Friday, May 30, 2008

What is the point of weaving in a world full of trouble?

At a particularly dark moment of the Gracchi era, in the year 125 B.C, Livy reports that disturbing omens began occurring in Italy: wheat grew on trees; at Veii, it rained oil and milk; at Arpi, stones; and for the first time in eight years, the owl was heard on the Capitol….[1]

“Weaving the land” is a challenge when the ‘ground of our being’ is a place which is hard to locate in purely geographical terms. It exists where we are, but it also exists where we think we are, whether that is in the past or in the future. It is also necessarily a contradiction, evoking thoughts of landing, but also of shifting sands and compromised terrains. It is increasingly challenging to negotiate a space when the land itself is at risk.

Things that once seemed clear are no longer so certain.

When Patrick White’s Voss, one of the contenders for the title of Great Australian novel, journeys into pastoral country he notices that “a truth of sunlight dappled the innocent grass”
[2]. What is that truth? Is it still relevant?

When writing the pastoral now, Australian expatriate poet John Kinsella claims that “one must be ironic, and (consequently) political. The conversations between shepherds have become those between motorbikes and tractors, helicopters and light planes. Even the climates are changing. Nothing is consistent, and [this is] what the pastoral has always been about. Once “retrieved’ from wild Nature the landscape is shaped to remain for ever after – unlike the city, which is about progress and change, ad infinitum.” [2] I can see all this happening. What implications does it have for my art practice? What do I take into the studio?

And why am I talking about poets when this is a talk about my tapestry practice? What is the point of weaving tapestry, a slow, self-absorbed, personal medium in a world full of trouble? It is obvious looking at the work presented in this conference that there is a lot of weaving going on, and I feel a certain trepidation that this talk is preaching to the converted, and in the case of some practitioners, like telling grandparents how to suck eggs, as they say. It was one thing to write it at home and quite another to come and see all the tapestries afterwards.

However, the things I hear on the news and read in the paper concern me, and I wonder what my work is all about. What contribution is one more piece of weaving to the large picture of our life on earth? Are our answers the same? I am impelled to put myself on the line and open a dialogue with like and unlike minds on the topic.

[1] Scheid, John and Svenbro, Jasper, The Craft of Zeus: Myths of Weaving and Fabric, p.35
[2] White, Patrick, Voss
[3] Kinsella, John , The Pastoral and the Political Possibilites of Poetry

I would like to think about these things in the following framework:

In The Studio (private and personal space)
At the Loom (A slow, self-absorbed medium)
From the studio window (the threshhold)

Puck, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream says “I shall weave a girdle round the earth in forty minutes” Let’s make that 25.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream[1]

1. In the studio:

I am in an ambiguous position as a tapestry weaver because my full time paid work is as a High School teacher. I teach year 11 and 12 Visual Art and History of Art, and also English in various forms, across the High School. My relationship with the world is therefore in a constant state of negotiation one with the other, the visual and the literary. This makes it more difficult to define my ‘studio’, the place where etymologically speaking, one’s “zeal” is focused, and what is the work that I do there.

There are many interesting historical and literary links, quotations, references to do with weaving, as you all know. And it would be easy to relate for example from Scheid’s book
the Craft of Zeus, Plato’s reference to weaving as a reminder of the importance of weaving work in troubled times. He uses weaving as a metaphor for statesmanship. Through extended metaphors or weaving and technique, male and female and united, chaos turns into order, etc, etc, and on another level, a new cloak is woven for the appropriate gods …[2]

Is this just a lot of fancy rhetoric? Does it make it any easier to go into the studio, fortified by Greek or Roman underpinnings and begin a new work, or even, a series, say, a large one?
Is it a convincing “rationale”? Oh no, my art students say, a rationale? Do we have to?

As an English teacher, I don’t live to read, as some might think (after all, English teachers have no life. Ask a student!) I read to live. Literature is a constant source of inspiration in my visual work. I can’t resist the temptation to crack open the hard crusty fruit represented by words to reveal the inside as a tempting morsel for sustenance. For example:

“I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like an orange in a fried fish shop. All bright below. Low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken-boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud. Like a viper swimming in skim milk. The old serpent, symbol of nature and love.[3]

What an image! What an example of literary and visual in combination together!

What does this mean for my studio work in a time of trouble? In front of the classroom, it is overwhelmingly clear to me that conversation matters more than anything, and yet the range

[1] Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II, i, 175
[2] Scheid, Op. cit, p. 24 pp
[3] Cary, Joyce, The Horse’s Mouth, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1948, p. 5

of expression available to young people today is depressingly narrow. Indeed, so much falls between the cracks of language that we must cross the boundaries of disciplines to communicate more fully. One without the other is not enough. If art does not create a dialogue, then it is only decoration.

There is a sense in which I feel my time under pressure because of the requirements of school teaching, and I could wish for more time in the ‘studio’, but the teaching I do means the more I can bring to bear on my work the input from school, the ‘coal face’ of human experience, and the more I can bring to my teaching the experience of my visual practice. In this sense, I bring my studio along with me wherever I go.

In a world of words, where does the visual get a “look” in? Let’s get to the loom, you may be thinking. A few years ago I did some collaborative work with two Canberra poets, Geoff Page and Alan Gould, and the topic of ekphrasis came up. More Greeks. Links between tapestry and words are not new, of course, witness the speech ribbons and texts which have an acknowledged place in the history of tapestry weaving, and of course, there are all the associated quotations and allusions to do with weaving and text…

The late Murray Krieger uses the term ekphrasis to mean visual arts are a metaphor, not just for verbal representation of visual experience, but for the shaping of language into formal patterns that “still the movement of linguistic temporality into a spatial, formal array, not just vision, but shape, closure and silent presence…[1] ekphrasis is like the slit in the tapestry of language, the ambiguous link between writing and speaking about the visual object and its challenges to the writer and the artist. The commonsense perception of this is that it is impossible, as there are inherent, essential properties of various media and their proper / appropriate modes of perception. Art History is an example of verbal representation of visual representation…interesting to read the outlines of talks this weekend where language speaks in advance of the visual work! Semantically speaking, there is no essential difference between texts and images. The mystery is why we have this urge to treat the medium as the message and why we make the obvious, practical differences between these two media into metaphysical oppositions which seem to control our creative acts and which then have to be overcome with “utopian fantasies like ekphrasis”.[2] I

n this work, * [slide Aust uncovered 1, 2] the reviewer commented that “the heaviness of the medium distracted from the text” and also, that the combination of texts on the wall and in the weaving “overwhelm the work” and “work should stand on its own and not need deciphering”. As a tapestry weaver and an English teacher I have to come to terms with these issues in order to weave and not merely to write, and not berate myself for being “merely an illustrator”. Do troubled times tolerate silence from the studio? In fact, Ekphrasis allows us, perhaps requires us, to qualify the visual as other to language, a threat to be reduced, a potential to be the same, or similar-but-not-quite-the-same, and we do it within our own medium as well. The time for this has past. If I am to keep weaving, tomorrow and the day after, then there has to be an ability to live with ambiguity, uncertainly and doubt, and the possibilities these things represent. Creative writers are always looking for this. Tapestry has hitherto prided itself on its elite status as an art form, but it should not be seen as an elitist stance, as elitism always looks for certainty. Security is not necessarily truth, and it is not

[1] Krieger, Murray, Ekphrasis and the Other, Picture Theory, Chicago, University of Chicago Press,1994, p. 154
[2] Mitchell, W. J. T. Op.cit, p. 161

certainty. The studio therefore has to be a no man’s land, not a cosy room away from the world.

2. At the Loom (a slow, self-absorbed medium)
Man is the shuttle, to whose winding quest
And passage through these looms
God order’d motion, but ordain’d no rest.

Silex Scintillans. Part II. Man.(verse 4) Henry Vaughan, 1622 – 95

When I am weaving I sit in my room and hours go by. Most often, I listen to Radio National and sometimes I listen to an audio book. If I listen to an audio book I sometimes feel a pang that I will miss the Rural News or Country Viewpoint. I don’t see this as living a sublimated life, however, or as a “string” of virtual experiences. I feel part of a community. I notice that people at work will ask “What are you doing in the holidays, are you going away?” and I say I’m going to do some weaving, and they say What? and you explain and they commiserate! But I see it as re-establishing my network with the rest of Australia and overseas. I prepare my classes mentally, I refresh my spirit and I destabilise my understandings by injections of ideas and opinions, and I listen to books while I weave. I am deciding what to do next with continuous interjections from the outside. In this sense, weaving for me is not a meditation.

John Kinsella, whose work I quoted in the beginning of this talk, in an interview with Kevin Hart, another Australian poet, asked Hart whether a poem (and I think we can substitute tapestry here) can “satisfy itself? Whether it can just be a self-contained environment, commenting on its own process? Hart replied “Poems have a desire, and they have a desire for us. A poem is directed outward, it has an intentional structure. It tries to transcend itself, to go beyond the poet’s consciousness.”[1] Of course, it can’t have a unique destination, but why can’t this apply to tapestry in the same way? For me, this is where the connection between the visual and the literary gets interesting.

There has to be a sense of a future for my work, an intended audience of some kind, or I am merely padding out the burrow. There are no guarantees of immortality for the work, especially these days, but the future must be imagined or there is no point in starting.

Weaving is not prayer. Or if it is, then it has to be in some way intercessory, on behalf of something other than me to feel convincing. I am not ‘channelling’ some kind of divine energy either. It is my energy and my outlook I am expressing, whether I have divine help or not. I am aware, however, that what I see before my eyes is not all there is. Neither is it consolatory. For what? Except perhaps for our human shortcomings and our lack of understanding about the world. It will not stave off the future in a time of trouble and there is no point in pretending that everything else will all go away if I am concentrating on the weaving. I have to account for my life, including my so-called “spare time”, which is precious.

In this sense, my practice is not a hobby. I am not filling my time weaving. I am working.While I appreciate the female need for a “room of one’s own”, my studio is also my bedroom, so it is before me all the time and I live in it. This helps. I don’t have to steel myself to go somewhere external. In her nineties, My grandmother used to “paint with

[1] Kinsella, John. John Kinsella interviews Kevin Hart. Melbourne, October 22 1995.

wool”, but she never spoke about a pastime, a hobby or time to “being creative”, or that appalling concept “me time”. She used to call it her work. This rings true to me. This is one of her pieces. It is actually needlepoint.

Tapestry weaving does not pay what my teaching salary pays, but I consider it equally important, and I have to tear myself away to spend time with people. But weaving isn’t just doing something comfortable. It is not like a relationship with a pet who doesn’t answer back, because every decision has to be interrogated. There is no going back. One has the possibility of a new page, like a writer or other artist, but one cannot rub out or paint it out when it doesn’t work. I don’t see it as ‘collecting’, pick by pick, either, as a way of controlling an uncontrollable world, and it is not merely a mental world where I alone hold sway, even in the objective “material” world of the loom itself. It is not a substitute for a real life and it is not filling a ‘gap’. In this sense, it is a positive gesture, not the lack of it. I am not hiding. It is not merely an inner dialogue, a ‘new-age” meditation, a solipsistic self indulgence. It is addressed outwards and the world answers back

3. From the window (the threshhold)
“Vain the ambition of kings
Who seek by trophies and dead things,
To leave a living name behind,

The Devil’s Law-Case, V. lvAnd weave but nets to catch the wind” John Webster, 1580 -1625

A reviewer of my work recently made the comment that “finer work aids contemplation and using materials that aid speedy work interferes with the overall effect .Tapestry is a slow process and should be respected as such.” Time, content – anything goes. It is easy enough to walk past a work in six seconds regardless of the technique. Beware the establishment. No reversals in a world full of trouble. It is too late for quibbling. Does it do the job? Is it your best work? Are you content to see it as the sum of your efforts, the sum of your days, the sum of your life?. I’m not saying throw out time-honoured standards, but in a world full of trouble it takes more determination to go into the studio. It requires a conscious stance that one’s work is “political” work (meaning of ‘public life’), not personal work, otherwise we should be outside agitating for a better world. This takes courage. It means taking responsibility for your contribution to the world.

Does work have to be political, I wonder, in the sense of critiquing world trends in order to be worthwhile in a time full of trouble? What if it is not exhibited? It is still surprisingly hard to interest galleries in textile work. Irony can inject life into familiar forms…however, it can slip into despair, and then you’ll stop weaving.

If one’s work is “simply” about beauty and revelling in colour, do it consciously. Rapture may save us. It gets in the way of science and philosophy. Indeed, it is almost ironic and subversive these days. It is accepting the challenge to go into one’s studio in these troubled times and do “wool work”.

When I hear about world food prices I wonder if I would be more socially useful if I were to take time to put my front garden under vegies and learn how to keep them going? I work out of my own interest in tapestry. I am not supported by an institution to do my work. So it takes real effort and determination to do it on my own. Sometimes it feels like I am not taking life seriously enough, or even, whistling in the dark.

However, I like the following piece of advice from Salman Rushdie, who said, the proper function for a writer, and I suggest, for any artist, is to “go for broke. Always try to do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you start talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world.”[1] Of course, there is debate to be had, sometimes reasoned, sometimes heated, over the position of the writer or the artist and his or her relationship to the context of the world within which they live and its authorities. Work must be considered. This is the burden of the tapestry weaver in the face of slow process. If it is your “political” work to be indoors day after day, then take responsibility for it. The wow factor should not be Oh my God, how long did that take! but Oh my God, why did you do it? In this sense, weaving is not consolatory or merely therapeutic or meditative. It is putting one’s thoughts into action.

So where do I leave this? What makes me get up tomorrow and do a bit more? It’s an eye for beauty “in the detail” ( and I’m not talking about weaving technique here), and a desire to communicate it. Whether we look at literature, visual representations, or poetry inspired by visual representations etc. it is this in-between-ness in all its ordinariness and mystery which is our human position. We live at the intersections of places, between the past and the future, the earth and the sky.

As Joyce Cary writes:

Five windows light the caverned man ; through one he breathes the air
Through one hears music of the spheres ; through one can lookAnd see small portions of the eternal world.”[2]

I want to know how this works in tapestry. I want to try one more thing. And one more thing, and just something else I have thought about, and then perhaps at the end of it all we will hear

Undying accents
Repeated till
The ear and the eye
Lie down together
In the same bed. William Carlos Williams

Tomorrow is a new day.

[1] Whittaker, Peter, What’s the point of fiction in a world full of trouble? International conference of writers. New Internationalist, October, 2001, p.3
[2] Cary, Joyce, the Horse’s mouth, (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1948 pp. 5-6 and 56-57)

Brenda Goggs

Apologies as bloger does not respect foot notes and changes the numbering. Any Questions contact me or Brenda, via Valerie,

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