I recently visited the Entangled: Threads and Making Exhibition at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. I came across a discussion on the OCA Forum about how to write up an exhibition visit and have since been agonising how to approach this. In the end I decided to record the effect this exhibition had on ME, so my write up is probably going to be disappointing for anyone wanting to know what is on display there. I found it to be a powerful exhibition that created a period of introspection and self doubt but at the same time was incredibly uplifting and exciting…
I approached the exhibition in my usual way, avoiding all reviews and press beforehand to allow me to make up my own mind. This time, however, on arrival I made a preliminary circuit of all the pieces with my notebook firmly in my pocket. I then went away and had lunch, returning afterward to really look and make notes on what stood out for me. I found this a useful strategy in beating the fatigue that sometimes means I don’t have the time/energy left for an important piece.
What has stuck me since reading reviews in Selvedge Magazine #76 and Crafts Council Magazine #265, is that the pieces that I chose were not the ones picked out by the critics. Being me, I worried that perhaps I am not seeing what others see and this makes me a failure in some way. Maybe since I made my decisions based purely on aesthetics, that is why the selection differs? Reading the reviews provides backstory and context to the work, hence different pieces become more important.
An example of this would be Hannah Ryggen’s tapestry: 6 Oktober 1942. The pictorial scene and satirical nature of the image did little to attract me; I paid little attention to it beyond admiring the colours and thinking how well they had stood the test of time. I had no idea this would be the piece would dominate the reviews. In order to appreciate the interest in this piece I needed to first read the essay: Philomela’s Tongue by Marit Paasche in the Exhibition Catalogue. I had to understand that:
- Ryggen was largely self taught because she was excluded from formal education because of an unmarried pregnancy.
- She undertook enormous risks in depicting the atrocities she witnessed during an extremely dangerous time.
- She was dedicated to ensuring all bar three of her large woven pieces remained “publically owned and hang where all citizens had access to them”.
I suppose this comes back to a question I have asked myself many times: how much do you need to know about a piece for it to work? Reading the catalogue really opened my eyes and helped me to appreciate the work exhibited but unfortunately left me feeling extremely ignorant, it really highlighted gaps in my knowledge. My Assessment Feedback (ATV, March 2017) seems to recognise the same thing, saying that:
“Recommendations would be now to extend lines of enquiry via more extensive researching with a view to expanding personal knowledge and understanding of contemporary practitioners. Research is evident and relevant, however, to now broaden your awareness of contexts and debates will enable the enhanced use of materials, processes, applications and finishing via studying contemporary practitioners and their methodologies.”
Context was the area that needed most improvement for ATV. Given this recommendation and my own superficial responses to the exhibition I wonder if its perhaps time I made more informed choices about what I look at and how I respond to it. I think that the only draw back of this approach is that when you know an artist’s profile and reputation it is harder to be objective. It is not that I want to be told what to think but that I need to consider work by contemporaries in broader terms.
For example this was an all woman show. What does this mean? Why was it necessary to exclude male contemporaries? I considered my list of ‘favourite artists’ (blog post: Reflection 17.02.17) Why are they all women? I discovered that, as Head of Displays at the Tate Modern, Francis Morris has had a huge impact on me without me even knowing. She explains:
“although we were not specifically looking at gender, or even trying to achieve a balance, it was evident we were trying to show new perspectives in the history of art – even though that was Western European and North American narratives- and therefore we were looking at work that we had overlooked.” ¹
It seems ‘My women’ all fall onto Morris’ list for redressing the balance, regardless of the fact that they are all female. Is this a coincidence? No probably not, if the artists that remain undiscovered and under represented are women, there is clearly a reason for this! I then am seeing a new view of Art, one that includes the women (thanks to Morris) BUT Am I then too reliant on her opinion? Do I depend on one institution to inform my viewing?
This exhibition differed from the large one artist retrospectives I have been to at the Tate. Here each of the XX artists are only represented by a few pieces of work. I found this made a real difference, it is much harder to understand an artist without their whole life ‘s work laid out before you. Much easier to dismiss them because an individual piece doesn’t appeal/inspire. Another difference would be that many of these artists are contemporary, many of the works were specially commissioned for the exhibition. That they will go on to produce more work and neither they, nor I know what it will be, this really altered my perceptions of gallery art textiles.
My response to what I saw at the exhibition, read in the catalogue and my ATV report, was to subscribe to Selvedge and the Craft Council magazines. As soon as I received them I realised exactly what I had been missing. I have plans to visit exhibitions by male artists Olifi and Paolozzi (exhibitions advertised in Selvedge #75) to redress my over-exposure (?) to women in Textile Art. I won’t be avoiding the Tate Modern, I am looking forward to the forth coming exhibitions by Rachel Whiteread and Anni Albers but I will be mindful of the type of exhibitions these are.
¹Francis Morris, quoted by WRIGHT, K, ‘We are all Penelope’ Exhibition Catalogue. Entangled Turner Contemporary P21