Here in October the Knitting and Stitching show has been on at the Alexandra Palace. I have been a couple of times before, but this year I went twice - a glutton for punishment one may say, as I went on Friday (10th), and then on Saturday (11th), one of the busiest days.
Anyway, my friend and I went on the Friday for fun, to see what was new and interesting - we started by looking at the exhibition area, including the student awards. There were some fine textured knits I found quite good, and I think the International Feltmakers Association showed some very strong things. Ecoprinting, one of the latest trends in creative textiles it seems, was also shown on a commercial stand, and yes, there the usual suspects were, Jan Beaney and other creative tutors and suppliers of materials. Coats had a large stand dedicated to Rowan yarns and patterns and there were many, many smaller suppliers of all things textiley and equipment based.
What did I buy? well I had planned a visit to Oliver Twists to get some silk bricks for spinning with some mohair and Wensleydale fleece I have, and got a couple of fine green ones; I also splashed out on a pack of Markal paint sticks. To have a rest in the afternoon we decided to sit in on the fashion show. This was actually disappointing. Rowan showed garments from its latest pattern books, and so did other Coats brands such as Patons, but there was nothing really outstanding in the show. One might have thought that a fashion show would have pulled out all the best or most extravagant garments to show what can be done, stretching boundaries of technique or experiments in colour; instead there were uninspiring plain jumpers, the odd good Fairisle cardigan and a run of ponchos designed on a South American theme - presented to promote a particular stand somewhere in the sea of stall of the large hall.
On Saturday, when most tickets had been sold out and the crowds were thick in the aisles of the shopping hall, I went to volunteer in the British Tapestry Group's stand, which had an exhibition of professional and amateur pieces made by the Group's members, and curated by Hillu Liebelt. This was good, I met a Swedish weaver, Lis Korsgren, who had a piece showing. I had a chat with Lis about her construction method which is derived from Helena Hernmarck's work. The work is semi-representational but looks abstract close up. Her work in the show was a blue and white hanging showing tractor tracks in snow, using different densities of yarn in the weft I thought that was quite interesting, since it is made on a cloth weaving loom rather than a tapestry loom and stimulates questions of technique and visual representation.
I have to say I have mixed feelings now about the Knitting and Stitching show. It is a very good opportunity to see some current work, however the show is dominated by shopping and the craft consumerism of a huge textile-based shopping mall. There are of course many gems, I like that Slow Loris is there showing and selling exquisite work made by Chinese tribal people, it is good that smaller sellers are able to show their work and one can peruse this physically rather than looking at tiny photos on the web. However I know from experience, and from having spoken with a number of people who also visit these events, that what one takes away from the show in many cases ends up as stash, and bulky stuff at home in the work room rather something made, and that defeats the object of the making that the notion of craft is all about.
Anyway, the reason I say this is that I had been to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the Royal Academy on the Thursday (9th) before, and it struck me on reflection, that I personally do not feel uplifted in a profound way after a large crowded sales fair (whether textiles based or otherwise) as I do having experienced a great and immersive exhibition such as that on Anselm Kiefer. There were such fantastic paintings there, huge canvasses boldly covered in thick paints, ash, clay and material objects, including natural bits of sunflowers, branches and long strands of grass or reed. The exhibition was curated following a chronological line, his early work quite explicitly narrative somehow, recording and speaking of his early reactions to post-war German history, whilst the later works were grand statements more subtle in expression, despite their scale and monumental statements. He is clearly interested in certain poets and language, German landscape and forests, the materiality of the stuff he uses to build up his work. He uses words on the surface of pieces, sometimes words, at other times sentences.
To be honest I knew very little about Kiefer before I went. I vaguely knew he was important, but I was very glad I went and saw so many poetic and finely telling pieces. Art historically there were references to Caspar David Friedrich, van Gogh and Joseph Beuys; there were nudes in large books and large installations of stuff - a mound of canvasses - the room smelling of oil paints, script on the wall. Clearly Kiefer has become quite wealthy in his later years, in recent years buying lead roofs off cathedrals and inserting diamonds into large textured lead surfaces - although modest seeming, maybe not as humble as one might have hoped during a time when those with less might think twice even going into a paying exhibition such as this one. But then that shows where my cultural capital lies, in placing a socio-cultural reading on this work when clearly the aesthetics seemed to be a priority (in the case of the diamonds and lead, a matter of alchemical processes). So, despite feeling that there was a flaw in this later work, I still loved the large landscapes of grasses, some with gold leaf, giant grasses swaying in the wind with golden sheaves of grass or reed pasted on to thick encrustations of paint. And carefully placed balances that seemed to weigh something heavy - time passing? Nature? the land?
In contrast to what these grand statements about nature, a sense of German-ness and art historical bonds evoked as I walked through the halls of the Royal Academy, a virgin spectator of this somehow romantic work by Kiefer, the days at the Knitting and Stitching show had vanishingly little to offer in speaking to something more than the somewhat consumerist aspects of contemporary textile crafts. Am I comparing apples and pears? well maybe, but I can't help thinking that if I want my work to sing it is by visiting the ideas of artists that inspiration will come, not so much from gathering overwhelming masses of stuff - the solitary reflection of ideas rather than the sensory overload of the crowded shopping hall...... However there is something fun about shopping that you can't completely ignore.