Something about clothing, and the body, and skin, and touch, and intimacy. Objects, the everyday, the domestic and the personal. Habits and the habitual, the spaces in which we exist. Me, and others. The individual and the group. Hands and craft, making and re-making. Hand-made and mass-made, production and manufacturing. Moving along a production line, hand-in-hand. Processes together. Repetitions, cycles, reoccurring and multiplied. Fabric and fabrications. Deconstructing and reconstructing. Building upon, progressing, improving, moving forward. Action and reaction. Recycling, reclaiming, revitalising, reimagining, redoing, remaking.
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I began working with clothing when I was studying on my BA as a cheap way to thicken painted surfaces and to build textures. I would collect discarded clothing items on the street between my house and the studio, and the more I worked with clothing the more I became interested in them as objects. Over time I have collected rags from charity shops (clothing in a poor condition that cannot be sold or donated), and the more my practice was associated with recycling fabric the more people donated damaged clothing to me over time. Collecting these materials has some similarities to the ragpicker; ‘The ragpicker actively pursues waste, creating the potential to transform sudden acts of historical remembrance into a politics of memory. For Benjamin the ragpicker points towards the capacity to unlock the revolutionary potential stored in forgotten or wasted historical events,’ (Ragpickers and Leftover Performances, Frederik Le Roy, 2017). The ragpicker counteracts the flâneur, who explored the urban space by walking and absorbing the history of the places he experiences. The flâneur has a relationship with what Benjamin describes as a 'double ground'; 'The first ground is connected with the present and embodied experience of the now extended with every step for the duration of the walk, while the second ground is connected with a distant then that suddenly erupts from the depth of time.' The passing of time is an important part of how the flâneur experiences the city. Where the flâneur may be viewed as part of the bourgeoisie, the ragpicker lived on the periphery of the city - where city meets countryside - in poorly made properties and informal shelters; ‘the waste material of history, an anti-revolutionary and even reactionary force, unable to attain class consciousness.’ I really resonate with the collecting of discarded materials, and finding value in things that have been deemed value-less. Clothing in particular carries with it a lot of history; its intimate relationship with our bodies, the human form it replicates, the dust it collects from ourselves and our environments, the manufacturing and construction of the garments, and the wider socio-political context of clothing.
examples of my previous work using clothing
Other artists have used clothing as a material in art making. Christian Boltanski often uses clothing to represent loss of life on a monumental scale, and I'm interested in this absence within work that feels so physically impactful. Influenced by his Jewish European heritage and stories from his parents in the war, there are clear parallels between his work and photographs of piles of clothes and belongings of Jewish peoples in concentration camps during the war. Despite being a key figure in post-WWII Europe, Boltanski doesn’t describe his work as being about the war, but more about the absence of life. ‘I felt that a photo of a human being, a used piece of clothing, a heartbeat, a dead body, were all equivalents, they all show absence’ (Christian Boltanski). He describes his use of clothing as a ‘placeholder’ for the body and a way to construct an archive of humanity. I really resonate with the idea of clothing as a 'placeholder' through the removal of the body, which I think extends to further questions into function of material and the life-cycle of things.
installation shot of 'Storage Memory' by Christian Boltanski at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2018
I visited his 2018 exhibition ‘Storage Memory’ at the Shanghai Power Station of Art, which focused on the collective memories and experiences of individuals as shown through personal artefacts, such as clothing and photographs. I was reminded by the book East West Street by Philippe Sandes, which traces the invention of the terms ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ that were both used in the Nuremburg trials in 1945-46. Hersh Lauterpacht, whose family was forced out of his hometown of Lwów during the war, pushed hard for the term ‘crimes against humanity’ to be included in the Nuremberg trials because it was concerned with the protection of the rights of the individual. Similarly Raphael Lemkin, whose family was also forced out of Lwów during the war, coined the term ‘genocide’, which he felt described the crimes by Nazi soldiers against Jewish people for their collective identity, and the word was designed to protect the rights of groups of people. Both terms were ultimately included in the trials, but Lauterpacht and Lemkin, felt the two terms were at odds with one another; is it more important to protect the rights of the individual or the group? This tension between the individual and the collective has been a recurring theme in my practice for many years.
Karina Kaikkonen's work is another example of spectacular installations using reclaimed clothing items - predominantly shirts and jackets – often in large, public spaces, and I'm intrested in how she responds to the environment and architecture of these places. Kaikkonen uses second-hand clothing to create a collective sense of memory, whilst each garment carries with it its own sense of identity and story. Coming together, the suspended shirts and jackets are a retelling of the stories of the locations in which they’re shown. Having often worked with clothes from the area in which they are displayed, I also understand how clothes can be like a mirror to the communities in which they are shown, and I think Kaikkonen's practice is effective at speaking directly to those who move among it. I'm interested in how she applies the anthropomorphic qualities of the clothes to urban and built environments.
She has spoken about the comfort and familial associations of clothing; having found solace in her father’s old clothes after he had died from a heart attack when she was young. This sensation rings particularly true to my own sentimentality to objects; my own father having several heart attacks throughout my life, and whilst he has survived every time, it has instilled in me a fear of loss and the need to hold on and preserve. Kaikkonen likens the impermanence of materials to the fragility of human life, and her titles often allude to a movement of coming and going; drawing parallels to past memories and future expectation. Kaikkonen, like myself, relies on donations, and explores the idea of these garments being reborn again and again, as they are rearranged into new formations in new locations. The clothes I work with have often either been found or donated to me, and so I develop different relationships to them depending on their previous user - who are sometimes family members or even myself.
'Way' by Karina Kaikkonen, installed at Helsinki Cathedral in 2000, comprising of 3,000 men’s jackets
I am interested in the way Kaikkonen uses clothing en masse to conjure feelings of community, especially in the way the garments interact and connect together. She disrupts the environments in which she installs the work, but instead of using heavy materials like concrete or metal to create these disruptions (like Rachel Whiteread or Richard Serra), she uses something soft and familial. The shirts are almost cartoon-ish in the way they mimic the body, and despite being different shapes, materials and sometimes colour, when grouped together we focus much more on the similarities of form, rather than the differences between each individual item. I’m also interested in the temporality of the work. Despite often being shown outdoors, the clothing can’t withstand harsh weather conditions over long periods, making us hyper aware of the juxtaposing fragility and durability of the material.
'Crossing Borders' by Karina Kaikkonen, Firenze, Italy, 2014
Arte Povera has been the most prominent influence on my work to date, in particular thework of Jannis Kounellis. Arte Povera artists used common-place materials and objects to create a new material investigation in direct response to the wide spread industrialisation of Italy in the 1960s, and I’m interested in how this industrialisation became part of art-making and material choice. Germano Celant, who coined the term in 1967, saw Arte Povera as a rejection of consumer society and a reflection of human activity and the everyday: 'The commonplace has entered the sphere of art. The insignificant has begun to exist – indeed, it has imposed itself. Physical presence and behaviour have become art' (Im Spazio catalogue, Bertesca Gallery in Genoa, 1967, curated by Germano Celant). One of these commonplace materials is clothing, which featured time and time again in work by Arte Povera artists, and often sourcing or altering clothing items to be dark, or even black, Kounellis uses clothing as if they were shadows.
I had visited his solo exhibition at Sprovieri Gallery in London in 2015, where Kounellis lined the walls with cut up black (or dyed black) coats, each hanging from a knife that had newspaper wrapped around the handle and was seemingly held in place by two large metal steels that ran the length of the wall. In the centre was another coat hanging from a vertical steel, replicating the metal columns that existed as part of the architecture of the space. There was an obvious relationship between the cut up fabric and the knives from which they were precariously balancing from, and I also felt there was a relationship between the brutality of these actions and an abattoir or butchers shop, where meat is hung. I was reminded of paintings such as Slaughtered Ox by Rembrandt, and subsequent paintings by Chaim Soutine, Jenny Saville and Francis Bacon. However, unlike paintings of the carcasses of animals, Kounellis’ work feels empty and limp, highlighting the lack of flesh and bone. Again, the clothing is suggestive of absence, whilst evoking the presence that once inhabited the items. Interestingly, Kounellis himself is also inspired by paintings; specifically those of Caravaggio, whose paintings are ‘sparing compositions involving few figures’ (Sprovieri publication by Rudi Fuchs, 2014, translated by Beth O’Brien). Kounellis’ coats have a direct relationship to the scale of the human figure, and these ‘figures’ often feel austere yet absurd, which is fitting of the serious and monochromatic aesthetic of Arte Povera, which also had a playful and mischievous undertone.
'Untitled' by Jannis Kounellis, installation shot at Sprovieri Gallery in London
Michelangelo Pistoletto also featured clothing in his work; the most notable was ‘Venus of the Rags’ in 1957. The cold, classical form of Venus against the colourful rags is Pistoletto’s way of exploring the tension between cultural and the everyday, hard and soft, formed and unformed, coloured and monochrome, fixed and moving, valuable and throw-away, and historical and contemporary. ‘Michelangelo Pistoletto's use of fabric remnants and rags in his work goes back to 1968, when cultural values were being questioned throughout the world. At that time repressive social structures, that also dictated every artist's image, were negated and the corpses of appearances came to light - the ghosts of an imperial doctrine that aimed to subsume the world under one single concept both in the East and the West. A unanimous aesthetic brought everything down to the same level in the name of reduction and repetition’ (Germano Celant on Michelangelo Pistoletto, in Kunst wird Material. Berlin: Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz in 1982)
Venus of the Rags by Michelangelo Pistoletto, 1967
Manish Nai also explores themes of absence and presence through the use of fabric. Born in India in 1980 to a family of jute traders, his understanding of the material is intimate and personal, and part of his cultural and familial experiences. One of the most industrial nations in the world, India is well known for its production of cloth and clothing, and jute was once a material used in clothing for the poor; but now more commonly used in the construction industry. Like myself, Nai is concerned with both personal and universal experiences, and his use of cheap, everyday, quintessentially Indian materials is internationally recognizable within a globalised world. Through the repetitive compression and re-forming of the materials, Nai explores the notion of hierarchical and cultural pressures that is both culturally distinct in India, but transcends universally across the globe.
Untitled, Manish Nai, wood and compressed fabric, each length 152cm x 7cm x 7cm
I’m interested in the recurring forms that exist within Nai’s work; working to quite a rigid framework, applying the material to lengths of wood and re-arranging them in different formations – often responding to the space in which they’re exhibited. The repetitive, systematic applications of Nai’s work are reminiscent of my own practice, whereby I create my own processes with a set of rules and parameters in which to work. I think there’s something powerful in the rearrangement of the similar types of objects again and again. Much like Kaikkonen re-positions the shirts, Nai’s audience become familiar, not just with the materials he uses, but the forms he creates too.
‘To understand materials is to be able to tell their histories’
(Towards an Ecology of Materials by Tim Ingold, 2012)
It’s not just clothing as a second-hand item that I’m interested in, although the unknown personal histories of the items I think add a richness to the viewing experience. The manufacturing process of clothing is equally as interesting; from fabric production to making garments. The fashion industry is one that is still largely reliant on workers making garments by hand using a sewing machine, and this hasn’t changed hugely over the years of automation. In my practice I’m concerned with making as a human action, and the manufacturing of clothing has a really strong relationship to the hand of the maker. Thus garments go straight from the hand of the maker, to the body of the wearer, and then in my practice, back to the hand of the maker, where I eventually deconstruct the items to be reconstructed into an entirely new object.
The role of the maker in the clothing industry has also come under scrutiny in recent years. As fast fashion has put pressure on the industry to sell at cheaper prices, production has been out-sourced to countries where labour is cheap and worker’s rights are poor to non-existent. The thing that has been valued lowest is the human time, and there have been cases of grave neglect within the industry: unpaid workers in Turkey sewed messages asking for help into Zara garments, and the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh killed 1,132 people and over 2,500 were injured, due to poor maintenance of the building. This was largely put down to production costs being squeezed so tight by big fast fashion brands in the West that were out-sourcing to them, which included Walmart and Primark.
images of the Rana Plaza disaster in April 2013. Photo by Munir Uz Zaman shown on The Guardian website
Clothing isn’t just made for humans to use as a practical item; it’s made for the human body, and therefore has a very intimate relationship to ourselves. There’s this direct correlation between the dimensions of the human body and the dimensions of these items, however when the garments are empty they can be moulded and shaped into much smaller or much larger objects by actions like crumpling, spreading, re-arranging and folding.
Many artists working with clothes and fabrics are drawn to multiples, which is similar to my own practice. Using clothing as a substitute for the body, we are then reminded that human beings are not solitary entities, but belong in a community, a group, a collective, a family, a network, a society. Even when highlighting absence, the multiplication of these objects creates a sensation of magnitude, infinite possibility, rebirth and recycling.
Book: East West Street, Philippe Sandes, 2016
Book: Arte Povera by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, 2014
Book: Echoes in the Darkness, Jannis Kounellis
I’m interested in a world where art is part of the solution to climate change, and goes further than just raising awareness, but explores what sustainability means in material terms. What is the future of art against the back-drop of climate change and an increasingly eco-conscious society? How can artists consider the environment when they’re making material choices? How can artists take away from the rapidly growing world of ‘things’ whilst simultaneously adding to it?
In the podcast ‘Making Sense of Climate Change Through Art’ – a panel discussion between artists RYAN! Feddersen, Judt Twedt, Barbara Matilsky and Chris Jordan – Matilsky says, ‘Since cave painting, artists have been fundamental in creating a balance between art and the environment, and between people and nature.’ In her 1992 exhibition, ‘Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists’ Interpretations and Solutions’, she introduced the idea of ecological art in her practice, where artists went out into the community and worked with community members, scientists and environmentalists.
When discussing how art prompts people to act, RYAN! Feddersen said the role of art is to communicate, educate and encourage, whilst giving space to think about things; ‘I try and make spaces where people can think in-depth about these subjects, and often where their action is metaphorically playing out the content that I want them to be gathering from it.’ When thinking about my own practice, I want to create a space of contemplation, where the viewer considers the material language of this new material: the previous life of the garment, its manufacturing and relationship to the body, the disassembly of the item and destruction of the material, the action of and labour of the deconstruction and then what it means to make something new, and where the material could have ended up if it wasn’t repurposed into an art object. There’s a playfulness to this kind of process – one that starts with experimentation and pushing a material. When asked about the hope for the future of humanity, Judy Twedt said we need to experiment with solutions and see new possibilities; ‘It can help to open up this space where we can see new possibilities, and we can start to imagine things […] because when we shut down, when we feel overwhelmed, it’s when we feel there’s a for-gone conclusion and there’s nothing for us to do. One of the reasons I wanted to bring music into the way of telling data, expressing data, is to just open up new channels and to start thinking about it a little differently. To be playful.’
Cecilia Vicuña explores discarded and displaced materials, peoples, and landscapes against the backdrop of climate change, often using memory and responsibility as tools for the viewer. Vicuña is best known for her ‘Precarios’ sculptures, that combine natural matter with found, man-made items – often plastic waste. These discarded items become synonymous with our experiences of the natural world, due to our irresponsible disposal and unrelenting production that is consuming so much of our environments, and I’m interested in how the artist can utilise these found materials and present them as art objects. The opposing materials sitting side-by-side is emotive; evoking the natural and the pollutant, the indigenous and the alien. Vicuña marries these ‘Precarios’ sculptures with traditional practices that reflect her heritage as a Chilean woman, like quipu, and there is a sense of loss that I find inherent in her work. By resurrecting the memories or her own ancestry, as well as that of the natural world, I find her work actually speaks to the future and makes us want to ask questions – what next?
'About to Happen' by Cecilia Vicuña at the University of Washington, Seattle, 2019 (photo: Mark Woods)
Similarly, Anna Reading gathers abundant materials that have a relationship with the coast to create sculptures that reference spaces that belong to these localities. Using modified techniques used for constructing grottos, Reading’s forms are suggestive of shelters, defence and regeneration and growth within organic worlds. The coming together of these natural elements and artificial, potentially harmful materials, resonate with a lot of environmental photography we see today; as the man-made slowly absorbs so much of the world around us. This is well demonstrated in the work of Chris Jordan, who documented albatrosses on the Midway Islands, as a powerful way of documenting man kind’s impact.
'CF000313: Unaltered stomach contents of a Laysan 'In Order to Protect' by Ana Reading, 2019. Wood, foam
albatross fledgling' by Chris Jordan, 2009 gravel, plaster, wire, Jesmonite, oyster shells
The ready-made has been featured in contemporary practices since Duchamp, and I want to explore the difference between the ready-made and junk materials that can be reclaimed, repurposed and recycled. The key distinction I have made is that a ready-made isn’t necessarily a redundant object – it hasn’t come to the end of its life and been deemed worthless – whereas to use a material that would otherwise be thrown out has a different layer of meaning. There’s the sense of a rebirthing and renewing of life, and a new cycle that possibly wouldn’t exist without using the items in an art making process.
Ben Hartley is an eco-conscious artist based in Bristol, concerned with the environmental impact of the art world and its obsession with material perfection. His practice focuses on a sustainable approach to making; collecting rubbish from his immediate urban environments, and uses low impact means of construction, such as tying and folding, to build sculptural forms. His work focuses on non-permanence to counter-balance the indigestible and non-biodegradable waste he repurposes. There's a clear link between his low tech, low cost approach to art making and the values on which our capitalist model of society relies. In his recent project 'Ruderal', Hartley identifies and document ruderal plants in urban spaces. Ruderals are hardy weeds that grow amongst disturbed environments and waste land, amongst rubble. He's interested in how these plants signify regeneration and regrowth, of which artists play a part.
'Vase No.2' by Ben Hartley, waste plastics, cables, dried ragwort, 2020
In the 1995 text by Ilya Kabakov, ‘On Garbage: In Conversation with Boris Groys’, Groys asked Kabakov if he feels the use of garbage represents a threat to the artistic act. Kabakov talks about how the use of garbage is an important moment in time, and relevant to what is happening in art now. ‘It is connected with a very brief stage, like a stop along the path of a train, called ‘Garbage’, and the next stop, of course, will be something else. The emergence of garbage in the artistic arena is connected primarily with the inflation of the stop before it, called ‘Treasure’. […] The phenomenon consists of the fact that garbage in art today is presented as treasure.’ Kabakov suggests that garbage in art reaching the end of its relevant use, and that garbage only becomes art after-the-fact – when documented as something that has happened – and that his own use of garbage in his practice is hypocritical. By working with rubbish, it no longer becomes rubbish, and the artist thrives for the items to take on a new role – one that is valued and held to a higher esteem.
El Anatsui, Ghanaian artist based in Nigeria, uses commonplace, everyday materials, throwaway items to create large-scale installations and wall pieces. He also explores themes of trade, export, global consumerism and African histories using items like bottle caps aluminium cans, printing plates; reflects on poverty and necessity and highlighting that some people are forced to use recycled, junk materials out of necessity in order to live. His work has prompted me to question how my material choices reflect my own cultures and societal influences. I think that excess is something that feels very prevalent in Western culture, since clothing is a surplus, throw-away material but also part of our everyday life - there's an interesting tension between necessity and luxury. Anatsui's work has clear relationship to informal settlements and townships that consumes so much of African urban spaces; where the value becomes the usefulness attached the object, rather than the exchange of money. The shiny qualities of the metals Anatsui works mimic the qualities of precious materials, and speaks of turning something discarded into something valuable. The compositions are complex in their construction and the physicality of the work is monumental; Anatsui always shows attention to detail and great artistry. He also explores themes of trade, export, global consumerism and African histories.
Much like Anatsui’s laborious craft processes, in my own practice I place a lot of value on the labour of making, instead of using expensive material. The question of necessity is something that was present in my work when I first began using discarded clothing as an art material; utilising something free and readily available.
'Black Block' by El Anatsui, aluminium (liquor bottle caps) and copper wire, 208 x 136 inches
With eco-consciousness and the back-lash of fast fashion has come a new wave of repairing and mending, and there’s a new consciousness that looks to prolong, rather than discard. In Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, ‘Ending is better than mending.’ is one of the core principles of The World State, because it keeps consumption high, which feeds into production, and the capitalist society on which Fordism relies. ‘The more stitches, the less riches’ and ‘I love new clothes’ is taught as a kind of ethical and moral position in Fordist society, which is heavily reliant on manufacturing and machinery. (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932)
One artist who has explores this idea of mending in her practice is Celia Pym, who takes damaged clothing and darns the items so as to draw attention to these repairs, instead of hiding it. Working with garments belonging to individuals, as well as museum archives, she is concerned with the slow and precise process of darning as small acts of care. I’m interested in these laborious processes, but I’m also taken by how the areas of repair speak directly to the absent body. Like many artists who have worked with clothes, there’s always a suggestion of the individuals who once inhabited them, and Celia Pym’s work highlights the way the body moved and lived in these items. I saw her work in the 2018 Women’s Hour Craft Prize at Bristol Museum, and was taken by her use of modern-day, branded items, synonymous with consumerism and capitalism, and then incorporates these old-fashioned, traditional tasks.
'Tracksuit' by Celia Pym tracksuit, wool and acrylic yarn, 52 x 180cm, 2016
Pym’s titles are often direct and descriptive, often with a nod to their previous owner like ‘Elizabeth’s cardigan’ or ‘Hope’s sweater’. Sometimes the items remain anonymous, and Pym simply titles the work as the item it is, like ‘Tracksuit’, although I don’t think that these titles are as effective as the ones that feel personal, which feel much more appropriate to the intimate, hand-made nature of the darning.
Recycling suggests a repurposing of materials. I often list the materials that I work with as 'reclaimed clothing', which insinuates that I’ve taken the clothing and given a secondary nature to it; acknowledging its previous life and embarking on a new one. There’s a sense of action; a finding and discovering, and applying a new purpose. This is different to if I listed the material as ‘second-hand clothing’ which has less of a sense of a new position.
Article: Cecilia Vicuña by Monica Uszerowicz, Artforum, March 2020
Book: Materiality, Documents on Contemporary Art
Book: The Everyday, Documents on Contemporary Art
Book: Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932
making a new material
This systematic collecting, documenting and arranging of clothing has really contributed to my process-driven approach. I would prepare the garments into workable materials through various repetitive actions and procedures, often irreversibly deconstructing them; transforming them from individual items to long strips of thick yarn by cutting and sewing the fabric back together. These labour intensive processes have became an important part of the making process in its own right, and all contributes to my hand-made, low tech approach to the manipulation of materials.
Richard Serra also considers art as action in his text 'Verbalist', which is a list of verbs - doing words - that relate to the actions required to make art. Olivia Bax shared the text during one of our tutorials, and in reference to her own making process. I'm particularly interested in using a verb - an action word - as the starting point of making, where the activity and movement of the artist informs the shape and form of the work.
'Verbalist' by Richard Serra, 1967-68
Process-based approaches prompts us to explore making in relationship to our bodies. When asserting my interesting in hand-made processes, I first have to examine what hand-made truly means. The best example of this I have found is David Pye's 1968 text 'Is Anything Done By Hand?' which examines the problematic nature of setting parameters of 'hand-made'.
'Let us consider some possible definitions of handicraft, or hand-work, or work done by hands. 'Done by hand' as distinct from work done by what? By tools? Some things actually can be made without tools it is true, but the definition is going to be rather exclusive for it will take in baskets and coiled pottery, and that is about all! Let us try something wider and say 'done by hand-tools as distinct from work done by machines'. Now we shall have to define 'machine' so as to exclude a hand-loom, a brace and bit, a wheel-brace, a potter's wheel and the other machines and tools which belong to what is generally accepted as hand-work. So that will not do either, unless we propose to flout the ordinary usage of mechanics: which on the subject of machinery seems a trifle risky.
Suppose that we try 'As distinct from power-driven machine tools'. Now we are faced with having to agree that the distinction between handicraft and not-handicraft has nothing to do with the result of handicraft - the thing made: for a power-driven, foot-driven, boy- or donkey-driven lathe. And then again, if we hold to this definition, do we say 'made entirely without the use of power-driven machine tools' or do we say 'made partly without...'? If we say 'entirely', then all the carpentry, joinery and cabinet-making of the last hundred years is excluded, pretty nearly: indeed for longer than that. Louis Mumford remarks (in a different context) that 'If power machinery be a criterion, the modern industrial revolution began in the twelfth century and was in full swing by the fifteenth.' The sawmill is a very ancient thing and so, of course, is the water-driven hammer.
But if we take the other course and say 'Partly without power-driven machine-tools' we include in handicraft most of the worst products of cheap quantity-production. Perhaps we can save the situation yet, by putting in a disclaimer and saying 'made singly, partly without power-driven machine-tools'. But now how do we know he hasn't made two of them and kept quiet about it? There is nothing about the product, the thing made, to tell us. And if we say 'in small numbers' why, exactly, do we include six and exclude seven or such-like? It sounds more like an expedient than a definition.
Suppose that we make a last attempt, shape a different course altogether, and say 'made by hand-guided tools, whether power-driven machine-tools or not'. By so doing we have written off every kind of drill, lathe, plane, and shooting board, all of which are shape-determining systems. So we shall now have to qualify the definition to include these tools which are only in part hand-guided; and then we shall have to try to exclude whatever machines we do not happen to fancy, from the same group.
Or shall we? Is it not time to give up and admit that we are trying to define in the language of technology a term which is not technical?
'Handicraft' and 'Hand-made' are historical or social terms, not technical ones. Their ordinary usage nowadays seems to refer to workmanship or any kind which could have been found before the Industrial Revolution.'
David Pye asks when is something not made by hand? Even the most basic ways of working with materials, there's likely some kind of hand tool, power tool, or machinery involved at some point during the process, but the hand still plays a pivotal role in any of these actions. The body will always remain the point of departure, and so how do we explore the hand-made, the artisanal and craft without restricting our own technical processes. By placing an emphasis on making by hand, am I limiting myself? What happens when I move away this framework? When discussing the idea of a ‘comfort zone’ in relation to making with Sara Byers, I found the more self-sufficient I was able to be when working with materials, the more comfortable I felt, in particular when creating my own processes instead of adhering to more traditional or long-standing techniques. Moving forward, I think it’s going to be important to break out of this comfort zone and learn more formal ways of making art, in order to continue building on the skills and processes within my practice.
What processes can't be performed by a machine? Cutting fabric very much relies on the human's ability to create tension in the fabric, respond to the different weaves and weights of the material, and make sure the scissors are placed at the exact point that effectively cuts through the fabric. A conversation with Alistair revealed that whilst it seems obvious that there are commonplace tools that will make the processes more automated, it's hard to pinpoint what these will be. Shredders, blenders and blades aren't able to 'read' the material in the same way a person can. This is prevalent in the garment manufacturing industry, that still relies heavily on labour being performed by hand, with a sewing machine, and there hasn't been the same kind of automation as other manufacturing industries.
With the hand-made comes imperfection, irregularity and human error. When cutting the material, the action remains largely the same, moving the scissors from side to side around the longs strips of fabric and letting the small sections fall to the table creating a pile of almost identical pieces of material. From a distant these small pieces of material look the same, but on closer inspection they are all completely different shapes and sizes - each unique in their own way.
The aim is to break the fabric down into as small fragments as possible. As if course sand, broken down from rocks, and then mixed with cement to make concrete. The material also reminds me of dust. In 'Dust and Exhaustion: The Labour of Media Materialism', Jussi Parikka explains that dust exists as a trace of human bodies and human activity, spanning artificial and natural materials such as fibres, dead skin, plant pollen, matter and soil. ‘Dust marks the temporality of matter, a processual materiality of piling up, sedimenting and – through its own million-year process – transformations of solids to ephemeral and back.’ Dust is also a product of labour and is a by-product of action; all activity and movement expels dust in some way. Dust then enters our bodies via the intake of breath and enters our lungs, and dust residing in our bodies can be harmful.
When Man Ray photographed dust on a sheet of glass in Duchamp’s studio, the relationship between photography and matter became intrinsic. Both dust and photography are an indication of trace and time, ‘so a photograph of dust is a trace of a trace’ (Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp: Dust Breeding 1920, by David Campany, curator of A Handful of Dust at Whitechapel Gallery in 2017).
'Dust Breeding' by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, 1920
I'm interested in how something that exists as a by-products (of an action or even just time and life) can then be used as a material; making the insignificant significant. Jannis Kounellis is an example of this. Soot produced by burning isn't a material - it's almost like a non-material - but Kounellis uses them as an effective art medium. Inspired by the industrial revolution, Kounellis works with coal to evoke this period, and it seems to me that soot, smoke and carbon given off from burning matter is an almost invisible derivate, and reminds me of Parikka's concerns about dust as something that enters our bodies, and is a by-product of labour. Kounellis is aware of this transformation of material; his text 'Stone Smoke' in 1993 describes how he used his finger to draw faces in smoke on a windowpane, instantly converting this found material, that was just a consequence of something else, into a means to make art. In his 2013 exhibition at Parasol Unit, London, Kounellis scorched the gallery walls in an attempt to bring together the animate and the inanimate, as well as suggesting performance, and action.
'Untitled' by Jannis Kounellis, Parasol Unit 2012, shelves, glass and scorched wall
In order to deepen my understanding of material concerns as explored by Arte Povera, I wanted to understand the idea of the truth of material via one of the most influential movements that prefaced them, the Gutai Art Group. The Gutai Art Manifesto, written by Jiro Yoshihara in 1956, expressed a concern for the connection between spirit, the human body and material, and that the artist shouldn’t disrupt the material from its authenticity and essence. ‘Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out.’ (Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai Art Manifesto, 1956, translated by Reiko Tomii). Their emphasis on the truth in, and unembellished approach to, material has also meant they’re drawn towards non-traditional beauty. They talk about ruins, and how the passage of time or natural disasters effects objects and architecture increases the beauty of an object in that there is honesty and truth in this new presentation that no longer is hidden by decorative incentive; ‘the innate beauty of matter is re-emerging from behind the mask of artificial embellishment. Ruins unexpectedly welcome us with warmth and friendliness.’ (Jiro Yoshihara, Gutai Art Manifesto, 1956, translated by Reiko Tomii).
I’m interested in the idea of the essence of a material, but also the passing as time as a process that exposes the beauty of objects and spaces. I think that in taking apart the clothes and breaking them down, I’m trying to find some kind of truth that gets covered up by things like design and style, and I’m trying to find more of a genuine relationship between the material and the body than just the proportions.
An important part of the new material that I'm developing is the process of making, and art as action. In 'The Dematerialization of Art’, written in 1968 for Art International, Lucy Lippard attributed the dematerialisation of art to 1960s approaches of moving from anti-intellectual and emotional art-making to conceptual art, which ‘emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively’ (Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, The Dematerialization of Art, 1968). She separates out two forms of art-making: art as idea and art as action: 'In the first case, matter is denied, as sensation has been converted into concept; in the second case, matter has been transformed into energy and time-motion' (Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, The Dematerialization of Art, 1968). If we have gone through a process of de-materialisation, then can my focus on art as action be described as re-materialisation? Where the focus is on the transformation of material, and the prolonging and manipulation of material properties.
In my practice I am interested in the body as an energy source - a renewable form of giving energy in order to repeat actions again and again, much like a machine, to a degree, that goes excessively above and beyond everyday actions. A lot of the value I place on my own work comes from these labour-intensive practices and so how can this be extended past just the artist, and into human labour more generally?
I was really taken by Liza Lou's installation at the Zeitzz MOCCA in Cape Town in 2018. On first look, the room appeared to be filled with hundreds of individual sheets or paper or cloth. On closer inspection, each of these squares were made from thousands of small beads, each an off-white colour. Upon reading the text, the work was constructed by workers who all hand-thread pure white beads into sheets, and the subtle colour changes happened naturally as the beads reacted to the natural oils that came from the hands that made them. The workers therefore had given some of the own body to the work, to reflect the labour that went into the work, the way the bodies directly interacted with the materials and how the materials are irreversibly effected by these processes. This idea of the humanity being revealed by a process is particularly poignant to me.
'The Waves' by Liza Lou, 2017, 1,000 cloths made from glass beads and thread.
Moving beyond the representational or symbolic, Lou’s socially engaged studio practice is integral to her work. In 2005 Lou founded a studio in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa to work with women deeply versed in the tradition of beadwork to assist her in the making her larger scale work, with the aim to create real social change. Through the provision of empowerment programmes and educational scholarships, Lou’s studio assistants and their families have built homes, many have started businesses, and some are now attending vocational programmes and pursuing university degrees. Recent works show an artist exploring her chosen art material within the framework of community practice and has led to meditations upon beauty and labour, and to formally rigorous explorations of colour and form, revealing the humanity hidden beneath labour intensive processes. Labour is an important part of Lou's work - in particular female labour - and has prompted me to ask how I might 'share' these labour intensive processes with other makers, how this would alter the work, and how my own relationship with the work will shift when I haven't personally had the same intimate relationship with it that I have previously. The intimate relationship of handling and deconstructing the materials reflects the intimate relationship clothing has had to the body, and going forward it will be interesting to explore this relationship between wearer and maker more.
'The best way to think of labour is as art … By welcoming it, and thinking of it as art, the slavery of labour may be turned into joy’ (W.R.Lethaby, What I Believe, 1922)
Book: Materiality, Documents on Contemporary Art, 2015, Petra Lange-Berndt
Book: The Nature and Art of Workmanship, 2007, David Pye
Text: Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism by Jussi Parikka, 2013
Press release: parasol-unit.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Press-release_Jannis-Kounellis.pdf
Book: Echoes into the Darkness (Writings and Interviews 1966-2002), Jannis Kounellis, edited by Mario Codognato and Mirta d'Argenzio, 2002
Book: Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 by Lucy Lippard, 1973