SMART FABRICS

Throughout History and Now

What did ancient people try to accomplish when they deliberately made clothes that contained meaning? For one thing, it must have been to mark or announce information.  Twenty thousand years B.C. a small, plump Venus donned a string skirt to announce her readiness for childbearing and in the mountains of South Central Asia, a Kafir woman wore a distinctive headdress for a few days each month to indicate that she was now a woman.

 Cloth could also be used as a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Social rank too, has probably always been encoded through symbols in material, design, colour and embellishment of the clothing.  In Ancient Rome the emperor and no other enjoyed the privilege of wearing entirely purple robes.  Hanging up a distinctive textile could be a way of making ordinary space special, even sacred.  In Southern Sumatra a special ritual cloth was placed as a backdrop in important rites of passage ceremonies.  And the vision of Henry VIII and his ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ remains a vivid image in the minds of many British schoolchildren cheering at the British King who was grander and more stylish than his French counterpart.

 

Thirdly, fabric design has been used to invoke magic – to protect, to secure fertility and riches, to divine the future, perhaps even to curse. Within that magical world, fertility, prosperity and protection were three of the most common objectives.  Images of snakes, frogs and fish (egg layers all) incorporated into woven cloth were thought to bring wealth and fertility to a household in many parts of Europe.

SLAVIC GODDESS

The Slavic Goddess Berehinia – Protectress of women and their fertility displaying birds in her hands

 But Europe had no monopoly on mystical, protective images on cloth and clothing.  In Egypt, Tutankhamon’s tomb was found to contain a wealth of royal cloth, in particular a richly decorated tunic, with a neckhole forming an ‘ankh’ (or sign of long life) with his name embroidered at the centre of the cross and surrounded by the traditional ‘cartouche’ (a protective oval made by a magic rope), and at the bottom of the tunic panels embroidered with an array of real and mythical beasts (thought to be of Syrian workmanship) are all designed to ease his journey into the afterlife.

 More structural approaches to working magic have been devised with folktales telling of magic girdles where the magic seems to be inherent in the weaving, not merely in special decoration.  One possibility was to weave in the spell as number magic; in the Netherlands experts have unearthed cloth where the weaver has chosen red wool warp threads for her work, twenty four spun one direction, and twenty four spun the other way.  Opposite spins catch the light differently and, when placed next to each other, give a striped effect.  She divided the bunch spun one way into three sets of eight, and the other bunch into four sets of six, and alternated them. It can’t be a coincidence that in Holland, Germany and Denmark those numbers were considered particularly sacred.  The scheme is best known from the runic alphabet, which at first consisted of twenty four letters in three sets of eight, and later of thirty two letters in four sets of eight.  It is assumed that number magic began with the introduction of Mithraism into those countries via the Romans; Mithraic religion from the Near East is just packed full of number magic. 

 The Batak tribes of Sumatra generated woven magic another way; in one area the women wove special magical cloths on circular warps, which were never cut because the continuity of the warp cloth across the gap where the wool had not been woven in, was said to ensure the continuity of life from the mother to the child.  The birth of the child was represented by the beginning of the weft at one side of the uncut fringe; drawing the cloth through the hands of the weaver represented the child growing up, and when the other side of the uncut fringe was reached, it represented the beginning of a new generation whose life would repeat that of the mother, and so on ad infinitum.   Biblical students will remember that Jesus’ garment was removed from his body uncut “in accordance with the scriptures”, a possible reference to this custom?

But these magic numbers, symbols, and methods of weaving depended largely on the wearers and viewers buying into the myth of the magic woven into the cloth which they were conditioned to believe.  It was not until the twenty first century that actual magic became available to inventive weavers worldwide.  Conductive fibre or elements; computer circuitry and electronics; laser optics and speakers would mark the next stage for this fabricated messaging. Value Added Fabric can communicate, transform, conduct energy, grow, medicate, play music or identify friend or foe.  It is used for astronaught suits as it can inflate or deflate, be heated or cooled down, be lit up in dark outer space, and can incorporate infra-red digital displays and alarms.

Smart fabrics are set to transform the fashion industry and allow us to download new styles for our clothes rather than buying new garments.  “Micro-robotics, 3D printing and rapid changes in technology are poised to revolutionise fashion,”  says the designer of Lady Gaga’s bubble-blowing dress ‘Anemone’, and ‘Volantis’ her flying dress powered by twelve electric motor-driven rotors.

lady gaga 2

 Electronic conducting textiles have the ability to make music.  One example is the electric gloves that allow people to interact with their computer remotely via hand gestures, beautiful gloves that help the wearer gesturally interact with their computer and technology allows for a performance without having to interact with or physically touch, keyboards or control panels.

 The new generation of weavers will double as medics, technicians, artists, designers, spacemen, nutritionists, image consultants and, of course, scientists.  What will be next?  How much more inventive we can get?  Maybe they will be able to realise what only those imaginative writers of the TV series Star Trek, way back in the sixties, had thought possible; maybe the next big thing is Transportation Suits where we can wear a piece of clothing that will jumble our atoms and ‘beam us up’ to new and unexplored parts of the universe, or even to different time zones?  But what happens when those suits gets hacked or infected with malicious Ransomware?  Back down to earth or lost in time and space?  

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BRAVE NEW WORLD

Once politics was, if not simple then at least understandable.  There were parties on the left and parties on the right, and they would stay roughly at either end of the spectrum, fluctuating into the centre and out again; but you knew, and so did they, which side of the centre they belonged.  Then you had the parties in the centre that had to fight off incursions into its space from one side or the other.  Tribal loyalties saw to it that you would usually follow your family’s lead when placing your X on the polling card. But now conviction politicians are gone.  Candidates promise anything to get votes.  Elected politicians appease reactionary popular opinion; unpalatable stories are called fake news.  No one wants to listen to elite groups who, they argue, consider themselves superior to everyone else.

Cartoon

It feels like everyone is playing by different rules; change has spread right across classes, gender and the country.   Austerity is hitting some communities badly whilst others continue much as they ever have; buying necessities like foreign holidays, fast cars and super wide televisions.  The government continues to cut funding for further education and the NHS but can find enough to commit to Trident and nuclear weapons.  Many young people want to know what the point in cramming their heads with knowledge is when experts are no longer valued or guaranteed work once they are crammed with arcane facts.

The financial crisis caused by the banks hit everyone except the banks themselves, who are still getting richer.  Terrorist fanatics are killing indiscriminately across Europe and the need to gather information means that personal liberties are being invaded.

It seems obvious to me that now is the time to have a serious discussion about how our society works and what our priorities should be to prevent the very poor getting poorer and the very rich getting, well anything they want.  Should we look to the Nordic countries and raise Taxes so that our schools and hospitals work?  Should we know what proportion of our taxes go to what?  And should the disgustingly rich pay at a higher rate of Tax than the ‘Just about Managing’ people who feel they have been left behind and forgotten?

In other words, do we want politicians discussing things that don’t really matter? Do we want a higher moral and honest tone to the debates in the House of Commons – with no booing or braying?  Or shall we forever be talking about what we can screw out of our neighbours just to leave them all alone for a while?  And seriously, do any of us really think that this is a brave little country hitting way above it’s weight against larger, calculating, unscrupulous and less plucky competitors?

STRING THEORY

String is thought to be the earliest manufactured thread and has been described as the unseen weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the earth.  String can be used for carrying, holding, tying and trapping, securing and decoration.  Textiles underlie the great prints and canvases of Western Art and form a surface to write upon. Paper nowadays is largely made of wood pulp but is still made in the traditional manner with the fibres from plants in specialist paper mills; these fibres are pulped and bleached, washed and dried and then filtered onto a mesh and compressed onto a fine felt. 

 Sophisticated textile production dates to six thousand years B. C., in southern regions of Europe, and four thousand B.C. Egyptian women were weaving linen on horizontal looms.  Archaeologists have unearthed fabric and rope fragments that date as far back as twelve thousand years in the past, making them the oldest known textiles in South America.  In China, where the spinning wheel is thought to have first turned, sophisticated drawlooms had woven designs that used thousands of different warps.  These prehistoric weavers seem to have produced cloths of extraordinary complexity, woven with ornate designs far in excess of the simple need to cover and protect bodies or to provide warmth and comfort for their dwelling places.

ancient-greek-fabric-attica

The production of ‘homespun’ yarn and cloth was one of the first cottage industries, pin money was women’s earliest source of independent cash and women were selling surplus yarn and cloth, working as small-scale entrepreneurs, long before the emergence of factories or the mechanisms which now define the textile industry.

There were other spin offs from textiles too.  The weaving of complex designs demanded far more than one pair of hands, and textiles production tends to be communal, sociable work allowing plenty of occasion for gossip and chat.  Weaving was already multimedia:  singing, chanting, telling stories, dancing, and playing games whilst they worked; these spinsters, weavers and needlewomen were literally networkers as well, spinning yarns, fabricating fiction and fashioning fashion.  The textures of woven cloth functioned as a means of communication and information storage too, long before anything was written down. 

Weaving is often used to mark or announcer information and a mnemonic device to record events and other data.  Textiles do communicate in terms of the images which appear on the right side of the cloth, but this is only the most superficial sense in which they process and store data.  Because there is no difference between the process of weaving and the woven design.  Cloth persists as records of the process which fed into their production; how many women worked on them, the techniques they used and the skills they employed.  The visible pattern is integral to the process which produced it, the programme and the pattern are continuous. 

lozenge-shaped-blk-wht-fabric

The lozenge motif dates as far back as the Neolithic and Paleolithic period and is tied to human fertility and land. The binary male and female principles serve as the basis for deciphering the meaning of this symbol. It consists of two triangles. But in the pre-Ukrainian period, it was believed that the woman held the three corners of the lozenge (the three corners of the home), while the man held the fourth, which completed the integrity of the family. A lozenge with a dot in the middle symbolizes a sown field, which meant abundance and prosperity.  In addition to simple lozenges, we often see rhombuses with hooks (tiny horns) in Ukrainian embroidery. This design is called “zhaba” (frog) and symbolizes fertility. In ancient beliefs, this little creature was linked to heavenly moisture that gives life.

Lozenge-shaped patterns were embroidered on wedding towels and bridal gowns. Pregnant woman wore shirts covered with diamond patterns until childbirth as this symbol served as a powerful talisman.   

As the frantic activities of generations of spinsters and weaving women make clear, nothing stops when a piece of work has been finished off.  Even when magical connections are not explicitly invoked, the finished cloth – unlike the painting or the text, is almost incidental in relation to the process of its production.  The only incentive to cast off seems to be the chance it provides to start again, throw another shuttle and cast another spell. 

 

 

 

82 portraits and 1 still life

82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney at The Royal Academy

David Hockney is doing something very important for artists –combining the conceptual understanding of contemporary art today with the innate craftsmanship of applying paint onto a surface.

He is a modern man who doesn’t close his mind to new innovations.  He has that most important ingredient for an artist in any age, an open mind.  When a young man he became known for his photographic collages, large canvases which put together small standard photos but overlapping, adjacent and continuous to the previous image.  What these photo collages did was attempt to give a bigger picture than was possible with a single lens camera.  His paintings of sunny California bucked the trend away from the craft of painting and encapsulated something bigger and more interesting than the play of sun on swimming pool water.

He is still looking for the bigger picture, and, after a long and distinguished career, he comes to this project with a the vast amount of knowledge about the photographic image.  But he comes to it with something else, he personally observes the difference between looking through an image-catching single lens machine and looking directly through his two, independent eyes and he adds to that the skill to put down what the magic inside his head has translated and conveyed to his hands.

barry-humphries-by-dh

82 portraits and 1 still life, Hockney’s ambitious new hang at The Royal Academy is so much more than just a collection of people painted in front of uniform backings in a maximum of three days in the artist’s studio in Los Angeles.  This collection of paintings is not only a view into the way we see the difference between individual sitters but also “reaffirms the significance of the painted portrait in an age when selfies and photo-portraits have proliferated in social media.”[1]

For me this exhibition is a very poignant and personal archive which when installed in near-chronological order – as it is, permits the viewer an insight into the psychology of the artist himself.  “Hockney was recovering from a very difficult series of events, including a minor stroke, and he did not paint for some time, which was unusual for him.”[2]  When you walk around the gallery space and take time to observe the format and execution of these paintings you can almost see as a tangible thing, Hockney’s emotional state of mind lighten as we follow his confidence and conviction in the format and medium grow.

celia-birtwell-by-dh

As I came away from the gallery and walked along Piccadilly it seemed that my own perceptive abilities had been heightened by an artist who had taught me a lesson in how to really observe people. The tourists, locals and business-people I passed now appeared more interesting; so much that I could almost see them with a blue wall behind them and a green carpet beneath them sitting on a chair and revealed in all their complexities.

This is what I consider a successful visit to a gallery.

[1] 82 portraits and 1 still life, by  Edith Devaney.  Royal Academy catalogue

[2] Ibid

MONA HATOUM at The Tate

I saw Corps étranger [1994] by Mona Hatoum for the first time in 1995 when it formed part of the Tate’s wonderful Rites of Passage exhibition marking the end of the twentieth century.  I was just beginning my art degree then and I’d never seen anything like it; there wasn’t anything like it.  It made a very deep impression on me, the fibre optic camera moving slowly across the body’s landscape and disappearing down orifice’s and into deep thickets of hair was foreign territory for me.

Now all these years later and twenty years older I have had perforce a few occasions when I became a little more familiar with my own moist and glistening interior and I have become aware of just how complex this installation must have been to execute.

The perfect white encasing cylinder was a departure from the artist’s usual oeuvre and so evocative of one of Le Corbusier’s primary solids. But it also served to create a space that was both inside and part of, yet also separate from the space of the museum.  The neutral, clean surface of this column was cool and sophisticated, with a whiff of Huxley’s Brave New World about it – a giant test tube for creation?

Once inside I watched vertiginously from above the journey moving relentlessly onwards on a forward momentum through familiar and unfamiliar parts towards an unknown goal.  This time my added years and own personal experiences has lent this work added significance and a more personal appreciation of just how magically Mona Hatoum manipulates her audience.

Corps etranger

I had plenty of time, and the patience to wait and allow the works to communicate to me.  Three works especially moved me and highlighted the artist’s prescience. Light Sentence [1992] was visually interesting from the outset – this installation was made up of square wire mesh lockers stacked to create a three-sided enclosure of over human height.  They resembled animal cages, prisons or might have been short hand for modernist architecture?  The incredibly bright, single light hanging in the centre threw shadows of fine, intersecting lines and squares onto the outer walls.

IMAG1319

Standing quietly and watching the shadow play on the walls I slowly became aware that the disturbed ambient air in the room was making the light bulb swing very, very slightly on its wire thus creating the effect of shadows that were moving rhythmically up and down much like that of breathing.  This subtle, uncanny movement, full of suspense and unspoken threat spoke to me of sinister Prison Camps for terrorists.

One of Hatoum’s earliest works, Don’t smile, you’re on camera! [1980] was a performance where she surreptitiously mixed live shots of audience members with images of naked bodies and x-rays, making it appear that the camera could see through layers of clothing.  In 1980 how could she have foreseen cameras in at airport check ins which actually do see through your clothing – all introduced without any complaints about invasion of privacy or decency?

Finally there was a room full with a combination of kitchen utensils and household furniture, connected to each other with electric wire, through which ran a live electric current.  Homebound [2000] crackled and fizzed with the sound of the amplified hum of the fluctuating current which alternately illuminating separate parts of the installation.  At first I didn’t think this complicated set up was very effective.  I sat on the bench conveniently placed in the room; I sat and watched the loop of disparate, mundane objects lighting up and then going off and didn’t get it.  What was the connection?  OK so most of the objects were distressed metal, cooking utensils, whisks, colanders, chairs, tables, stools, buckets.  Then I noticed the empty metal baby’s crib, there was nothing to soften the hard, metal surfaces, no mattress or pillow.  Under the cot was a metal potty, white inside.  Then the lights went on and this potty glowed brightly and seemed to draw attention to the complete abandonment of the place and suddenly into my mind came the pictures of bombed out and abandoned building in Aleppo and I got it.

Homebound

Mona Hatoum’s work does seem to improve with age.  Her work.  Her Art.  Her magical ability to force her audience to experience something and to empathise with what concerned her mind at the time.  Taking the time with this retrospective I became conscious that for Hatoum the viewer is always part of her considerations when contemplating her work.  Seeing all these works together we are moved from vicarious involvment, bound up in hopeless adventure, empowered as a voyeur, entrapped, and with luck just a bit of self-recognition. If you go please give this very well curated exhibition plenty of time and an open mind.

 

THE COLLECTION

at The Proud Archivist, London, N1

Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd January 2016

“An immersive exhibition celebrating the lives and loves of some the UK’s greatest collectors.  Showcasing some of the most intriguing and unusual collections from across the nation.”

 We may think that collecting is a wonderfully eccentric British obsession – nearly seventy one percent of Britons say they are collectors – though it is not solely confined to these shores.  This exhibition, however, highlights collecting in a uniquely British historical context where collecting had once been a noble pastime and the practice of adventurers and amateur scholars.  Some of the greatest museums in the world owe their existence to the acquisitive instincts of private collectors from the Ashmolean in Oxford to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London.  Henry Wellcome, the pharmacist, collected over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science and later opened his museum.

 For many people who amass collections, their value is not monetary but emotional.  Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in their history, or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present.  Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete; an itch which can never be eased.  Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. Some people find the act of arranging, organizing and presenting serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed. 

 Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive side to collecting, the need for people to have ‘an object of desire’ and hence the innate propensity to collect begins at birth, stemming from unresolved toilet training conflict, say the Freudians. They maintain, therefore, that the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their ‘possessions’ which have long since been flushed down the loo. 

loads of houses

 Jung had a more reasonable theory about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behaviour, embedded in, what he termed, our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of nuts and berries, once needed for survival by our early ancestors.

 At some point in history, obsessive acquisitiveness began to be seen as something suspect, infantile or just plain strange – stamp collecting became the epitome of suburban small-mindedness – and those inchoate accumulations were completed out of sight.  But in the late twentieth century came a second wave of collectors and those supposedly worthless assemblages of ephemera started to make serious money; a piece of chewing gum spat out by Britney Spears at Wembley Arena in 2000 being sold on eBay for $14,000.

Some commerce-motivated collectors hunt for collectables only to turn them into profit soon after – think the TV programme Four Rooms.  However, most autograph seekers are emotionally motivated to collect with, apparently, over ninety percent of autograph collectors having no intention to sell their trophies. Happiness is derived from adding a new find or signature to the collection; the excitement of the hunt, and the social camaraderie when sharing a collection with others.  

A neurologist who studies hoarding behaviour agrees with Jung that the need to collect stems from a basic drive to collect supplies such as food that goes back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and that this drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. He has found that many compulsive hoarders had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of their brain that regulates cognitive behaviours like decision making, information processing, and organizing behaviour.

So collecting can be many things to many people, different motives are not mutually exclusive and different motives can combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons.  A positive and healing occupation; a way of passing the time; a symptom of brain malfunction.  Someone, one day, will probably make a collection of collectors, keep them in suspended animation and refer to them as curiosities. I’d pay to see that.