Entering the Fray

While teaching at the radical Black Mountain college in 1933 to 1949, Anni Albers instructed her students to unravel the fragments of textile samples, bought on her travels to Peru and Columbia, to help herself and the students understand the unknown ancient techniques through a process of unpicking and reweaving. Unconventional, but infinitely astute, this method of learning through doing and undoing exemplifies Albers’ philosophy of going ‘back to the elements’, deepening one’s responsiveness to materials so as to ‘open the field again for invention’. Tate Modern’s recent major solo show (11 October 2018 – 27 January 2019) preceded the 2019 centenary of the Bauhaus School with a survey of Albers, a German-born artist known for her textile works that span the fields of art, design and architecture, and a pivotal student of the Bauhaus school in 1920s Germany until its forced closure by the Nazis in 1932. In the past decade, several other exhibitions globally have recovered from the dusty corners of art history the key female artists who worked with textiles in various ways, as well as championing their contemporary counterparts, male and female. Once confined to the realm of craft, a recent resurgence of interest in weaving as an artform has seen many contemporary artists, from Grayson Perry and Chris Ofili, to Faith Ringgold and Analia Saban, incorporating this ancient craft into their contemporary fine art practices.

Tracing the medium back to its roots, weaving in mythology and folklore crops up time and again, primarily with a gendered leaning towards the female domestic sphere and certain goddesses within Western and Norse mythology. In one Ovidian tale of metamorphosis, Arachne, a mortal weaver, is turned into a spider by the goddess Athena as punishment for creating a tapestry that not only insulted the gods but was more beautiful than her own. In another metamorphosis Philomela is raped and then brutally silenced by Tereus, who tears out her tongue so that she cannot tell a soul. Her loom becomes her way of telling the terrible truth to her sister Procne.

These mythological roots show that weaving has long been a means of, or metaphor for, counteracting the erasure of feminine subjectivity brought about from violent or pernicious forms of silencing women’s voices. In this light, we can read the act of telling stories as, if not inherently powerful or liberating, then as a potential power to be harnessed. Marina Warner has written extensively about the myths and fairy-tales that have filtered through ages and cultures and which continue to permeate the fabric of contemporary society. In From the Beast to the Blonde, tracing the history of women’s stories, Warner looks to the typically female domestic space, where through ‘informal and unofficial networks’, women’s vernacular tales and gossip played an influential part in the exchange of knowledge in the form of personal and social experience regarding cultural values and moral lessons: it had a ‘pedagogical function’. Crucial to the question of the possibilities of these confessional forms, Warner explains how, as this vernacular discourse circulated in the domestic sphere, experience would be passed on as narrative. Tapestries have typically told these stories, from the religious and mythical to the personal, variously fusing pictorial and material languages. The spaces in which weaving traditionally took place, going back to Greek society, were domestic interiors occupied by women. The ‘women’s work’ of the loom was equated with silence and chastity, but in reality these spaces would be noisy, filled with conversation and storytelling. Throughout history only a small proportion of upper-class women would have had access to education, so the needle and loom were an alternative mode of literacy that enabled women to tell stories, both recounting historical events and as a means of personal expression. The Bayeux Tapestry, for instance, was a way to tell a story to a predominantly illiterate public both visually and orally. As Richard Gameson writes in The Study of the Bayeux Tapestry, the narrative would have been inventively elaborated by an interlocuter or a performer, layers of ‘narrative and experiential time’ being created through the binding of ephemeral oral retellings with the pictorial narrative.

Text and textiles are etymologically connected, with the origin of text taking us back to the Latin textus, one translation of which is a web; Brian Dillon in Essayism expands upon an idea of Adorno’s that a well-constructed text is like a spider’s web, filling with ‘all manner of heterogenous matter … and its maker must wait vigilantly for the right prey’, which it then ‘captures in a delicate, murderous tension.’ Anni Albers’ conception of weaving seems to fit, though less metaphorically, along this line of thinking of the woven form as a process, not a finished object; a temporary harbourer of ideas and experiments. In Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Iliad from Penelope’s perspective, she weaves a shroud by day and secretly unpicks it by night so as to keep the suitors at bay while Odysseus is gone. Her weaving is a question of survival, a quiet subversion from within the domestic space. Once uncovered, the ploy coins the term ‘Penelope’s web’, used to describe any task left mysteriously incomplete – a notion that Atwood’s Penelope resents, for it casts her as that murderous spider. On the contrary to trying to catch the men like flies, she had ‘merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself.’

Penelope’s task, however, had always been one of unmaking rather than making, the weaving a distraction technique, a wily trick, a desperate attempt to retain some degree of control for as long as she possibly could. The web of a tapestry or the metaphorical web of essayistic form keeps entanglement at bay through an intricate weaving process, while Penelope’s avoids this by imposing a threshold or limitation that she never crosses. Albers advocated for creativity that can exist – and flourish – within a set of rules: ‘limitations, when approached open-mindedly, can spur the imagination to make the most use of them and possibly even to overcome them’. The weaver’s grid is a pertinent metaphor for this method of working within a set of self-imposed boundaries, that allow for creativity and experimentation within. Many of Albers’ ‘pictorial weavings’, as she called her non-functional weavings, such as Ancient Writing (1936), push the grid system beyond the structure of weaving threads at right angles, and into a spatial and temporal investigation, one that also concerned other Bauhaus artists and followers such as Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian in the development of modernist abstraction.

While teaching at the radical Black Mountain College, Albers devised an exercise for her students which investigated the abstract, formal potentials of elements of written language: letters, punctuation marks and other graphical symbols. These typewriter studies, referred to by Albers as ‘tactile-textile illusions’, used ink and letter stamps to replicate various weaving or embroidery effects and were used to encourage the students to think more abstractly in creating textile patterns, and to consider the formal, as well as etymological, links between text and textiles. As she wrote in 1941, ‘these varied experiments in articulation are to be understood not as an end in themselves but merely as a help to us in gaining new terms in the vocabulary of tactile language.’ Albers’s interest in this visual, tactile language came in part from the geometric designs, glyphs and calligraphy that she encountered in trips to Central and South American countries, and throughout works made in her Black Mountain period a relationship between thread and its communicative potential was a central concern. In the Tate exhibition, Albers’ small woven samples are some of the most striking works for their hand-scaled intimacy and experimentation, as well as allowing the visitor to make not only visual but tactile and haptic connections between the remarkably varied techniques, patterns and forms of these samples and the collected pre-Columbian fabrics; painted designs; ‘pictorial weavings’; and functional fabrics, wall-coverings and rugs. We are encouraged to ‘regain sensitivity towards textile surface’: these words of Anni Albers resonate with the rationale of the curator, Briony Fer, for selecting Albers’ for the major solo show, explaining that in ‘today’s digitised world of instant screen time’ the slow-time of hand-weaving is a means to revive our connectedness to our own corporeal existence.

Bringing a tapestry into a gallery setting nonetheless casts the viewer into the formal position of a gallery spectator, the tapestry no longer a craft but a fine art. Its edges are no longer those of the loom, but the white wall space around the weaving. Does this change the quiet power of the woven form? Albers’ work became yet more public during the recent Tate exhibition as the pleasingly neat, geometric patterns were circulated via Instagram by thousands of viewers, though this seems to go against the deeper visual and tactile pleasure that woven forms can deliver, that goes beyond the purely formally aesthetic. Whether depicting figurative, narrative imagery, as in traditional tapestry, or more abstract forms, the weaving process creates a continuum of image and ground, more so than in a painting whose layers can be added and removed continuously. In a tapestry, threads are looped and knotted into a whole, in a gradual, piecemeal process of addition, a sense of the whole only being grasped when stepping back, and this optical blending of colour and line is not dissimilar to the effect of pixels in digital imaging. Pieces like Dotted (1959) and Haiku (1961), show Albers using her strong sense for a material and structural aesthetic rather than relying only on a formalist sense: woven over and into the interlocking grid-like structure of the ‘ground’ are loops and knots of wool which, when viewed at a distance, resemble dots of colour like a Pointillist painting, and glyphs or Morse code, respectively. A closer look shows an intricate web of the materials behind, including metallic thread in Haiku creating a subtle nacreous sheen. Weaving is slow process, and the reading of it must be slowed down too, this perhaps being a reason for the draw towards woven forms that we can see today, in an age of immediate, urgent technology.

However, contemporary artists incorporating weaving into their practices are not necessarily learning the craft, instead outsourcing the work to professionals, or using digital weaving platforms. Grayson Perry is one of these artists, important to consider in the context of the female-dominated tradition of weaving, as he explores the fluidity of gender and identity in the narratives of his pots and tapestries, through his own identity-mythologising, and his choice of traditional mediums that are imbued with long histories of gender coding. He is also especially interesting to consider in relation to an artist like Anni Albers, as he consciously engages in the reclamation of craft within contemporary art, not to subsume one within in the other but to creatively blur the boundaries between materiality and functionality, this being a key concern of the Bauhaus artists, who sought to radically reconceptualise traditional techniques such as handweaving as modern art. In a 2008 commission for the Rug Company, Perry designed a tapestry to be made by skilled handweavers in the needlepoint technique: he hand-drew his design of nightmarish imagery – a teddy bear wearing a suicide belt, exploding planes and tanks – and digitally altered the colours of the design which was then outsourced to a weaving house in China and completed over five months. The series of six tapestries Perry made in 2012, The Vanity of Small Differences, alongside his Channel 4 documentary All in the Best Possible Taste, were removed further still from the artist’s hand: Perry’s drawn designs were digitally woven, meaning the computer-created design is fed directly to a Jacquard loom, an automated industrial loom that produces a fabric still woven with interlacing threads (the warp and weft), but at great speed and without needing a trained weaver to reconfigure the loom. In fact, the online platform for digital fabrication, WOVNS, promises this ‘empowerment’ for anyone wishing to make their own woven textiles by uploading a design to get custom-made upholstery. For Perry, this intertwining of technique and technology shows his interest in the ‘clash between something made by hand in an age-old technique and our computer culture’, a tension that the six-part narrative tapestry explores as an allegory of quotidian consumerism, technology, and taste in the rituals and traditions of contemporary British culture. The mobile phones, cars and cranes, and Penguin Classics mugs situate the narrative in modern society, but Perry references mythological and religious allegorical art both to elevate the commonplace, and to complicate the contemporary with the ancient.

Contemporary American artist Analia Saban’s most recent exhibition, Punched Card (6 Sep 2018 – 18 Oct 2018, New York) also explores the roles of both artmaking and technology in shaping our culture. In bringing together the history of computing with that of mechanised weaving, Saban hints at tensions between tradition and experiment, material processes and technology. The exhibition’s title refers both to the punched cards used to program automated looms, and to digital coding languages used today, and her tapestries visually match the geometric intricacies of circuit boards, each one following the pattern of various circuits used in the gaming and automobile industries in the 1970s. She draws attention to the labour behind essential goods and services in our historical and contemporary lives, from material, industrial production to information technologies and the more recently prevalent ‘emotional labour’ of the service industries. Here, too, the historical origins of weaving and its etymological roots intertwine with contemporary internet-based metaphors: the web, the net, threads.

In her series of ‘Tapestries’, Saban intersects painting with weaving in works that loop long strips of dried acrylic paint over and under linen threads, in small, pixel-like stitches. The choice of this plasticky paint woven into complex designs is not so far removed from Albers’ innovative materials: her 1930 diploma piece, a sound-proofing fabric for an auditorium, included the relatively-new material cellophane, which glistened against the cotton and raffia. Despite their technology-rooted visual sources, Saban’s works retain a vividly human feeling over a mechanised one, a definite sense of the hand and the mind.

It is clear to see that textiles have been at the forefront of experimentation for the last century at least, while still existing within certain material limitations. The increasing number of contemporary artists interweaving the ancient craft into their practices are less breaking new ground than creatively participating in these ongoing material and social histories. As Julia Bryan-Wilson notes in her excellent book Fray: Art and Textile Politics published in 2017, the place that textiles occupy in within traditionalist histories does not preclude their capacity to ‘erupt as potential sites of resistance to that very traditionalism’. Today, they continue to intersect with debates about gendered labour, protest cultures, and queer politics. To take a key motif of Bryan-Wilson’s, while textile art can and should be examined as expansively as other fine art practices, its boundaries are not rigid: they are frayed, caught between being made and unmade, and unwilling to stick to any one artistic genre.