Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices

“It is only art that is able to hold our interest any length of time,” writes Anni Albers in this exhibition's titular essay. Pliable Planes wears historical time on its surfaces, but its long view is also turned along new, speculative lines of possibility.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised by the number of pets present at UNSW Galleries for the opening of Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices. Associations between textiles and the domestic sphere  – and attendant notions of the feminine, the soft, the sweetly corporeal, and the “low” – are key points of departure for co-curators Catherine Woolley and Karen Hall. The departure from these historical entanglements is swift, and structural. Just as the title promises, the exhibition’s treatment of the stories it speaks back to is not an abrupt negation, but truly an expansion: an airy unfurling of the field. After all, in “The Pliable Plane; Textiles in Architecture,” 1957, for which the show was named, Anni Albers considers that “if the nature of architecture is the grounded, the fixed, the permanent, then textiles is its very antithesis.” 

The radicality of showing textiles in public contexts is historicised, within global and Australian frameworks, by both the exhibition and the accompanying series of public programs. The work of Albers at the Bauhaus and beyond, including at Black Mountain College, to think through, teach about, and advocate for the place of textiles in public life is the foundation of the show’s historical story. There are strong connections to the Bauhaus – where Albers took the textile workshop as one of a reduced set offerings available to women – and to the European modernism to which is was so central, in both the exhibited works themselves and in their histories of display. Jacqueline Stojanović’s Concrete Fabric, 2019, for example, was first shown in McClelland Sculpture Park+Gallery’s Haus Werk: The Bauhaus in Contemporary Art, 2019. Incidentally, this exhibition was staged as part of a global series celebrating the centenary of the Bauhaus – another component of which, Bauhaus Now! at Buxton Contemporary, featured the work of Elizabeth Pulie, whose survey show occupied the space at UNSW Galleries immediately prior to Pliable Planes. Then again, these incidents never really seem like accidents.

The European modernist inflections of Australia’s recent history of public textile display also extend beyond the art gallery itself. Antonia Syme, Director of the Australian Tapestry Workshop, articulated this broader history at Starting at Zero, the one-day symposium held on the show’s opening weekend. Here, Syme drew particular attention to the place of tapestries in the architectural designs of Harry Seidler, and to the Le Corbusier tapestry, Les Dés Sont Jetés (“The Dice are Cast”). This work was originally commissioned by Jørn Utzon for the Sydney Opera House in 1958, and only purchased for the display in the Opera House itself in 2015, after spending fifty years in Denmark, at the Utzon family home.

While historical time of various scales thus rumbles through the gridded underbellies of the works, the durational experience of the pieces in the gallery space – to the scale of minutes, perhaps, or to looped hours if you can spare them – must also be taken into account. I felt this particularly acutely with two works that include sound components. Akira Akira’s considered sequence of small-scale needlepoint tapestries from the series New Perseverance, 2016–ongoing, includes an enveloping soundscape made through a spontaneous, abstracted process of data sonification. The data of which the sound is comprised come from a spreadsheet into which Akira records the accidental gaps that emerge in his labour-intensive work of weaving. The other gap, between the immediacy of Akira’s soundscape and the long, iterative, and quieter duration of his stitching, is soaked through with soft feeling. Kate Scardifield’s two-channel video installation You Don’t Need Me to Tell You, 2022, with a soundscape made with assistance from Laurence Pike and cinematographer Josh Raymond, refers both to a 2019 residency at Bundanon, on the New South Wales South Coast, and to longer and wider histories – largely naval – of signal-making using the vital materials of fabrics in concert with the wind. The two video channels of the work, their screens nearly touching at angles to each other in their room, occasionally intersect visually, but never quite temporally. The work’s timelines may approach each other, but never run entirely parallel. Just as Scardifield’s wind-blown ream of synthetic fabric envelops her body in the landscape, so too are we bundled up, continually reoriented by the work in a non-progressive temporality that is itself reminiscent of the repetitious work of sewing.

Examples of co-authorship with human, material, and atmospheric collaborators run throughout the exhibition. Mikala Dwyer’s The Nurses, 2020, calls upon the magic – and the chillingly prophetic power – of textile materials. Dwyer’s work reminds me of a thing I often forget, or suppress: that the fabrics we wear close to our skin, and with which we shelter and protect ourselves, are, by necessity, porous. 

Other artists engage more directly with the hand of technology. Anne-Marie May’s Unforseen Constellations, 2022, uses a computer-aided design and drawing program to plot a set of coordinates, which May stitches and cuts out as paths and voids in the heavy fabric of a carpet. May’s work hangs vertically from the ceiling, echoing the form and the architectural function of Paul Knight’s tender As Moons and Double Suns, both 2022, in the next room. 

Janet Fieldhouse’s works in keraflex porcelain are at once products of invention and a rich cultural history, shaped especially by Fieldhouse’s matrilineal connections to the communities of Badu (Mulgrave), Muau (Moa), Kirri (Hammond) and Erub (Darnley) Islands. Delicate, these sequences of armbands and baskets are animated by Fieldhouse’s technical mastery, but also by the pedagogical work of her communities, and those she has recently visited for research in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

Sarah Contos’s Two Minutes and Six Seconds of Bubblegum, 2022, represents a new approach for the artist. The work is doubly collaborative. Working with her partner to cast soft textile forms in metal, Contos also uses the rhythm of bubblegum pop music as a compositional device, not unlike the spatial structuring devices of the rulers and grids from which John Nixon and Jacqueline Stojanović’s collaborative series are built. Nixon and Stojanović’s works, with their use of readymade objects, are deliciously ironic in their dual embrace and rejection of modernist tropes: formally, they mine the strategies of mid-century abstraction, while methodologically, they resist its valorisation of the artist as an hermetically sealed authority over their own handiwork.

I’d wondered, before seeing the show, whether its emphasis on the dispersed relationships between Australian practices and European histories would dull its attention to local traditions. Katie West’s Sunrise after sunrise, sunset after sunset, 2022–ongoing, is a balm here. In her panel at Starting at Zero, West described the experience of depicting woven dilly bags made by her family’s Yindjibarndi ancestors as an opening of a portal – deftly figured by the objects’ open mouths – into cultural knowledges, which had been disrupted by her family’s experiences with the Stolen Generations. The other work referring directly to this continent’s west coast, Teelah George’s magnetic Sky Piece, falling (Melbourne, Perth), 2020–2021, gestures to intangible memories of skies unrolled across two Australian cities. George’s work is pitched high, at ecstasy and elegy. Its weighty bronze grid-form, which stands in front of its textile base, is at once a limit and an opening: a view out onto something always already escaping us.

I remember feeling myself inhabit this view in front of Lucia Dohrmann’s Quatrefoil 1 – Weft, and Quatrefoil 2 – Weft, both 2022. The works are named for the absent pieces of themselves, the weft stands of their canvases. Remnant warp strands fall, lucent, from aluminium bars. They’re the available traces of a larger canvas painting, retaining only half of its original colour. They fall with a surprising volume, as if they’d taken an inhalation. The space between them is minute, but it is there; their ends cast shadows only just perceptibly against the wall. In the opening movements of “The Pliable Plane,” Albers suggests that both weaving and architecture “construct a whole from separate parts that retain their identity,” but that in a modern context, “new methods . . . are adding increasingly to fusion as opposed to linkage.” Dohrmann’s work seems to ask what might be “added” not by fusion, but by diffusion. I discuss the piece with a friend, who thinks that this is what devastation is. Dohrmann’s, too, is a work of duration. 

Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices more than delivers on its promises. It is no longer so radical to suggest that textile work has a place in both domestic and public life, and indeed in the gallery. Nor is it new – though perhaps yet necessary – to remind us that “women’s work” is important work (Katie West comments, on sexism, that “I don’t think it’s necessarily about textiles; sometimes it’s just about being a woman”). That the show looks outwards from, and around, its own ambivalent history – that it takes an inhalation – is its great strength.    

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022. 
Images courtesy the artists, Gallery 9, Sydney, Neon Parc, Melbourne, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, Sarah Cottier Gallery, Sydney, and UNSW Galleries, Sydney.

Pliable Planes: Expanded Textiles & Fibre Practices
29 April – 17 July 2022
UNSW Galleries, Sydney

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