European Tapestry Forum (2012) ISBN 978-87-91774-02-7
As ARTAPESTRY3 begins its tour in the spring of 2012, there is a widespread sensation of flux across
Europe. Economic disaster hovers, and change and social unrest occur throughout the wider world. Uncertainty about the future is the cultural norm.
Creativity, however, often thrives in times of adversity. Only a certain number of artists are highly successful financially, pampered and celebrated in the art world. More frequently they are accustomed to falling back on their own resources, exploiting new opportunities, and making the most of what comes their way. The ability to create new work isn't always reliant on the worldwide art market, or bureaucratic structures.
In the early 21st century, woven tapestry finds itself in a complex position, at a nexus between historical weaving and contemporary art, between educated professionalism and amateur enthusiasm, and between studio work and individual expression. In this context, European Tapestry Forum, through activities such as the ARTAPESTRY exhibitions, raises the profile of tapestry as individual art practice, from as wide a cross-section of Europe as possible.
As an art form, there has been very little critical positioning of tapestry since the end of the Lausanne Biennials in 1996, though this is beginning to change. European tapestry's lineage is problematic in relation to 20th century art movements. From medieval times, it has been a signifier of individual, ecclesiastical or state wealth and power. Labour and material expenses meant that a single tapestry could cost as much as a "stone-built (house) of several stories...in the city of Bern (Switzerland)" (1). Kings and aristocrats not only exhibited their magnificence through tapestries, but used them as propaganda tools, to intimidate rivals and enemies (2).
However, most contemporary tapestry artists look more towards the Bauhaus and "the heroic aspirations of modernism" (3) than to tapestry history. It could be argued that the sequestration of tapestry as "an art apart" (4) is a vagary of critical thought, rather than a cold fact. The intertwining of medieval origins with 20th century art, aesthetics and education, is what makes contemporary tapestry practice a unique, powerful and sometimes intellectually uncomfortable medium.
Tapestry as individual art practice has struggled with the image resulting from its genesis through hand skills, and its strong materiality. If "craft" associations were more acceptable in art discourse, it could easily be positioned in relation to painting, for example. The art critic Glenn Adamson describes paintings as "rectangles of presence that cut themselves off from the surrounding world, either through the action of a frame or the suggestion of one (the naked edge of the canvas against the bare wall)" (5). Later he quotes Jackson Pollock, who said, "Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement" (6). These assertions could also be made about contemporary woven tapestry, where, under a cloak of rich colour and skilful construction, issues can be explored and questions asked, with the artist fulfilling the Modernist role of "heroic genius".
In the 21st century, tapestry doesn't fit easily into the current art discourse either, which privileges technology, new media, and the conceptual. Adamson points out that artists in media such as tapestry "(are) still unswervingly devoted to the creation of 'objects'. (Their works are) defined by the mastery and enactment of a set of readily identified 'actions' (like weaving)" (7). Perhaps in response to this problem, some practitioners have moved on to conceptual work, or at least to faster, more immediate forms of creative expression. Some still maintain tapestry as part of their practice. This dilution may eventually lead to the medium becoming less defined as a separate discipline, and more as one of a range of approaches within the visual arts. This might prove to be a better survival mode for tapestry than being strictly kept as an act of homage or faithfulness to an ancient lineage; unless, of course, that is the individual artist's intention.
Perhaps the greatest threat to tapestry is its decline as a subject included in university art curricula. A professionally-trained "leading edge" of tapestry practitioners has been essential to the vitality of the medium all around the world. While many successful weavers trained in tapestry as part of their wider art education, the decline of its presence in formal, tertiary level teaching will make such access harder. The practice of many current professional tapestry artists often includes teaching small groups and mentoring up-and-coming weavers, but tapestry's absence from institutional learning is a serious loss.
Hopefully studio weaving will continue to prosper. In recent times some major tapestry studios have attracted commissions from international contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin (West Dean Tapestry Studio in West Sussex, UK) and David Noonan (Australian Tapestry Worskhop in Melbourne).
Others, such as Grayson Perry and Chuck Close, have designed arge-scale Jacquard tapestries, conveying the message that artistic expression through large-scale wall-based textile media may not be so dead after all.
New times of austerity make it more challenging to maintain international structures supporting the arts, and to create new initiatives. However, digital communication is sustaining worldwide networks, from the well-established American Tapestry Alliance to the recently established "Tapestry" group on Facebook initiated during the "Web of Europe" project in 2011. "The inner experiences of artists and their means of communication are linked to one another, regardless of significant distances in time and space....We are constantly composing and weaving this web."(8)
The future is hard to read, but The Kate Derum Award in Australia was also instituted in 2011, the American Tapestry Biennial continues to thrive, and the ETF Steering Committee has already secured the first venue for the fourth ARTAPESTRY touring exhibition, which will open in 2014.
At a time of rapid change, the qualities of tapestry may come to be seen in a new light. The simple warp with firmly packed-down weft creates a strong, dense, durable structure. As a practice it has long historical roots, but its innate monumentality and expressiveness, the way in which ideas and form build up and emerge with almost geological slowness, can still convey meaning in contemporary practice. The distinguished Swedish weaver, Annika Ekdahl, observes that weaving a tapestry is similar to writing a novel, and we shouldn't be concerned if it takes two years to complete (9). There may still be "a place for such 'slow art'" (10) in the future world.
In an era of fluid artistic boundaries, the submission criteria for ARTAPESTRY3 could be seen as a strong "frame" for the exhibition. Glenn Adamson quotes Derrida, saying, "a frame is not part of the artwork, but it nonetheless conveys the sense of the work's importance..." (11). ARTAPESTRY3's intention is to display inspirational works and expand the territory of woven tapestry, while maintaining a firmly-grounded base in tradition. Exhibited works must have a woven area of one metre square as a minimum, and must be weft-faced in construction, with discontinuous wefts. The time it takes to weave a square metre of tapestry, and the expense of the required materials, automatically indicate a level of professional commitment and seriousness in the artists' intentions. This is not the place for superficially clever gestures or "the slightly threadbare manner of experimental textile" (12). Approaches range from exploring optical qualities of colour, form and composition to examining challenging social and political issues. Each of these excursions is held within the overall frame of the exhibition, and the definition of woven tapestry. The inherent tensions between history and innovation, technique and idea create a potent, vibrant force, sensually nourishing in its immediate physicality.
The qualities of woven tapestry can be seen as an archaic throwback to lost times, or as tools for creating a deeply human form of expression in an increasingly non-corporeal world. Produced by the direct engagement of the human hand and mind, it poses a direct opposition to a digital and dematerialised vision of the future. It appears that a worldwide network of professional tapestry artists, studio weavers and amateur enthusiasts will be keeping this ancient, painstaking, slow medium alive, and tapestries of substance and meaning will emerge. Even in uncertain times, the makers are uncompromising in their belief that this particular mode of creative expression has validity, and a future in the arts and the wider world.
1. Elke Jezier-Hubner, 'A Noble Art: Burgundian Tapestries in the Historisches Museum', International Tapestry Journal Vol. 5 No. 1 (2002), p.4
2. See Lisa Jardine and Jerry Brotton, 'Global Interests: renaissance art between east and west', pp.63-131 (Reaktion Books Ltd., 2000)
3. Sue Rowley, 'Craft, Creativity and Critical Practice', 'Reinventing Textiles Vol. 1: Tradition and Innovation', ed. Sue Rowley, p.5 (Telos Art Publishing, 1999)
4. Christine Sawyer, conversation with author.
5. Glenn Adamson, 'Thinking Through Craft', p.39 (Berg, 2007)
6. ibid. p.69
7. ibid. p.166
8. Imre Takacs, introduction, 'Web of Europe' catalogue, p.8 (Museum of Applied Arts Budapest 2011)
9. Conversation with author
10. Anne Jackson, 'Slow Art: contemporary woven tapestry', 'Tapestry 08' catalogue, p.15 (British Tapestry Group 2008)
11. Glenn Adamson, 'Thinking Through Craft', p.12 (Berg, 2007)
12. Edit Andras, 'Web of Europe' catalogue, p.32 (Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest 2011)