Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Cloth and memory: The theme

The Cloth and Memory exhibition opened at Salts Mill on Saturday and runs until 27 August. Now it is all up and open I thought I’d write about the theme behind my installation, which explores the process by which memories are embedded into cloth and the fabric of a building.

When I came to Salts Mill for my first research visit I was struck by the atmosphere in this room and the layers of peeling paint whispering of hidden stories embed in the fabric of the walls. The large windows are the main feature of the room and when I first came here they showed a gradual progression of being blocked up, which suggested the idea that the room was gradually closing in on itself and its memories.

So I imagined a young woman sitting in the corner sewing and the installation starts in the corner with her chair and embroidery frame suggesting she has just left the room. But when we look at the curtains behind we see that they are pierced by pins and needles in the traditional tally pattern of counting units of five. This contrasts with our idea of the contented seamstress because these marks also suggest a prisoner marking time, while the misuse of sewing equipment suggests a subversion of the domestic.

At the second window is a similar net curtain but the ends of this one seem to be gradually solidifying and turning into stiff board. The curtain has lost its airy transparent nature and is becoming hard and opaque. In the third window we see the next stage of the process - the net curtain is being absorbed into the cardboard and the tally marks are metamorphosing into chalk marks on board. The succeeding windows show the card being gradually turned into brick and the tally marks seeping into the walls until by the sixth window they disappear completely, suggesting the windows are insidiously becoming blocked up as cloth turns to stone, sanctuary becomes prison, and memories become part of the fabric of the room.

Are we just witnessing the embedding of memories over time? Perhaps not - the cross stitch samplers between the windows reveal the thoughts of the trapped embroiderer. The full text of the sampler reads: ‘I sew a long seam and my pins and needles help me for sometimes the thread escapes me’ but when parts of it are removed we find hidden messages within the main text saying ‘help me’ and ‘I long for escape’.

Beside the ‘windows’ hang three small net curtains, embellished with tambour lace trims that include the ambiguous phrases, ‘I never laid a finger on her’ ‘I can see through you’ and ‘Appearances can be deceptive’. They are all phrases that could be used to describe any net curtain, none of them have fingers, they can be seen through and they mask appearances. But here the curtains seem to be discussing a situation suggesting that they have agency and are playing an active role in the events of the room.

‘I never laid a finger on her’ suggests that someone has come to some harm and the speaker is protesting their innocence. ‘I can see through you’ indicates that someone has been found out. While ‘appearances can be deceptive’ indicates that all is not as it seems.

Photographic images of those three curtains, taken in sites within Salts Mill, seem to confirm this. We see the curtains trying to hide the evidence, obscuring the view and showing that appearances can be deceptive.

So rather than revealing the gradual solidification of memory with the passage of time we seem to be witnessing its gradual erasure and destruction of the evidence.

Further images of the curtain pierced with pins and needles reflect the claustrophobia of living behind bars however small and feminine they may be. And show that the scars remain even when the illusion of freedom is attained and the thread that binds is loosened.

So although something is trying to erase the memories in the room and destroy the evidence we are left with the idea that memories do remain embedded in cloth whatever the attempts to eliminate them.

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