Whilst finishing off smaller items in assignment 4, and preparing for the last sample, I am in parallel trying to think through the meaning of my 'art' work. This has been a running thread throughout; I have this nagging feeling that my work should have a purpose, not 'just' have aesthetic qualities without substance.
And since my last piece will be about trees I may try to find a way through the meaning creation on the theme of the tree - religious-spiritual, political or ecological. In that connection I have recently revived some research I did on Hannah Ryggen, a Norwegian tapestry weaver who was explicitly political. She was originally a teacher with painting skills who taught herself tapestry techniques using hand spun and dyed wools, who worked from the 1930s to the 1960s. Early on she lived in the north of Norway, geographically separate from any avant garde or even major mainstream art cultures, but her works found international recognition when she was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1964. It has been argued that she did get impulses from world affairs through reading a left-wing newspaper of the time, and that may also have led her into fine art cultures current at the time.
What is important about Ryggen is her continuous and sincerely felt political position, which she seemed compelled to express in her woven works. She lived through decades when totalitarianism in Germany and Italy sent the world into devastation, she had a strong sense of political injustice and worked these elements into her tapestries using figurative representation of people, but also abstracted elements to simplify and find the essences in her messages. There have in recent years been exhibitions either focusing on her work or joining her work with more contemporary art, which is encouraging as she is probably a little know artist outside of Norway.
But, tapestry is so often also decorative and distant from issues that affect our world. I think I have mentioned before that some tapestry weavers have drawn out the slow deliberate weaving technique almost as a political statement in itself - seeing the slow development of the work as an inherent value during a time when so much of our life is ephemeral, fleeting and born with a rapid obsolescence that sees us creating huge amounts of waste.
Where does that leave the tapestry artist? Can I justify creating 'pretty' pieces to hang on a wall when the process is so slow and time consuming? Does the labour put into tapestry give it some value that is different from those cheaper and ephemeral textiles that are readily available from supermarkets and departments store, made in some faraway Asian country or near-by late arrivals to the European Union by under-paid labour? And what is that value - is it about quality, about monetary values, or something else?
Or should one seek only to create about and/or for oneself? To look at one's own personal narrative, making it personal? This is something I will dismiss from my work, I am not a believer in autobiographical, introspective work oriented around the self to be put into the world for all to see.
What Hannah Ryggen's work shows is that when important things happen in or to the world that shatter peace and freedom, then it can be talked about, even in an art work that might not be seen as such by the art establishment and so be recognised by the wider public. I think that is what I have not really wanted to think too much about in my work until now - what the real purpose is. Hannah Ryggen was adopted by the establishment during the 1950s and 1960s when she was commissioned to make pieces for the Norwegian Parliament and showed her works at international biennales in Venice and across the US.
There are textile artists and designers who address issues around global inequalities, fair trade and ecological matters. Some make lively and energetic works using natural materials or objects of waste. There are strands of this in the land art movement, and there are works that place art in the natural setting or bring in nature to the art gallery, offering ways to sometimes make statements about the state of the Earth. A well-know example is the world-wide textile statement on the threat to the great coral reefs by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. This project made coral formations in crochet and created assemblages and installations of these, showing them in museums. People from around the world contributed to this work, and it tries to work in statements of women's work (textile crafts) with mathematical structures (crochet hyperbolic planes) and the risks to the earth's biosphere - an ambitious project that was helped hugely by the reach of the internet. As is many of the new crafts activist projects that talk about yarn bombing and other externally directed statements using textiles.
Steen, Albert, Hannah Ryggen: En dikter i veven, Oslo, Kunstindustrimuseet, 1986