendship and good humour shown at the lunch revealed that on many levels, the exhibition certainly succeeded as a celebration of AngloJapanese textile art.

Insight into beauty II

This exhibition at the Japanese Embassy in London showed contemporary craft inspired by Japanese materials, techniques and design. As expected there were several ceramic exhibits but, more interesting for textile artists were the panels by Beverly Ayling-Smith, the basketry by Mary Butcher, and the kumihimo braiding by several artists.

Beverly Ayling-Smith’s panels of black textiles, part of her Nigredo series, formed an impressive introduction to the exhibition. She explores the emotional states of melancholia and mourning and references Japanese cloth. The braids by Jacqui Carey, Jenny Parry, Makiko Tada, Sandy Jessett and Edna Gibson provided an fascinating display of new developments in kumihimo, some of which were three dimensional and others quite lace like.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Grayson Perry: the tomb of the unknown craftsman

For this exhibition at the British Museum, Grayson Perry chose exhibits from the Museum collection and combined them with his own work and items from modern culture to comment on ideas of craftsmanship, sacred journeys and contemporary culture. He is interested in the role of the craftsman, who is often unknown, and notes that craftsmanship is less to do with precision making than a relationship with materials.

The exhibition was on a larger scale than I had expected and yet was much more personal than anticipated. Apart from the labels for the artefacts, there were panels quoting Grayson Perry and explaining the reasons behind many of his choices of items, although not all of them, which allowed the audience to make their own connections as well. Also, in several cases, it was not until you read the labels that you could distinguish the Museum artefacts from the modern equivalents. In many cases Grayson Perry cleverly uses his teddy bear, Alan Measles, as an alter ego to comment on contemporary culture and he appears on pots, fabrics and tapestries in different guises.

Some of the main themes were pilgrimage, the journey, shrines, and magic. Grayson Perry compares practices from the past and the present, for example pilgrim tokens and portable shrines, which he notes are no different from collections of photos on modern smart phones. Regarding magic, he says that artists are like shamans or witchdoctors because they give things meaning and transform ordinary materials into something significant.

Commenting on the role of the craftsman, Grayson Perry considers patina and texture and notes that damage, decay and dirt are part of the language of authenticity. We are asked to consider whether provenance or age is more important than beauty. Another important point is that everything in the British Museum was contemporary once and this idea inspired his pot entitled ‘The frivolous now’ (2011), which incorporates phrases from current TV shows. A number of recent pots made by the artist as a response to this exhibition were on show, including ‘The Rosetta vase’ (2011), a play on the Rosetta stone also housed in the British Museum. In this case the vase is unlocking the knowledge of culture, which could have been an alternative title for this interesting exhibition.

Wednesday 7 September 2011


For this exhibition at the Craft Study Centre, Farnham, four artists were invited to browse the collection and produce a response to their chosen items. Most of them chose the paraphernalia of daily life held in the archive as their starting point rather than resolved items, for example Lucie Rie’s glazing samples and driving licence were selected instead of her ceramics. Interestingly, all the responses are works that not what they seem at first glance.

Laura Potter chose Lucie Rie’s glazing samples from the collection and felt that by choosing something personal that had not been made for exhibiting she became closer to Lucie Rie as a person. Laura was inspired by the archive to produce an archive of her own unfinished work, enclosed in small wooden boxes. Studying the collection made her consider how she remembered dead relatives and how she would be remembered in turn. In response to this she has produced a tungsten carbide ring that should withstand the process of cremation and another made of thin gold rings – one for each year of her life. She notes that she is trying to control how her family remember her, but, ironically, this exhibition shows that artists are often remembered for the ephemera of their lives rather than their considered work.

Stephen Dixon used fragments from the collection combined with previous research into war records in Italy to produce a series of plates and bowls revealing the story of an Italian soldier. He also showed a series of earthenware ‘pages’, apparently torn from a notebook, depicting notes and wildlife from Australia.

Elaine Wilson considers female identity and how it is affected by cultural and social pressures. She chose textile samples by Barron and Larcher and Lucie Rie’s photograph album as her inspiration and combined the ideas in a series of figurines embellished with fabric patterns. Her elegantly dressed gun-toting figurines are unsettling domestic china ornaments that question the conventional role of women.

For her re-workings of old master paintings Maisie Broadhead regularly uses museums and galleries for inspiration. From the Craft Study Centre collection she chose a jug Bernard Leach had collected, which had also been selected by Alison Britton for a previous exhibition. Maisie re-worked Vermeer’s The milkmaid with Alison acting as the milkmaid pouring from the jug. Like the other artists in this exhibition, her work disguises its true nature. Her photographic images appear to be copies of the old master paintings until a second glance reveals the truth.

Thursday 7 July 2011

The cult of beauty

The Aesthetic Movement in Britain from 1860 to 1900 is the subject of this exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The aim of the Movement was to escape the ugliness and materialism of the early Victorian age and find a new beauty. Their aim was ‘art for art’s sake’. I was interested in the exhibition because the models used by the artists (Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Morris and Leighton) seemed to be at odds with conventional ideas of mid-Victorian demure femininity. However, it was not until the 1880s that the Aestheticism became mainstream, until then the movement was still seen as the ‘preserve of self-regarding and possibly immoral cliques’ according to the brochure accompanying the exhibition. It may also be relevant that the themes most of these painters followed were of an imagined past, medieval in the case of Burne-Jones and Greek in the case of Frederick Leighton, rather than the contemporary. While James McNeill Whistler, who did paint contemporary women in their homes, produced more demure images. The final part of the exhibition showing the development of furnishing fabrics, wallpaper and furniture shows that the artists of the Aesthetic Movement were successful in their quest for ‘art for art’s sake’ and that their aesthetic design have stood the test of time, and are still sold today.

Treasures of heaven

This theme of this exhibition at the British Museum is saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe. It is a strange mixture of the beautiful and the ghoulish – intricately worked gold and jewel encrusted artefacts containing body parts and secretions. However, it makes an aesthetically pleasing and engaging exhibition, housed in the old Reading Room, open to the church-like ceiling, with subdued lighting and surrounded by chanting music. St Helena (the mother of Constantine) converted to Christianity and was the first collector of relics. She travelled to Jerusalem where (a miracle in itself) she discovered the true cross and the crown of thorns, more than 300 years after the crucifixion. An edict by a pope about 700 years later made it compulsory for an altar to contain a relic before it could be consecrated, leading to an expansion in the trade in relics and a growth in pilgrimages to popular shrines. The workmanship in many of these artefacts is stunning. Many of them are large and would have been the centre piece of an altar but I particularly admired some of the small reliquary pendants. One in particular, composed of several layers of enamelled scenes from the life of Christ, containing a sacred thorn and decorated with precious gems, seemed to sum up the role of the relic. It was beautifully made and designed, contained so much symbolism and yet could be held quietly in the palm of the hand for devotional prayer.

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Adornment & identity

This exhibition of Omani silver jewellery and textiles at the British Museum has been running since January but I have only just caught up with it. It covers a wide range of jewellery and has several examples of necklaces, rings, bracelets, anklets, hair ornaments and other items such as kohl pots, which are all beautifully displayed. There are fewer textiles, with a couple of examples of costume for each region of the country, but they give a flavour of the different areas. I found the information about the jewellery very informative but unfortunately there was no catalogue.


This exhibition at the British Museum shows treasures from Afghanistan from four archaeological sites ranging in time from 2200 BC to the first century AD. They are rightly called treasures as most of the artefacts on show are extremely fine examples of craftsmanship and obviously belonged to those of high status. Their diversity also reveals Afghanistan’s position as a crossroad for ancient trade routes. The incised gold bowls dating from 2200 BC from Tepe Fullol show evidence of a wealthy Bronze Age civilisation. The statues and stonework from Ai Khanum come from the site of a Greek city founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals in 300 BC. At the third site, an archaeological investigation at the ancient city of Begram found two sealed store rooms containing Roman glass, Indian ivory furniture and Chinese lacquerware. The examples exhibited here are outstanding, especially the coloured and shaped glass containers. However, the most impressive artefacts come from a nomad cemetery excavated at Tillya Tepe, in particular the golden crown shown on the poster. This is made so that the elements shimmer and move to catch the light, and it can also be dismantled for transport. Over 20,000 pieces of gold jewellery were buried in these graves. They are certainly impressive now and must have been even more so when they were worn in the first century AD.

Friday 3 June 2011

Vital statistics of lace

This lace exhibition at Pickford’s House Museum in Derby is the first solo exhibition by Louise West, pictured above with her lace. It includes her beautiful, traditional Bedfordshire bobbin lace and a magnificent three-dimensional lace collar incorporating laser cut lace flowers and wire lace she has made during her MA. The modern and traditional lace complement each other well because the modern collar uses botanical motifs in the same way Thomas Lester used plant forms in his traditional Bedfordshire lace designs. On the day we visited, Louise was being interviewed and filmed by BBC TV Nottingham. However, the people of Nottingham also have a permanent reminder of Louise’s lace as it was used for the concrete lace that adorns Nottingham Contemporary. For more information about that and the exhibition visit Louise’s website

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Freud Museum

The Freud Museum is hosting an exhibition by Alice Anderson, but in this case the exhibits are not all enclosed in the Museum. Anderson has wrapped the exterior of the Museum in doll’s hair – and very effective it is. Her work is based on her childhood ritual of winding threads and hair round parts of her body and other objects to calm her anxieties when she was left alone. The hair also represents the link between mother and child. In much of the work here she arranges the doll’s hair in lines and grids in what seems to be an attempt to destabilise the male grid by using feminine hair and in one instance uses it to trap a model of herself. However to do this she wraps the hair around metal rods, so it seems to be softening the rods, rather than making the bars out of the hair themselves. The most effective piece in the house was the Butterfly ritual, a video performance in which she unwinds a bobbin of thread from a balcony, thus making it dance and flutter like a butterfly, and winds the unwound thread round and round her finger. The spider’s web of hair, forming a soft yet effective barrier in Freud’s studio was also arresting. But by far the most effective piece was Housebound, in which the house itself wound with doll’s hair.

Monday 18 April 2011

Marking time

The research students at UCA recently held a conference and exhibition at Farnham. This picture shows my exhibit entitled ‘Marking time’. I am studying net curtains and how they can be used to re-read the relationship between the domestic, the Uncanny and the Gothic. In particular, I am interested in the Uncanny feeling described by Freud that occurs when the familiar becomes strange, and the boundary between the homely and unhomely is blurred. This boundary, the liminal space between home and not-home, is represented by the net curtain. ‘Marking time’ conveys the position of a young woman trapped in the home and longing for escape but fearful of what may lie beyond, reflecting the duality of the home as sanctuary and prison. The net curtain pierced with pins and needles alludes to a prisoner marking time, but the misuse of feminine sewing equipment suggests a subversion of the domestic. The words of the accompanying ‘virtual’ cross stitch sampler reflect the conflicting thoughts of the trapped seamstress and they fade in and out to reflect aspects of her inner turmoil. The complete text suggests the fragility of her mental condition.

Friday 1 April 2011


This exhibition at the Wellcome Collection covered six aspects of dirt and cleanliness: a home in the Delft of 1683, a London street in 1854, Glasgow Royal Infirmary in 1867, the first International Hygiene exhibition in Dresden 1930, a present day community in India, and a New York landfill site in 2030. All were chosen to reflect Mary Douglas’s observation that dirt is defined by its context.

The earlier sections were of most interest to me and I enjoyed the links between cleanliness and godliness depicted in the section on the Dutch house. The history of the development of the London sewers was very interesting, particularly that the scientific orthodoxy of the day was so fixed on the idea of ‘miasma’ or bad air causing disease that John Snow’s map linking cholera to polluted water was largely ignored. This section also included some interesting advertisements for Victorian cleaning products including one for Hudson’s soap claiming its regular daily use would bring purity, health and satisfaction.

The section on Joseph Lister’s transformation of the Glasgow Royal Hospital showed what a radical effect he had on recovery rates and disease transmission and how the link with miasma causing was finally broken. He introduced a dedicated laundry to the hospital, previously the nurses had done the washing as well as the nursing, and introduced white starched uniforms for the nurses, which gave the impression of purity and cleanliness if nothing else.

The aim of the Dresden Museum was to encourage personal hygiene but it was subverted by the Nazis to included ‘racial hygiene’ with its horrific consequences. The present day Indian section considered what is clean and dirty, the role of scavengers and the role of the unclean other. Staten Island looked to the future of the world’s largest landfill site and how it will eventually be transformed into a public park.

As well as the historical artefacts on display, the exhibition included modern artistic responses to dirt. James Croak’s Dirt window (1991) obliterated by dirt, contrasted nicely with Susan Collis’ broom Waltzer (2007) propped in a corner. Igor Eskinja’s untitled dirt pattern on the floor, which changed as it was walked over, was effective but seemed to me to resemble previous work by Catherine Bertola and Linda Florence, also I would have liked to have known where the dust had come from. Serena Korda’s bricks made from dust entitled Laid to rest (2011) and the accompanying video had more background information, which added to the experience and showed that dirt is indeed defined by its context.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

Susan Hiller exhibition

This exhibition at Tate Britain includes a variety of work by Susan Hiller spanning several years. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, the artist is quoted as saying ‘I particularly like the way the mundane becomes special as soon as you pay attention to it …’ and in much of her work she focuses on mundane aspects of daily life and represents them to us in a special light.
The exhibition begins with her Recycled works (from the 1970s) in which she has reworked some of her previous paintings by cutting them up and layering them to produce small sculptural blocks, produced loops and bundles of string by unravelling canvases, and burned canvases then stored the remaining ash in small sealed jars. This seeking for alternative meanings gleaned from the same originals is also present in the work that ends the exhibition - Enquiries/inquiries (1973-5), which consists of a series of facts and definitive explanations of words from English and American encyclopaedias, showing that knowledge is subjective and culturally specific.
Accessing information is a theme in several of the works in the exhibition. Belshazzar’s feast. The writing on your wall (1983-4) is an installation of a room with seats around a television on which there is a flickering image, which may or may not be transmitting information from the ether around it. While Obtaining meaning from Magic lantern (1987) includes a sound track of singing interspersed with recordings of the sounds in empty rooms by the Latvian scientist Konstantine Raudive.
Accessing the paranormal is also queried in Psi girls (1999), which comprises five large screens showing excerpts from commercial films of young girls using telekinetic powers accompanied by an unsettling soundtrack. The theme of the supernatural is also beautifully depicted in Witness (2000), an installation of over a hundred bare speakers hanging at different heights from the ceiling of a darkened room, transmitting eye witness reports of UFO sightings. The installation is beautifully lit and engenders a magical experience as the viewer wanders among the speakers hearing snippets of reports in various languages, producing a murmur of background noise.
In Susan Hiller’s hands the mundane and unseen has certainly become special in this exhibition.

Friday 21 January 2011

Gallery Gallery

Also in Kyoto we visited Gallery Gallery run by Keiko Kawashima, which specialises in contemporary textiles. I had heard so much about Gallery Gallery, and it has hosted several prestigious exhibitions, so I thought it was quite large and was surprised to find that it was much smaller than I expected. However, it contained many varied exhibits in a series of glass cases representing a large number of artists and providing a taste of the practice of each one. While we were visiting, the main exhibition was Plasma Rose by Miyoko Yoshiya, a series of colourful felt tubes hanging from the ceiling in one corner of the room and draping into the room and across the floor.

Gallery Kei

While we were in Kyoto we visited Gallery Kei run by Kei Kawasaki. It was an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful textiles, weaving and stencils. Kei Kawasaki is very knowledgeable about everything in her shop and kindly talked to us about many of the items on display. She showed us some handcut stencils on mulberry paper tanned with persimmon and described how some were cut and others punched with fine holes. She also explained resist printing and ikat weaving to us. Talking about threads she explained that linden fibres are retted and then each single fibre is twisted on to the next one to form a continuous thread, which is very time consuming, however, silk and linen are spun, which is much quicker. She was very friendly, helpful and interesting and I could have stayed all day listening to her.

Sun Moon Gallery

In Kyoto we visited Akihiko Izukura’s family business at the SunMoon Gallery. We started our visit in the dyeing workshop where we saw fabrics bring dyed with natural dyes. The business specialises in innovative woven, braided and felted textiles applying natural dyes to silk and wool. Their design concept is based on a sense of spirituality and empathy with nature. We were then taken to a room where we had to remove our shoes and sit on the floor Japanese style. Here we saw different designs of obis and were told how they were woven. They are quite heavy and the pattern lies on the square at the back of the body. While we were there some customers arrived and they kindly allowed us to take photos of them wearing kimono and obi. We then visited the shop, where beautiful scarves and clothes were for sale and several of us succumbed to the innovative scarves when we were shown how versatile they were to wear. We were then taken to the workshop, where Akihiko Izukura kindly explained the philosophy of the company to us and described some new research into silk weaving they are undertaking.

Amuse Museum

Amuse Museum lies in the Asakusa area of Tokyo close to the Sensoji Temple compound, adjacent to the Nitenmon Gate, and you get a good view of the entire site from the top of the building. When we visited there was a large display of Boro cloth. These are the old, patched and stitched clothes that used to be worn by the peasants. They are referred to as Yuyo-no-Bi (beauty of practicality) and are now seen as a contrast to consumer culture, although a generation ago they were considered an embarrassing sign of previous Japanese poverty. We saw underclothes, simple shifts, nappies, kimonos, jackets, tabi socks, mittens, and old scraps of cloth which were salvaged and kept for patching other clothes. The clothes contain a wealth of history and many were kept for generations. For example a bodoko was a cloth used for childbirth in a family to bring good fortune from the ancestors.

In other displays of Japanese culture we saw salmon skin boots, old kitchen tools, Jomon pots and flints and a special display of girls’ underwear from the 19th century called tattsuke. The tattsuke were worn by women in the Nanbu District of Aomori Prefecture and are distinctive with leggings that are tight on the calves and baggy around the bottom.

Phantom limb exhibition

This exhibition by Odani Motohiko was staged at the Mori Arts Centre in Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo. I was very impressed with his earlier work and intrigued by the posters I had seen in the city depicting his waterfall installation and spiral made of vertebrae. My favourite piece was Fingerspanner, which used a device to make piano players’ fingers more flexible in such a way that the hand looked like a deformed human violin; it subtly depicted the duality of horror and beauty.

Motohiko’s work arises from an interest in the psychological conditions of fear, pain and unease. Inferno, his installation combining videos of a waterfall with music in a ‘room’ setting that you entered was also very effective and very disorientating because the speed of the video and the intensity of the noise changed and the floor and walls appeared to move. The quote accompanying that exhibit was ‘if you stare at the abyss it enters into you’.

Nezu Museum of Art

This museum in Tokyo had just reopened when we visited. We approached it along this lovely bamboo walkway, a peaceful path away from the busy traffic of Omotesando. I later discovered the architect had deliberately tried to create an experience of wa or Japanese harmony in the building and its surroundings. The Museum has many holdings of Japanese art, ceramics, lacquer and metalwork, but the displays I found most interesting were the Kosode fabric fragments from the 16th and 17th centuries in muted browns, blues and greens, depicting flowers and symbols, in particular a sample of tie dyed wisteria, and a panel of embroidered interlocking circles. Another delightful surprise was the garden behind the Musuem. It was very relaxing to stroll through it admiring the autumn colours of the leaves and the reflections in the water of the ponds and waterfalls.


As part of the UCA study visit to Japan we visited Nuno the textile shop in Tokyo. Although describing Nuno as a textile shop is accurate, it doesn’t quite convey the amazing range of innovative fabrics produced and sold by Nuno. We were lucky to be given an introduction to the fabrics by Reiko Sudo, the Creative Director of Nuno. She pulled out numerous bolts of fabric for us, describing what they were made of and how they were produced. Many of the textiles had paper embedded in them or were made from woven paper threads, one even had pieces of newspaper attached to it. We were also shown fabrics with fluorescent fibres and strips of chemical lace forming hangings. As well as the fascinating talk by Reiko we all enjoyed browsing through the scarves and clothes on display and many of us bought samples to bring a little bit of Nuno home with us.