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Cover image: Installation view of Talismans for Disentanglement (2021), in the exhibition Sewing Discord. Pearl cotton thread on unbleached calico. Image courtesy of Aesthetics of Care. Photo by See Kian Wee.
my mother taught me the basics of cross-stitch—a form of hand embroidery in which X-shaped stitches are sewn in a tile-like pattern. When I was a child, my grandmother made pillows from scratch using her old Singer sewing machine, which had to be manually powered by stepping continuously on the treadle at its base. When I was a teenager in an all-girls secondary school, I was taught to use an electric sewing machine in my Home Economics class; how to hem up the edge of the fabric, how to make a little pouch, how to change the settings to produce different types of stitches.
Today, I am an artist who sews, sometimes. I employ hand embroidery as one of a few different strategies to explore the concepts that compel me to make art. I do not trace my use of the medium to any of the experiences I just mentioned—not directly, anyway. Sewing was always just there, floating in the periphery of my life. Yes, it floated in spaces associated with domesticity, which were in turn associated with womanhood; my mother, my grandmother, my female Home Economics teacher and my female classmates. But I never thought of sewing that way, as something that defined women or was defined by women. It was a way to pass the time, or a practical skill. Cross-stitching entertained me, until it didn’t. When a button comes loose from a shirt, it must be sewed back on.
The first time I used a needle and thread in my work was for a drawing assignment, during the first year of my undergraduate studies at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York. I used a needle and thread—on paper, for a mixed media series—simply because I felt it was a way to give life to a line, to have it extend across a surface on which I had already collaged other drawings and materials. I utilised thread, or sometimes yarn, for a few other assignments in the next couple of years—just as an accent, or as a means to make a specific type of line, a line that has a body. I thought of its softness, its delicacy, its texture, its tactility, but little of the domesticity or femininity that one might otherwise assume it represents.
In my final year at SVA, my drawing instructor from my first year, artist Amy Wilson, opened up a Fibre Arts class. It was only through this class that I encountered other textile or fibre-based mediums. We didn’t have fancy machines or tools, but we didn’t need them. We learned how to embroidery, knit, crochet, even needle felt; how to make yarn from raw wool—to wash, spin, dye and paint it; we learned to weave on handmade frames, or on portable looms that could fit on a table in our classroom. Our class was ninety percent female students, and we would sit haphazardly around the classroom and chat as we worked. Everything felt loose, and messy, and possible.
Later that year, I would create my first fully-embroidered artwork. Meditations on Loss is a series of three diagrams, embroidered using a mix of hand-painted yarn—which I had made in Amy’s class—and pearl cotton thread, then subsequently framed in embroidery hoops thirty centimetres in diameter. I decided to use embroidery because I felt that it softened the coldness of the visual language of diagrams, something that I was exploring at the time as a means of representing my emotional states. My embroidery practice has evolved since then, but it was in Amy’s class, I believe, that I began to think more deeply about the repetitive motions inherent in many craft techniques, and the obsessive nature of hand embroidery in particular. These thoughts underlie my use of the medium today. At the time, I thought too about how it could hurt: the tedium of this labour, the aches in my arms and back from bending over a hoop for hours on end, the callouses that developed on my fingers from gripping a needle—a needle that would jab into my skin and draw blood, if I wasn’t careful. But it was calming, in its own way; steadying. One stitch at a time. One stitch at a time.
In the years since Amy first started that class, her own practice has moved away from drawing and painting. Her poetic texts and the girls that often speak them are now rendered in lace, embroidery, and crochet. On her website, she writes simply that she made a mid-career move towards fibre art. Recently, I messaged her on Instagram—we still chat sporadically, even seven years after I graduated—to ask her why she made that move at all.
“I actually came to SVA wanting to do fibres and not realising there was an issue between craft and art,” she told me; she had done her undergraduate studies at SVA too, in the nineties. “All my teachers pushed me towards painting, drawing, and sculpture, so that’s where I went. Basically, as a young artist, I wanted to fit in and I wanted approval from the establishment, so I was willing to take their cues for many years. And then finally I got to a place where I had more control and I was like—f*** it, fibres.”
This was not my experience at all, I said. I had never been made to feel like I couldn’t incorporate or pursue embroidery in my art practice. Of course, I knew there was this hierarchy, in Europe and America at least, that considered fine art not just separate from, but also superior to craft. It was a hierarchy often defined by medium, and which discriminated against techniques associated with “women’s work”. I always considered it a pointless and dated division, though – in addition to being misogynistic – in an age when contemporary art can use or talk about anything. What separates art from craft, if we need to talk about that binary at all, surely lies in things like the creator’s intention, or their ways of working and thinking about their practice, or the context of their work.
“It’s important to remember how different art school was when I went,” she replied. “For starters, it was eighty percent male. I specifically had teachers tell me in no uncertain terms that doing work in fibres was absolutely not acceptable.”
At that moment, I felt incredibly privileged. For my mother, my grandmother, my mostly female teachers at my all-girls school. For Amy, and the fibre arts class that she started, within an undergraduate programme that was eighty percent female rather than the other way around. For my aunts, who claim they know nothing about art, but understand what my work tries to say about labour and tedium and pain – because they all know how to sew, how it feels, how it hurts. No one has ever told me that embroidery was lesser than. It feels like the right language for my ideas, so I will use it until it isn’t.
One wall is painted a deep, meditative blue from floor to ceiling. In the middle hang six rectangular panels, much taller than they are wide, resembling long scrolls. They are illuminated, warm and shrine-like, while most of the room is cast in shadow. They appear ochre in colour, earthy and organic and sombre, but upon closer inspection one sees slivers of silver threads glittering amidst grey and beige ones, all extending horizontally and vertically, intersecting and overlapping at right angles to form a continuous, unified whole.
Each panel is divided into three sections: a longer section in the middle, starting and ending at a different point on each of the six, is bookended by two shorter sections above and below. Woven into the cloth in these middle sections are thicker black and white strands that swerve and slither calligraphically, floating on the surface, wisps of smoke that hint at some mysterious, unintelligible cipher from an ancient and unknown time. They seem to want to speak and withhold simultaneously. One could get lost in these panels, following the lines— both the tight grid of the base and the undulations of the filaments upon it. “I use the threads themselves,” said the person who made these, “as a sculptor or painter uses his medium to produce a scriptural effect which would bring to mind sacred texts.”
It is late 2018. The work I am speaking of is titled Six Prayers, and it is on display in the Anni Albers exhibition at the Tate Modern in London. It was made between 1966 to 1967, upon an invitation by the Jewish Museum in New York to produce a tapestry memorialising the six million Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. Albers (1899–1994) was an influential German-American textile artist, designer, teacher, and writer; she is best known for her ambitious, experimental pictorial weavings that integrated—and expanded upon—the visual language of 20th century abstract modernism.
Despite her important, pioneering work, this exhibition is only her first major retrospective in the UK, held two and a half decades after her passing. I wonder how much this delay is due to her commitment to the ancient practice of weaving, which—unlike drawing or painting or —wasn’t, and still isn’t, considered one of the traditional mediums of fine art. In a 1985 interview, Anni Albers said of her printmaking works: “I find that, when the work is made with threads, it’s considered a craft; when it’s on paper, it’s considered art.” For the latter, “recognition comes more easily and happily, the longed-for pat on the shoulder.”
By the end of the exhibition’s run, I will have weathered the crowds for three separate visits. I do not do this simply because she worked with fibres as I do; in any case, I work with embroidery, not weaving, and even then it is only one part of my artistic practice. I visit this exhibition again and again because I can experience, viscerally, how the most basic system can generate innumerable exciting permutations over decades of experimentation and study. A weaving, at its core, has a warp and a weft—on a loom, the warp threads are held in place ‘vertically’, while filling threads, or the weft, are woven horizontally through them. As complicated and layered as Albers’ weavings are, there is always this grid, visible and essential; in her preparatory drawings too, and her prints. There is no creativity without system, and no system without creativity. There is something to hold onto, something rooted.
I veer in a different direction now, and draw a strange line. It starts at Six Prayers and leads to another work being shown in the newer extension of Tate Modern, connected to the main building by a bridge across its Turbine Hall. There is a room across this bridge that is bathed in an acidic glow. Again, there are six uniform, rectangular objects here, but they are not the flatter, fibrous panels of before. Instead they are slim, sleek, three-dimensional pillars resting at an angle against the wall. On the surface of each column is not the grid of a weave but a grid of tiny bulbs; the disruption of the grid is not black and white thread but blue light. The bulbs gleam bright and fleeting to form word after word, phrase after phrase, scrolling and pulsing and blinking and demanding attention. The statements, in English, are unambiguous and unabashed: I SAY THE WORD, it shouts, I SAY YOUR NAME, it declares. I COVER YOU – I SHELTER YOU – I RUN FROM YOU – I SLEEP BESIDE YOU – I SMELL YOU ON MY CLOTHES – I KEEP YOUR CLOTHES.
The lights go out briefly; a new set begins, then another. One never knows when the cycle is complete. On the wall, a pink and purple wash cast from the backs of the columns vibrates in the same rhythm—the same text, obscured but present. With these columns lined with tiny bulbs, the person who made these emulates speech rather than script, the vocal rather than the written form. “Because it is so much like the spoken word,” she said. “You can emphasize things; you can roll and pause, which is the kinetic equivalent to inflection in the voice.”
This work is Jenny Holzer’s Blue Purple Tilt, from 2007, forty years after Six Prayers was completed. The statements in the work are straightforward, banal, offered for consumption like news headlines or advertising slogans; unlike Six Prayers, where language is implied rather than inscribed. Yet Holzer’s words remain cryptic in their own right. Ripped as they are from any context, they might be empty vessels for the viewer’s own thoughts, and even then they sometimes rotate too quickly to really be absorbed. Language is laid plain, but somehow as abstract as in Six Prayers. The individual bulbs are, too, pixels forming a pattern, a suggestion of a language that cannot be fully grasped. For both works, the viewer is caught between modes of understanding, forced to reorient, to accept that there is a part that will forever remain concealed, perhaps even to form a meaning that can never be externally affirmed.
Perhaps, given the differences in their chosen mediums, one might not think to compare the works of Anni Albers and Jenny Holzer. But I draw this strange line because I can. Because I see in each of them a system, a language; it matters not that one has the softness of fabric, and the other the harshness of a digital display. Because these works call to me, an artist who works with text, constructed on the grid of the weave of a piece of fabric, which could just as well be the grid of LED lights. I draw this strange line because I am standing on the bridge between them. I speak in words, in thread.
That visitors to museums spend, on average, eight seconds looking at each individual work? It’s often used to point fingers at the visitor, who doesn’t care to engage with the art; the tourist who checks an attraction off their list and exits through the gift shop. It’s also far too simplistic, as quantitative values often are when it comes to art. There are any number of reasons why someone might not choose to give an artwork more than a few seconds of their time, not all of which are the fault of the viewer.
Still, I think of those eight seconds from time to time. I think of the works that make you stay much longer than that—the ones you want to spend time with, get lost in, return to again and again. There is a work like that for me in the National Gallery Singapore, in the exhibition Siapa Nama Kamu? Art in Singapore since the 19th Century. It is a work called Bowls, from 1979, by Eng Tow; one example of the artist’s cloth reliefs.
Bowls is a series of three square wall-mounted pieces, each made with a satiny off-white fabric. The fabric has been systematically pleated to create horizontal lines about one centimetre in height, covering the entire surface. In the centre of each piece, a circle has been stitched, the thread creating the subtlest of depressions. Within this circle, the pleats have been folded and pressed downwards; it makes me think of trying to flip through a book, the way the pages separate as I press my thumb along the edge. These folds, running in the opposite direction of the pleats, seem to glow as light catches on the fabric’s sheen down the middle of the circle; on either side of this glow, the pleats curve in shadow. It gives the impression of a spherical dimension that is not actually there. Then, my eyes drift down to the final fold, right at the base of the circle, and see that it perfectly completes the circumference.
I was not familiar with Tow’s practice when I encountered this work for the first time a few years ago. It was a shame, but I was glad for it too, because my ignorance made that moment of discovery more magical, more pure. I arrived at this work, and it surprised me; it refused to let me leave. My fascination deepened the longer I lingered, and it would never waver each time I returned to see it again. I scrutinised this work, how the light falls on every pleat and every stitch; I tried to solve its construction like a puzzle, and was delighted by the fact that I failed. The process of its making seemed at once laid plain yet enigmatic, simple yet endlessly complex. I couldn’t understand it. I wanted to look at it forever.
Cloth is just one of the mediums in which Tow worked. The breadth of her interdisciplinary practice is fully visible in the exhibition Something New Must Turn Up, which opened at the National Gallery Singapore in early May. Structured as six consecutive solo presentations of post-independence Singaporean artists, including Tow, the exhibition gives breathing room to the diversity of her works. Alongside a few cloth reliefs and other textile-based pieces, there are paintings, drawings, sculptures; her materials range from Chinese ink and watercolour to carbon fibre and bronze, with even a few hand-cast paper works on display. “Her artistic navigation is led by intuition, curiosity, and reflection,” says the exhibition text, “and shaped by a visceral connection with nature.” That is her continuity, across so many different mediums.
I have visited Tow’s section twice now. Both times, I found myself drifting to the cloth reliefs more so than any other work. Like my experience with the Anni Albers retrospective, I don’t believe that I return to these works simply because they are constructed out of textiles; in fact, Tow’s other textile-based works don’t hold my attention as the cloth reliefs do. In their restraint, their structure and control, I feel something transcendent, like freedom. By ‘transcendent’, I don’t mean that they ‘transcend’ craft—or cloth’s association with craft—as if craft is something that must be left behind. On the contrary, it is in Tow’s embrace of her medium that I sense the sublime. I also sense in it something quite untranslatable. What I mean is, there is no other medium in which these cloth reliefs can exist, or should.
“I grew up in a family where I was taught all these processes—specifically crochet and sewing—at a very young age,” Amy said to me, about why she gravitated towards fibre art. “It felt very natural, like speaking in a native language.” I think of Tow’s cloth reliefs as evidence of her mastery of a language; of craft as a set of languages that are available to us as artists. We can learn to read, and write, and speak them well; to think in these vocabularies, and create our own. We might treat these languages with the utmost care and respect, or we might challenge them, subvert them, excavate and reconstruct them. We make hybrids of them too, pidgins and creoles. There is something transcendent in it. This freedom to speak.
Berny Tan (b.1990, Singapore) is an artist, curator, and writer. Her interdisciplinary practice explores the tensions that arise when one applies systems to—and unearths systems in—intangible personal experiences, complicating the false binary between rational and emotional. Her strategies also reflect a fundamental interest in language as it is read, written and spoken by her. Tan holds an MA (Dist) in Contemporary Art Theory from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a BFA (Hons) in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of Visual Arts. Her work has been exhibited in Singapore, the United States, and the United Kingdom.