London—Dublin, Dublin—Faro, Faro—Porto, Porto—Lisbon, Lisbon—Faro, Faro—Dublin

The title has been A’s and my travel itinerary since just before New Year’s. Having only been home with my computer for four days is my excuse for having not blogged in almost three weeks. We’ve had a pretty fantastic time travelling so much over the last two and a bit weeks, with my museum-going skills pushed to the max (10 hours in the Tate Modern?!?!), my appetite tested (mmm, arroz e mariscos), and our already-meager pockets further emptied (nothing new there).

But the trips (as well as some other things) also gave me an incredible amount that I want to write about. So much, in fact, that I’m going to have to break it into small pieces. Now that I’ve done a good amount of post-trip apartment cleaning, I can tackle the first topic: textile art at the Tate Modern in London.

Although, for the most part, I fundamentally disagreed with many of the premises behind the textile artworks at the Tate Modern, I found myself responding in both positive and negative ways to the different approaches that artists took to textiles.

I’ll start with my negative reactions.

The Tate devoted a room to the textile work of Marisa Merz, and Italian artist who worked primarily during the 1960s. The Tate places her work within its “Energy and Process” exhibition space:

‘There has never been any division between my life and my work’, Merz has said. The idea of home as a private, intimate, and feminine realm is particularly important for her….She often utilises traditional handcraft techniques and practices associated with female domesticity, such as knitting.

The link between knitting and private, feminine space is not a difficult one to make: knitting has already been claimed by feminist communities as a mode by which women may at once connect to a traditional feminine craft and engage in a contemporary connection to  such contemporary political (and often feminist) values as self-sufficiency, awareness of materiality, anti-capitalism, environmental consciousness, practical creativity, to name just a few. Indeed, Debbie Stoller’s Stitch ‘n Bitch, one of the most influential knitting books to the contemporary generation (and the contemporary knitting trend), explores this link. At first I saw the Tate’s curation of Merz’s work as a problematic simplification of the implicitly feminist at stake in her artistic project, one that seeks both to assert a feminine domain in the home, and to make the feminine private realm the basis of a very public art. I was annoyed that notions of the private/public and feminine/masculine could be mobilized so uncritically, especially where gender is an explicit theme that Merz engages with. I found myself wondering if the Tate’s curation imposed this simplistic interpretation, and if I should look beyond the curation for some more complex intention on Merz’s part, but I was disappointed when I could not find any.

Despite my frustration, I feel as though I must account for the late-1960s, second-wave feminist, moment of Merz’s art. I should approach the artworks and artist on their own terms, not from my current, third-wave feminist viewpoint. Contemporary feminism has moved on to questions of race, class, the fluidity of gender, and multiple feminisms. In Merz’s feminist moment (at least in my conception of the second wave), feminist thinkers were still working out the intricacies between public and private, between femininity and masculinity, between woman and man. I can’t condemn Merz for not doing what she could not possibly have done, and her artworks may very well be an attempt to work out these questions.

However, even if I do try to approach Merz on her own terms, I can’t help but be critical of her project to the point of disliking it. Her work Senza titolo (Scarpetta) (translated by the Tate as Untitled (Little Shoe)) really got me riled up:

Knit shoe

Senza titolo (Scarpetta) (1968)

In the Tate description, this work is “a shoe knitted from nylon thread…placed on a small slab coated with wax, which intertwines with the nylon at the base of the shoe.” Merz has made several versions of this shoe, and displayed them either “on the gallery wall or placed in external locations such as beaches.” The first issue I have with the piece is its extreme non-practicality. For an artist who so strongly insists upon the femininity of the craft of knitting (a craft that is, fundamentally, linked to a practical femininity), the materials, nylon thread and wax, combined with the “delicate, domestic process” of knitting, strips that process of its purpose of its use, of its importance within a feminine domestic sphere. And this diversion from (or perhaps perversion of?) the purpose of knitting seems to express itself in how the nylon material reacts to the knitting process: the nylon has twisted the knit stitches almost beyond recognition; it has made the result of the “patient process” of knitting nearly indistinguishable from a careless mangling of fibres. If this were the intention behind the work, or, at least, an ambivalence that the finished work engaged with, this piece would be much more interesting to me. But I cannot find any evidence that the work or the artist are aware of this twistedness. (The Tate curates other works that are aware of how rendering everyday, useful objects as art can be problematic. But I didn’t write anything down about them. Damn.)

This is not to say that I fundamentally object to the useful or the practical being rendered as art. But I don’t think that the artist or the work sufficiently engaged with this problem, and they should have. The work failed to give a thoughtful account of how feminine craft and domestic materiality can be transferred to art.

One particular claim about Little Shoe really annoyed me though:

Untitled (Little Shoe) is one of a series of nylon-thread shoes which were often made to the size of the artist’s feet, thus acting as an extension of her body.

This claim that the shoes are an “extension of [the artist’s] body” repeats throughout the curation of Merz’s work, and I feel comfortable treating it as consistent with the intended effect of the work, or at least as a widely accepted interpretation of the piece.

But I strongly dislike the claim that the shoe is an extension of body simply because it is the same size as the maker’s foot. I feel a claim like that could be made if the piece were used, were changing, were organically linked to the body. But this piece is none of those things. It does not extend the materiality of the body—it is static, it is a display piece, it is rendered useless by its very materials. I feel so (perhaps disproportionately) strongly about this that I’m having trouble putting it into words.

I truly wish that Merz’s work was self-referential about how it problematises questions of femininity, of the private sphere, of materiality, and of process. But it’s unselfconscious claims to organic-ness and bodily materiality, for me, destroy what could have been a very interesting piece.

The only way that I can recuperate Merz’s work for myself is to look at how the work of an artist (as in, producing art) can fundamentally change what would otherwise be the work of an artisan (producing products for use). But that is a topic for another post, and is something I may be able to more productively talk about in relation to other works.


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