‘Losing the Compass’: the social and political dimension of textiles

By Aina Pomar - Tuesday, October 13, 2015
‘Losing the Compass’: the social and political dimension of textiles

From a contemporary point of view, textiles are a powerful source of political and social symbolism. Textile crafting such as embroiderers, quilts or tapestries are a universal form of creative expression, present in the tradition of many communities around the world. Their nature as decorative and domestic elements and also its link with manufacturing processes makes them objects of artistic and socio-political representation.

‘Losing the Compass’: the social and political dimension of textiles

From a contemporary point of view, textiles are a powerful source of political and social symbolism. Textile crafting such as embroiderers, quilts or tapestries are a universal form of creative expression, present in the tradition of many communities around the world. Their nature as decorative and domestic elements and also its link with manufacturing processes makes them objects of artistic and socio-political representation.

White Cube Mason’s Yard presents an exhibition dedicated to textiles and their social and political implications, as well as their influence on contemporary art.

Curated by Scott Cameron Weaver and Mathieu Paris, ‘Losing the compass’ takes the name from the embroidery piece ‘Perdere la bussola’ by Alighiero e Boetti, the main artist of the show. The curators used this reference to describe the universality of the show, which addresses subjectively to time and geography rather than keeping a historiographical approach. 

With a multi-generational and international scope of artists, the exhibition also features works by Mona Hatoum, Sergej Jensen, Mike Kelley, Sterling Ruby, Rudolf Stingel, Dahn Vo, Franz West, 19th century designer, craftsman and socialist William Morris and a quilts made by Amish and Gee’s Bend communities.

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

Taking the series of quilts made in the USA during the late 19th and early 20th century as the starting point, the curators based the selection of artists on the comprehension of how art works relate to a certain social contexts, to modes of production and how artist can perceive these ideas today.

“There are lots of lines we’ve drawn across the space from upstairs to downstairs and across the room. The modes of production become the red thread of the show, and they mean different things for different artists”, says Scott Cameron Weaver. As Mathieu Paris says, the viewer can create his own connection lines. Some links are obvious, like Stingel’s recreation of sections of elaborate damask wallpaper (2007-2014) with William Morris’ ‘Pimpernel’ (1876), which covers the walls of the lower ground lobby at White Cube. Other relations are perhaps less obvious and refer intrinsically to the collaborations established by some artists with various communities during the production of the works.

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

Alighiero e Boetti collaborated with groups of Afghan women embroiderers to create his famous pieces containing phrases like the above-mentioned “Perdere la bussola” or “Il Silenzio è D’oro” and “A braccia conserte”.

Mona Hatoum’s ‘4 Rugs (made in Egypt)’ (1998/2015) was made by a local carpet school in Cairo, showing skeletons laying down on brown fabric. The piece graphically reminds to soil graves and refers both to the massacre of tourists in Egypt in 1997 as well as to skeletons still visible in the rectangular rooms of Ancient Egyptian labourer’s houses sited nearby to the Luxor temple.

Vietnamese artist based in Mexico Dahn Vo, has created specially for this show an installation that addresses the bloody history of Christian colonialism. Vo commissioned the red woollen rug used in this piece to weavers in Oaxaca, who used traditional manufacturing techniques like the red pigment cochineal, once highly prized by the colonists. The combination of the rug with gold painting on cardboard implies ideas of cultural identity and power relations, recurrent topics in Dahn Vo’s works.

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

Series of unique quilts made by African American women from Gee Bend’s communities in Alabama and Amish women from Pennsylvania are shown on the ground floor of the gallery. This display is what visitors see first, and opens a space to explore the meanings of traditional manufacturing brought into the contemporary art space.  “There’s a lot of outsourcing of artistic production that happens in contemporary art these days, which is not necessarily a good or bad thing. And it’s not something that is new either”, explains Cameron Weaver, “it’s interesting when these outsourcings become complicated due to geo-political conditions and social considerations. That’s also the strength of this medium. It represents a different level of social interaction”. 

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

Other artists in the show may have worked with textiles in a more private creative process emphasising the importance to the abstract and poetic dimension of the pieces, like Sergej Jensen, Sterling Ruby or Mike Kelley. Equally, the tensions inherent in creative processes are palpable in their works. As the curators state, this exhibition points out how the mode and conditions of production are something that concern every artist nowadays, either it is out in the world or in their own studios.

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

'Losing the Compass', White Cube Mason's Yard, 2015. Photo © White Cube (Stuart Burford)

‘Losing the compass’ runs until 9th January 2016 at White Cube Mason’s Yard (London). 

Aina Pomar graduated in Sociology and Photography before completing a Master in New Media Art Curatorship. She has collaborated with Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Majorca and with CCCBLab and Fundació Foto Colectania in Barcelona. She moved to London to work at the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain, where she coordinated visual arts and exhibition projects with the aim of promoting Spanish culture and artists across the United Kingdom. She currently collaborates with various galleries and art projects in London.

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Luc Tuymans, Flemish Village 1995.  Collection MuHKA, Antwerp

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