How cloth and culture just knit together

Angi Kennedy Norfolk has a long connection with textile manufacture, but an exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre will show how important textile history is in the cultural identity of countries across the world.

Angi Kennedy

Textiles weave a deep connection through our lives and communities. Even if we do not always realise their significance, we can recognise their patterns, understand their tradition and admire their beauty.

And a major exhibition that opens in Norwich tomorrow examines the influence of culture and tradition on contemporary textile practice.

Featured are works by 35 artists from Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania and the UK, using traditional techniques and materials such as tapestry, knitting and embroidery as well as digital print and photography, optic fibres, moulded plastics, rusted metal and even bin bags.

The exhibition, at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, is called Cloth and Culture NOW and is the culmination of three years' research by Lesley Millar, professor of textile culture at the University College for the Creative Arts.

Lesley, who curates the exhibition, explained how she wanted to show the way tradition informs modern practice in textiles, particularly highlighting works being made now in the Baltic countries and in Japan.

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“Cloth is really something that transcends or travels across national boundaries and geographical areas. People understand how it is made and its use, even if that use is altered,” she said. “In villages, for instance, where there is a certain pattern on belts, people will recognise that pattern and will know if it appears somewhere else that it is out of place and that there is a reason why it is out of place.

“Certainly in Japan there is very much a sense of specific identity being expressed through it. And when abstract art was banned in the Soviet Union, many artists moved into textiles and it was used as a means of subversion that was overlooked by the police and politicians because it was seen as textiles not art.

“Now of course it is absolutely fascinating to be working with these Baltic countries, because they are having to find a new way of connecting with their national identity as well as dealing with global influences and knowing how to reach out into the world.”

In her introduction to the lavishly illustrated catalogue that supports the exhibition, curator Lesley Millar wrote: “I have been told that there is a mountain tribe in China who, maybe a thousand years ago migrated to the Mayo region from the country's lowland rice fields.

“Their traditional embroidered wedding cloaks are created from triangles of yellow, brown and green silk: the pattern of the rice fields they left behind so long ago. Although they have forgotten the fields, the cloth keeps the memory.

“In this and many other ways, cloth holds the memory of our time and connects us with memories of other times and other places.”

In that way, she sees the exhibition as marking “a moment in time”, as both culture and textile practices are constantly changing.

But as well as reflecting these aspects of cultural identity, the works included in the exhibition are pieces of great beauty and in many cases extraordinary architectural structure.

This is the third project Lesley has collaborated on with the Sainsbury Centre, and she believes this one promises “a visual feast”. She said: “Visitors to the exhibition will be amazed at what comes under the umbrella term of textiles as it is an extraordinarily broad canopy.

“Some of the artists are working literally with a piece of cloth and you will recognise that. For instance, Diana Harrison is pushing quilting to its absolute extreme but it is still recognisable as quilting. But there are others like Helena Hietanen for instance who is working with woven fibre optics, or Zane Berzina who uses her textile knowledge and scientific methodology to create her installations and work on scientific investigation of the skin.

“The 35 artists in the exhibition represent the most exciting contemporary textile practitioners in each of their countries. The artists are using textile history to investigate the importance of specific cultural identity and trans-cultural influences in their work.

“What unites them all is their passion for textiles and that they do not want to work in any other medium, but also it is their connection with their history. Even in the UK where we are so cool and do not want to admit our heritage, you read their web statements and you see that they see their tradition and history are so important.

“It is so for me,” she added. “I trained as a weaver and I am utterly passionate about tradition and contemporary practice.

“This renegotiation and reinterpretation of tradition is the best chance for the survival of tradition.”

Among the artists featured in the exhibition are:

t Michael Brennand-Wood (UK) has an international reputation as one of the most innovative and inspiring artists working in textiles. His work in the exhibition, Stars Underfoot - Random Precision, is a large mosaic of bold coloured embroidered flowers made from acrylic, wire, glass, fabric and thread. Michael Brennand-Wood's striking contemporary work reflects his fascination with the traditional use of flower pattern in textiles.

t Freddie Robins' (UK) desire for perfection and her emphasis on the importance of skill has led her to explore new technologies. Her work, The Perfect: Alex, is a beautiful, quirky knitted head. It has been produced on a cutting-edge computerised knitting machine that can 'knit in-the-round', averting the need for seams and creating a garment as a single piece.

t Mitsuo Toyazaki (Japan) trained in dying and katagami (traditional stencil technique). His new work, Passage of Time, is an installation of four leaves - each six metres by two metres - made entirely of small buttons with painstaking precision. The work reflects his concern with colour and pattern. He explained: “I work using simple methods avoiding excessive actions that in turn produce excessive expression. As I work, a new meaning emerges over and above my own intentions, I hope to bring into existence the unique beauty of each work.”

t Auste Jurgelionyte (Lithuania) is a felt-maker and animator who uses her work to tell stories that are funny, beautiful and unpredictable. She said: “There is an abundance of different art forms here in Lithuania. I have always admired old tapestries, but references to modern art can also be found in my work. I want to be mobile, to utilise modern communication technology.”

t Ieva Krumina (Latvia) screen prints “stories” onto polythene bin bags. Her Sainsbury Centre installation, Nobody, describes an army that has forgotten what it is fighting for and has been forgotten by those who sent it to fight. Krumina's work features other cultures and she uses different sources for ideas, from books and movies, to museums. She stated: “ I know that it is not African, American or Asian art 'as such' that has affected me, but the images, colours and shapes that 'carry' an idea which is of importance to me in a certain period of life.”

t Dzintra Vilks' (Latvia) work for the exhibition, Meeting of the World Torn Winds, demonstrates the techniques she has developed to create larger sculptural forms. Her stunning bamboo installation, which is has approximately a metre square (and will be added to during the exhibition), is held together using needle and thread.

t Kadri Viires (Estonia) works with felt and photographic image. She is interested in the story of how pattern can be passed between cultures. She commented: “Living on our little plot of land on the shores of the Baltic Sea, we consider ourselves one of the oldest settled peoples. Throughout our history colour has been added to our cultural development through influences from the north, south, east and west, as well as from land and sea. But the primary influence and modifier of all cultures is nature and the environment in which those cultures operate, and this also applies here in Estonia.”

The exhibition - which is supported by the Arts Council, the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation and the University College of Creative Arts - will stay at the Sainsbury Centre until June 1, and will tour to the Whitworth Gallery at the University of Manchester in the autumn. But Lesley hopes it will eventually be able to move on to venues in the other participating countries, especially Japan where some of the finest textile works are now being produced.

t Cloth & Culture NOW runs from Tuesday January 29 to Sunday June 1, 2008 at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the University of East Anglia campus. The exhibition is open Tuesday to Sunday (closed Mondays), 10am to 5pm and is also open until 8pm on Wednesdays. Tel 01603 593199 Admission to the exhibition is £2 (concessions £1), free to Sainsbury Centre Friends and the under-fives. Family admission (up to two adults and three children) £5, concessions £3.

EXHIBITION EVENTS

The Sainsbury Centre is running a series of educational events to support Cloth and Culture NOW. Among those planned are:

t Spring INSET evening for teachers: Wednesday, January 30, 5-8pm. Booking essential, free for School Friends, £5 for non-School Friends; includes drinks and dinner. Tours, guidance, practical sessions and more, including dinner.

t Sunday Film Series: Cloth and Culture NOW - Sundays, February 17, April 13 and May 11, film starts 2pm in Education Studio. Booking not required, free. For full listings of films playing on each Sunday, visit www.scva.ac.uk or call 01603 593199.

t Supper Talks: Fridays, February 22, March 14 and April 25, 6.30pm start at Gallery Café. Booking essential, £15, £10 concessions. Spend an evening with the exhibiting artists.

t Weekend Workshops: 10.30am-4.30pm in the Education Studio. Booking essential, £20, £14 concessions. Stories and Cloth, Saturday February 23 and Sunday 24, exploring narratives with Ieva Krumina from Latvia and Auste Jurgelionyte from Lithuania. Architecture and Space, Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16, textiles, space, design and consultation with Outi Martikainen and Agneta Hobin from Finland. Surface and Experiment, Saturday and Sunday, April 26 and 27, pattern construction and manipulation of complex surface structures with Zane Berzina from Latvia and Michael Brennand-Wood from the UK.

t Friday workshops: 10.30am-4.30pm. Booking essential, £20, £14 concessions (book for two Friday workshops in one transaction and save £5). Fernando Marques Penteado, February 8, create your own embroidered visual material to communicate ideas. Christine Grey, March 7, experiment with ways of weaving lettering, words and phrases into the body of a piece of textile art using simple tapestry techniques. Naoko Asakura, April 11, discover how to make a yarn from the Karamushi plant using an ancient technique. Biddy Rychnovsky, April 18, knit sentences using simple text, basic knitting skills required. Leslie Sercombe, May 9, explore practical skills in bobbin lace-making and experiment with using various thread. Jane Frost, May 23, insight into the use of threads and materials and their value to communities.

t Exhibition talks: Thursdays, January 31 , February 7, 14, 21 and 28, March 6, 13, 27, April 3, 10, 17, 24 , May 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29, 1.15pm-1.45pm, meet at Gallery reception. Booking not required, free (but entry to Cloth and Culture NOW will be charged for talks that enter the special exhibition area). Get extra insight into the exhibition and discover different perspectives on textiles with visiting speakers