Demons Yarns & Tales (The Dairy, London)

The Dairy
7 Wakefield Street

10-22 November, 2008

Placing the practice of woven tapestry in the context of contemporary art is a task usually reserved for its practitioners. The outside world is largely oblivious, and critical discourses tend to relegate it to the 'craft' sphere, if they consider it at all. The exhibition 'Demons, Yarns & Tales' was an unusual experiment, putting woven tapestry centre-stage in a prestigious London venue, and inviting fifteen high-profile visual artists, from the U.K. and around the world, to provide designs to be woven in editions of five. The tapestries were made in China, where "the factory is situated in a rural community…and the weavers, all of whom are women, work part time so they can be free to help in the fields…" (Kent, 2008, p.15)

Woven tapestry in Western culture is usually seen in terms of its history as a luxurious form of decoration, status symbol and even 'hugely expensive draught excluder', as Gary Hume says in the exhibition catalogue. Tapestries were frequently commissioned by medieval princes, and in more recent times have been associated with heritage, aristocracy, immense wealth and sometimes dubious taste. In the twenty-first century, however, tapestry is a medium which functions in two distinct arenas; that of contemporary artists' practice, and that which is usually called 'studio weaving'.

Tapestry has been practiced as an individual art-form since the mid-twentieth century. It flourished in the 1960's and 70's, with the growth of discourses such as feminism and 'art vs. craft', prestigious exhibitions such as the Lausanne Biennales, and being taught in educational institutions across the Western world and Eastern Europe. Yet tapestry artist/practitioners still struggle for recognition. In critical terms tapestry has been immovably situated within the 'crafts' field, where artefacts "become tied up with cultural authenticity and are presumed to be timeless, ancient and to some extent lacking in significance and meaning (while 'works of art' are) commonly perceived as innovative, the product of the Zeitgeist and steeped in deeper meanings."(Ray, 2008, p. 195) Recently tapestry has even been critically separated from 'art textile' practice, in which media associated with clothing, the body, the feminine and domestic spheres are often used "to invoke not only metaphors of connection and relationship, but also an inchoate, pre-linguistic, corporeal aspect of materiality" (Conroy, 1995, p.14). Tapestry, with its roots in public displays of wealth and status, doesn't easily fit this paradigm. The major tapestries of the twentieth century, created in response to large-scale commissions (especially in the former Soviet Bloc), the Lausanne Biennales and the Art Fabric movement, have a closer relationship to architecture than to the territory of domesticity. They are innately of the walls, of public and other buildings. Although the majority of contemporary tapestry practitioners are female, it's possible to argue that woven tapestry is of masculine rather than feminine descent, perhaps adding to a sense of tapestry as an ambiguous medium.

The term 'tapestry' may refer to individual practice, artisan production, or even needlepoint embroidery, encompassing multiple meanings confusing to anyone unfamiliar with the milieu. Even practitioners don't always make clear distinctions in their discourse. Most outsiders don't realise that tapestry exists anywhere other than in various collections of faded historical artefacts. 'Demons, Yarns & Tales' organizer Christopher Sharp, the owner of a successful rug business, characterizes it as "a lost art (which) faded long ago" (Sharp, 2008, p.5).

The works in the exhibition, made by a company in rural China, would fall into the category of 'studio weaving', in which tapestries are produced by artisans from designs by separate artists. It was the original mode of production in Europe, revived by William Morris in late 19th century England, continuing through the Bauhaus in the 1930's and the initiatives of Jean Lurçat at Aubusson, France, in the 1940's. In the UK, West Dean Studios in Sussex and the Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh (established in 1910) weave tapestries, usually as large-scale commissions. They are made by teams of highly-skilled weavers, to designs by artists such as Henry Moore, David Hockney and Frank Stella. Individual tapestry practitioners often spend periods of time as studio weavers, to gain additional training or to supplement their income.

'Demons, Yarns & Tales', shown in central London, and later Miami, Florida, was a prestigious event. The illustrated catalogue, extensive press coverage and high-profile private view indicated confidence, and entrepreneurial investment to a degree with which contemporary tapestry is rarely associated.
The show was mounted in a former milk depot, each tapestry hung on a purpose-built plinth or moveable wall with built-in lighting. The works were large-scale and the space was cavernous, evoking associations with tapestries in medieval cathedrals.

The exhibition was intended to activate translations between media, employing artists largely unfamiliar with tapestry. In the resulting works, some engaged fully with the challenge of the "transformation (from) known medium into the uncharted and the unknown" (Sharp, 2008, p.5). Others adapted previously existing works, utilizing the medium's traditional role as a "slow, though skilful (mode of) fine art reproduction." (Taylor, 1994, p.18)
Inevitably some results were more successful than others. For example, the fine warp and weft of the tapestries sometimes manifested as a thin surface which evoked the domestic more readily than the monumental or mural. Beatriz Milhazes' tapestry, 'Carioca' (Figure 1), was based on an existing painting. Her work is usually vibrant and full of life, but the image she selected, when woven and hung on a wall bore some resemblance to a furnishing fabric from the1960's. The context made it unlikely that this was intentional. Had she been aware of the possibility, or more familiar with the characteristics of tapestry, she might have chosen a different original design. Peter Blake's 'Alphabet' suffered the same fate, as did Jaime Gili's 'Zelada'. (Figure 2). His paintings often comprise near-Vorticist abstractions in primary colors. The transition of hard-edged imagery into a soft medium could have created a dynamic effect, but the comparatively subdued coloration in the tapestry evoked twentieth-century corporate textile design more than vibrant, autonomous art work.

Gary Hume, whose paintings also present a shiny, almost machine-finished surface, made a more successful transition in his work, 'Georgie and Orchids' (Figure 3). Heavily reliant on well-drawn line, the design was executed with virtuosic skill by the weavers, although the embellishment of the surface with raised silk embroidery distracted somewhat from the graphic qualities beneath. In any case, Hume's work appeared to benefit from his acquaintance with contemporary European tapestry practice, giving the piece a fundamental coherence.

Grayson Perry, also familiar with contemporary tapestry and textile art, had his work executed in needlepoint (causing confusion in the press coverage). His tapestry, 'Vote Alan Measles For God' (Figure 4), was an Afghan 'war rug' (a recent practice of weaving imagery of weapons, tanks, etc.) filled with references to our contemporary international conflicts, and dominated by the figure of his iconic childhood teddy bear, wearing a suicide bomber's belt. Perry stipulated that the tapestry hang naturally, without intervention to force it into an immaculate rectangular shape. His fluency in the language and references of textile media allowed his work to communicate clearly to the viewer.

Fred Tomaselli is also acquainted with tapestry. The imagery of 'After Migrant Fruit Thugs' (Figure 5), in which a pair of tropical birds peered out of a background of richly-bejewelled fig leaves, was reminiscent of 'millefleur' medieval tapestries, and glowed with the chromatic intensity of Jean Lurçat. Its seductive materiality was counterbalanced by awareness that his characteristic rich mosaics of found imagery and resin often refer to drug use. This gave his tapestry an underlying edge.

A number of works successfully integrated tapestry's narrative tradition. Kara Walker's 'A Warm Summer Evening in 1863' referred to the atrocities of slavery and racism in America. Gavin Turk collaged a large-scale map of the Earth from packaging and detritus found near a petrol filling station (Figure 6). Paul Noble's idiosyncratic pencil-drawn fantasy world was translated into a large-scale monochrome landscape, 'villa joe', in which one could become childishly lost, wandering among the ruins of familiar twentieth-century sculptures (Figure 7).

The exhibition reflected the mode of contemporary practice in which the artist need have little connection to the manufacture of his or her work. Art is no longer "defined as an artisanal activity…(it can now) be seen as a set of operations performed in a field of signifying practices, perhaps centred on a medium but certainly not bounded by it." (Victor Burgin, quoted in Adamson, 2007, p. 168) In the exhibition catalogue, the artists frequently marvelled at the skills of the Chinese weavers; some tapestries took up to two years to complete. Several artists stated their belief that such works couldn't have been executed in the West. The softness of the tapestry surface cannot disguise the hard facts of globalized labour markets. The tapestries could have been woven in a Western studio, but only at a price that would have been prohibitive, even in a flourishing art economy.

Conveying designs across the world, to be realised by artisans from a totally different culture, creates a risk of mistranslation. Gavin Turk's 'Mappa Mundi' (Figure 6) floated his collaged continents on a pale blue field whose color and texture, once woven, were more reminiscent of a baby blanket than of water or paper. This may have been intentional, or a function of different aesthetics, and distances too great for close collaboration between artist and artisans.

The organizers's choice of artists was bold, and setting them an unfamiliar task involved risk. Though some of the tapestries conveyed a sense of exploration and transformation, many appeared remarkably conservative. This may have been the result of heavy speculative financial investment, or ignorance of the range of technical and aesthetic possibilities available. For example, the structure of tapestry is inherently flexible, literally and metaphorically. It need not produce a flat rectangle on a wall. In this exhibition, only Kara Walker and the anonymous Brazilian collective avaf (figure 8) explored this potential. Perhaps consigning the work to artisans who spoke a different cultural language imposed a requirement to keep things simple, on a literal and conceptual level.

One could speculate whether it is reasonable to produce this kind of monumental, painstaking work in the age of digital downloads and Face Book.
It may be that it conveys a sense of luxury and self-indulgence which doesn't equate with the current economic climate, especially when produced by Chinese farm labourers earning necessary extra income. The worldwide body of artists working in the medium of contemporary tapestry clearly think it a worthwhile career path, but on the whole they are individuals, with only their own studio and business infrastructures to support.

The high profile of this exhibition may well benefit tapestry artists and Western weaving studios. It involved influential artists and critics, whose awareness of the medium will have been raised as a result of it. If contemporary tapestry practitioners had been more successful in penetrating the citadel of critical theory, the artists and organizers of 'Demons, Yarns & Tales' might have had more familiarity with the possibilities of the medium. Apparently the company, 'Banners of Persuasion', is considering future exhibitions. If so, those with an interest in contemporary woven tapestry can hopefully look forward to a better-informed grounding in the medium, producing a wide range of responses from the participants, and contributing to an improvement in the fortunes of contemporary tapestry, both as individual practice and studio production.


Burgin, Victor, "The Absence of Presence",
quoted in Adamson, Glenn, 'Thinking Through Craft', Berg, 2007: p.168

Conroy, Diana Wood, 'Curating Textiles: Tradition as Transgression'; International Tapestry Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1995: p.14.

Kent, Sarah, 'Introduction' in 'Demons, Yarns & Tales' catalogue, Banners of Persuasion, London, 2008: p.15.

Ray, Eleanor, Review of 'A Tapestry of Memories: The Art of Dinh Q. Lê', Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, Vol. 6, Issue 2, July 2008: p.195.

Sharp, Christopher, 'Foreword', in catalogue, op.cit.: p.5.

Taylor, Pat, 'The West Dean Tapestry Workshop',
International Tapestry Network Journal, Vol. 5, No.3, 1994, p.18.


1. Beatriz Milhazes, 'Carioca', 2008.
Wool and silk woven tapestry. 2 metres x 2 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

2. Jaime Gili, 'Zelada', 2008.
Wool, silk and artificial silk woven tapestry, 2.5 metres x 2.14 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

3. Gary Hume, 'Georgie and Orchids', 2008.
Wool woven tapestry, silk embroidery, 2.5 metres x 2.05 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

4. Grayson Perry, 'Vote Alan Measles For God', 2008.
Wool needlepoint embroidery, 2.5 metres x 2 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

5. Fred Tomaselli, 'After Migrant Fruit Thugs', 2008.
Wool and silk woven tapestry, 2.5 metres x 1.6metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

6. Gavin Turk, 'Mappa del Mundo', 2008 (preliminary artwork).
Wool, silk, and metallic thread woven tapestry, 3.13 metres x 2 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

7. Paul Noble, 'villa joe', 2008.
Wool woven tapestry, 4.48 metres x 4.56 metres.
Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.

8. avaf, 'aaxé vatapá alegria feijão (preliminary artwork)', 2008.
Wool, silk, artificial silk, and metallic thread woven tapestry,
3.50 metres x 2.05 metres. Courtesy of the artist and Banners of Persuasion.


Anne Jackson