Friday, 28 February 2014

Boetti Bonanza

As the world’s sportsmen (and women) vied for Olympic medals in Sochi earlier this month, needlework was also going for gold in London.  Christie’s, the  auction house, organized “Eyes Wide Open”, an exhibition, then sale, of  works by 14 Italian artists from the Arte Povera (“Poor Art”) movement  from the 1960/70s. The “poor”, in Arte Povera, alludes to the mundane materials that the artists adopted: plastic, ballpoint pens, blankets, and needle and thread. 

Among the 38 items Christie’s auctioned were three embroidered panels attributed to Alighiero Boetti, but stitched by Afghangan women in the 1970s.  Sorry no pictures available, but you can click through to see them.

  •      Addition   realized £1,706,500 or $2.8 M
  •      Subtraction  realized £1,538,500 or $1.8 
  •     Mappa   realized  £866500 or $1.4M

As amazing as these prices are, they did not set a world record for a Boetti’s embroidery. Another in his series of maps, or Mappa, sold in June 2010, for £1,833,250. Incidentally, the prices do not include the auction house commission and the royalty due the Boetti foundation. How much?  Think in terms of another 20-30%, perhaps, plus value added tax. That is mind boggling.

Beyond aesthetic and technique, what draws me to Boetti’s (1940-1994) embroideries is their ability to elevate the craft of stitching into an art form which is recognized in our life time.  

Boetti’s works offer an insight into the contemporary relationship between artist – the person with the idea-- and the artisan –the fabricator. These are two separate talents that come together in a single piece. Neither can do without the other to the same effect.

In Boetti’s case, concept is not synonymous with “design”.  Ultimately, he had hundreds of embroiderers working on his commissions. Sometimes, he did not offer them precise instructions. One instance of Mappa appears on a pink sea, because the Afghan embroiderers had a large supply of rose colored wool.  Boetti seems to have liked the effect. Over time, he left gaps in his drawings on linen to give the embroiderers the opportunity to incorporate their own ideas. They obliged him with verses in Arabic script. Boetti could not predict the ultimate outcome of his pieces, but his concept, i.e. unpredictability, remained intact. So “perfect” stitching is not the same as “interesting” embroidery, or even art embroidery.  I must remember that!

I am not sure that I comprehend why Boetti’s works command such high prices, four times what the experts estimated.  This is the mystic of the art world. Many are called, few are chosen. But that contemporary works in thread are right up there in value with those painted on canvases has to be good for promoting embroidery among a wider public, who follows trendsetters.  Put another way, perhaps it is more appropriate to say, that the clamor for the Boetti embroideries subverts the notion that needlework is valuable (or worthy) only if it is a couple of centuries old.   Hooray for that.  

I am irked by embroidery’s designation as “textile art”. This smacks of separatism, as if embroidery, as a means of expression, doesn’t belong among art’s mainstream techniques. That it, somehow, can’t cut it. While researching Boetti, I was delighted to discover that the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns a number of Boetti embroideries, has cataloged them as paintings.  Now that’s an achievement worth a couple of million pounds/dollars, don’t you think?

Friday, 21 February 2014

QR Code Embroidery

Sometimes you have to roam far and wide only to find something interesting in your own neighborhood.  That happened to me this week. While surfing the World Wide Web, I discovered an intriguing piece of needlework in the collection of the Textile Museum in Tilburg, The Netherlands, almost in my backyard. 

What I stumbled upon is a set of  white linen napkins, each decorated with a red embroidered square. Have a look.  

At first glance the design looks a crossword puzzle matrix or even Asian calligraphy.  It's a QR code -- or full out a Quick Response code. It’s one of those things you  know what it is when you see it, but you may not know what it’s called.

A QR code is a pattern made of filled and empty blocks. The pattern functions like a bar code. It is intelligible to computers and many smart phones equipped with the appropriate software.   Just take a snap of the code and you can access the information hidden within. I’ve encoded my own message above.  Give it a go. 

My QR message: I love embroidery

The Textile Museum napkins were the diploma project of Willemijn van der Sloot, who graduated in 2011 from Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academy.  It is the Dutch capital’s premier art college, renowned for fostering conceptual art. You have to admit it’s pretty impressive to have a national museum purchase your work the year you graduate from art school!  The project is more elaborate than it appears.

Van der Sloot’s QR code is precisely embroidered in what looks like long/short stitching. It represents a URL code. That’s a pointer to a video on YouTube which the artist made of an immaculately set table, decked with porcelain, crystal, flowers, silverware-- the whole nine yards.  I wondered about that ceremonial conceptualization of “home”.  Most contemporary Dutch families favour place mats and informal place setting, but I ‘m not going to quibble. The notion that the embroidered domestic textile points to a fuller exposition of an “idea” via a film held on the public internet is the essence of the project.

Explaining the idea behind her work van der Sloot, now a jewelry designer, believes that new media like Facebook and Twitter have created “a world parallel to the real world” in which privacy is being lost. She posts on her website:

 This new media sub-world can make that we lose our awareness of the real world. More and more we stay in this sub-world, created by our selves (sic) . Through my work, I want to achieve an inverse movement, using current new media technology, to bring the private back home.

I understand her sentiment.  Yes, the message in her QR code patterns, both in the napkins and again in a set of traditional Dutch kitchen towels, is unintelligible to me and is, therefore, private to her.
In the process she has created a very clever link between the Traditional, represented by thread, napkins and kitchen towels, and the Modern embodied by the QR code and the internet.   And there is that connection between home and stitching again that I wrote about in an earlier blog.!

What’s more, I certainly see the possibilities of using this QR concept as a way of creating embroidery projects that appeal to our contemporary youth’s preference for abstract or the techno-driven design.  

Also the tie between textile and technology surely offers some younger stitchers a new creative prospect, such as linking their work to websites or social media. This has the potential for making needlework more edgy and multi-faceted for those who are so inclined.

Embroiderers who like technical challenges might enjoy the precision required to create accurate machine- readable stitchery. One could use variegated thread, or multiple colors, within the solid sections of the QR pattern to create more visual interest for humans.  And one could experiment with different stitches to see what computer software could cope with.  Needlepoint, for example, might give good results.  Yes, the QR code idea definitely offers possibilities to experiment with.

So will QR patterns with their encoded messages catch on as standalone projects?  Are we looking at new genre in the making, like ”naughty needlework”?   Is this a modern twist on the messages in samplers?  Maybe, maybe not. There is a smidgen of gimmickry in all this, despite the possibilities. 

But then what do I know?  I am not a museum curator. Nor am I an art critic. I just stitch and roam the Web observing, through the eye of my embroidery needle, how the world relates to needlework and how that relationship is evolving by the day. So far, thread has not been left behind.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Sporting Threads: The Winter Olympics 2014

To my mind, the 2014 Winter Olympics have demonstrated that traditional national dress is very much alive. It has just been re-interpreted to meet the 21st century’s requirements for both sport and fashion.  

Sporting squads tend to kit themselves out in the colours of their flag or in national colour like the Dutch and Australians.  And there are the inevitable cultural references that creep in, like the Slovak, Serbian and Georgian crosses or the firebird motif in the Team Russia’s track suits. But, this year, at least two teams draped themselves in symbols, which gave a wink and a nod to their national needlework, too.  

For the Olympic opening ceremony, Team USA donned knitted red-white-and-blue sweaters, created by Ralph Loren, whose design featured a patchwork of stars and stripes, combined with the letters USA and his own Polo logo.  Have a look.

Lest the design be mistaken for a collage, the Ralph Loren website explicitly explains the visual metaphor, the connection of the team jacket to patchwork, a technique for making quilts from bits and pieces of material.  Sports men/women stitch a life together from scraps of time, integrating their private lives with training. The PR copy writer goes on to explain that, during economic hard time, like the Great Depression and right back to founding Puritan fathers, Americans have made quilts to keep them warm during cold winters. The site concludes:

No other design so beautifully demonstrates the resolve and resilience of the American people.

I chuckle in glee.   Yes, another example I can add to my post “Say it in Thread”.  Clearly the message of homey, frugal needlework hit the mark with the well-heeled. The limited edition sweater, with its allusion to thriftiness, had sold out despite a decidedly upscale $365 price tag.

Then there were those flower- patterned knickerbockers that the Norwegian men’s curling team pulled on for a training session. 

The flowered knickerbockers

 Both the pattern and the model caused a stir in the press.  This was, commentators observed,  crashing through a new fashion barrier even for a team already known for loud outfits, decorated in red-white-and-blue chevrons, jacquards, or faux Norwegian flags.  

Most of  Loudmouth’s designs– I kid you not that is the name of the company behind the Norwegian team’s clothing -- do teeter on the edge between gusto and gauche. 

By comparison, the curlers’ flowers and knickerbockers are quite tame and tasteful and very in keeping with Norway’s image.   Or so it seems to me who looks at the world through the eye of a needle. I find that the curlers’ outfits bear a striking resemblance to Norwegian bunad embroidery. And those knickerbockers are notoriously Norwegian too. 

A few years ago, I was in Trondheim on May 17, Norway’s national holiday, Constitution Day.  It seemed as though the whole population turned out to parade -- in traditional Norwegian dress. The men and boys wore jackets and knickerbockers with white knee-high stockings. The women and girls dressed in long woolen blue/black shirts decorated along the hem and sides in stylized flowers and leaves embroidered in wool.  
 I was startled to see even teenagers wearing this “old fashioned” Norwegian costume.  Our guide assured us that it was fashionable for very modern brides and grooms  to choose the traditional Norwegian outfit, which can be worn again and again,  over the a white wedding dress and black suit. 

Norweigian Dress

Yes, the flowered knickerbockers are – don’t you agree- every bit as much the visual metaphor of cultural identity as the patchwork sweater.

Why haven’t I mentioned,  the skating costumes, all bangled and spangeled? Well their embroidery was more in keeping with the music and routine rather than nationality of the skater. But I would agree there was much needle art to admire there too.

So for the next 10 days, as hubby watches the Olympic sports, I will try to spot more needlework symbols in these events dominating our television screen!  He cheers and so do I, but for very a different reason.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Voices from Inside

Publicity swirling around Amanda Knox and her “cri du coeur,” remind me of earlier poignant “cries from the heart” by two other women, both incarcerated. 

Without access to pen and paper, the pair used needle and thread to record their thoughts. Their individual situations differed from Amanda’s, and from one another. Each woman had faith that her work would reach readers beyond the walls imprisoning her. Each produced astounding samplers.

I first heard of Lorina Bulwer’s embroidery on the BBC’s Antiques Road Show. Have a look. 
In fact, Lorina, who was born in, Norfolk, was an inmate in the lunatic ward of the Workhouse in Yarmouth, UK between 1901-5.  At the time, she was in her sixties. 

The curator of the Norfolk Museum and Archaeology Service (NMAS), which owns one of Lorina’s two known embroideries, describes the samplers as “letters.” The three-metres  text is stitched crudely in capital letters, probably on scrounged bits of coloured cloth which she pieced together and decorated with stump work. The NMAS  letter is improbably addressed to a maharajah.

Duleep Singh from Wikipedia

Lorina’s  text  is rambling, chaotic, sarcastic, and at times really sexually frank for Victorian times. Reference to a maharajah, an illegitimate child of Queen Victoria, and Jarrold’s stationery store read  like a rant by a deranged person, who fanaticized. Yet, research by the auction house Christie's which sold one of her embroideries in 2002, notes:

The 'Maharajah of Kelvedon' presumably refers to Duleep Singh who lived at Elvedon near Thetford.

I  google Jarrod’s. The family is still in business, selling stationery too, after 240 years! So, how much of what Lorina says is true? Was she deranged before her brother committed her to the asylum? Or did the horrid place tip her into insanity? We are not likely to find out. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that her embroideries figure as documents/exhibits on mental health in two British collections. 

Until March 2014, the NMAS has  two of Lorina’s letters on display  at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. They are part of an exhibition focusing on how textile  gives  “voice” and  serves as a means of coping with stress.  Lorina’s second piece is on loan from the Thackeray Medical Museum in Leeds. The Bulwer embroideries are certainly unusual case history notes!

Titia Gorter and her samplers are diametric opposites of Lorina and hers. But, they render Titia’s “voice” just as faithfully.

Titia lived in The Hague, the Netherlands in the 1940s. During the Nazi occupation of her homeland, she joined the Resistance movement that smuggled information and people out of Holland to the UK. Titia was far from deranged. She was a translator in her 60s’ and probably well aware of the risks she took and her possible fate. 

Sampler by Titia Gorter in the collection of the Amsterdam Verzetsmuseum
In 1942, the Gestapo arrested Titia and sent her to “Hotel Orange,” the infamous prison at Scheveningen. She remained there for a year before being deported to Ravensbrück, where she was executed. 

In that year, spent in prison’s solitary confinement, Titia stitched her daily routine, thoughts and hopes into a series of three remarkable embroideries, now in the collection of the Amsterdam Verzetsmuseum

Titia’s samplers are well planned and classically structured. The stitching is neat and exquisitely precise, even if it is on scraps of her white sheets. Titia’s “cries from the heart” take the form of original verses she composed to keep her mind and fingers occupied.   

They rail against evil, not persons. They exhort her to be brave. Then there are Titia’s optimistic, sometimes humorous drawings in thread, too. In anticipation of Christmas, she stitched a pine tree complete with decorations.  As ecumenical as she was, Titia, a devote Christian, included a Jewish menorah, too.

From Titia Gorter's "Christmas" sampler in the collection of the Amsterdam Verzetsmuseum

The exhibition in Great Yarmouth confirms what we embroiderers know. Every stitch we make is a stab at communicating:  our love of colour and texture, or our attitude toward our subject, or our regard for the person to whom we give our embroidery. These, too,  are messages from the heart.  But few of our embroideries have “voice.”  And thank goodness for that.  Aren’t we fortunate not to have been dealt the destinies that inspired Lorina and Titia? I, for one, thank my lucky stars.