Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Research Point: The work of the textile artist / Anniken Amundsen.

How the work of the Textile Artist differs from that if the Designer, Designer-maker or Craftsperson: 

Finding this research point in the study file, my first reaction is Oh No Not Again. Is this recursive asking of essentially the same question really necessary? Why the preoccupation with these spurious distinctions? Does it come from resentment of the 'derisory manner in which textiles continue to be discussed within the wider spectrum of the visual arts.' ?(Brennand-Wood in FibreArts Sept-Oct 2000)

Is my lack of passion about the detail of this topic merely because I am part of a new generation of textile people who have not yet suffered from the prejudices of the art establishment? Or is it an attempt by the course tutors to focus the student's mind on the differences between the various markets, or more subtly on the difference between the expectations of a course like this and the the expectations of the world out there?

I have so far experienced the course-writers as bringing a great deal of thought and skill to the process of teaching me at a distance, so I am left thinking - well, perhaps as on previous occasions of confusion I am missing something, and trustingly pursuing this topic further will bring me enlightenment. So I continue...

What I have discovered from my reading is that the differences between the work of a textile artist, designer, designer-maker and craftsperson are defined by the person doing the making, rather than being fixed and understood by all.

Gopika Nath in The Art of Craft (1999 online) says 'Having worked within the realm of textiles for more than 20 years, I fid the idea of having to define myself as designer, craftsperson or artist as rather perplexing, for I find that I work as all three, and at given times, in certain contexts, this medium has allowed me to indulge and also emphasise the many facets of my creative being.' She goes on to comment that separating one's practice from the larger context of 'art' can be of value in allowing oneself to develop techniques and levels of skill.

Gopika Nath: Framed Fragility

Ann Sutton explained her own clear thinking about this issue in 1986: 'I work in the technique of weaving, sometimes as an artist, sometimes as a designer, sometimes as a craftsperson. I would starve if I just concentrated on fine art, so I am doing all three, and I find they complement each other.'

There is an implication in what she says here that if only she could afford it she would be just a fine artist. She trained in fine art, and there is a cultural idea, that I grew up with, that fine artists are more fully original and produce work that is more profoundly meaningful to society, and contribute to the development of the culture in a way that the others do not. As if the other kinds of art/craft workers are subservient to the prevailing culture rather than pushing it into another direction as Art (in its ideal form) does.

Ann Sutton piece used to advertise
her retrospective exhibition.

A philosophical aside:
From my reading I have found that this belief (that I hold to an extent that is not easily responsive to rational argument) is itself a cultural construct dating from the enlightenment philosophy of Kant.

According to Art Theory for Beginners by Richard Osborne and Dan Sturgis (pub 2006 Zidane Press Lond), Kant argued in his Critique of Judgement that

1. Seeing something as beautiful is different from just obtaining pleasure from it.
2. That beauty is an intrinsic aspect of a thing, and the perception of beauty is like 'common sense' in that it is not really explicable, but we all see it. Beauty is in some way true, in a way that pleasant to look at is not. This idea has led to the idea of High Art or Great Art, as opposed to the mundane low art. (Like classical and popular music I suppose).
3. And finally, he said that beautiful things appear to be 'purposive without purpose. that is to say they are not like an axe or a screwdriver, they do not have a specifically designed purpose, but we experience them as if they do. This peculiar property is part of the interaction of imagination and understanding that makes beauty such an interesting idea.'

These ideas were developed by Clive Bell (a writer and critic 1881-1964) and Herbert Read (1893-1968), who invented Formalism. They said that Form 'was what one was looking for in a work of was either good or bad, and if it was good it contained "significant form"...a combination of lines and colours that appeal to the viewers emotions and sensitivities.'  Bell seems to have believed that in order to respond to these lines and colours required education, and so these ideas have been condemned as elitist.

The book discusses these ideas as follows: 'The rise of capitalism, and of commodity cuture, in some ways added to this invention of High Art because it created a distinction between elite bourgeois culture and everyday proletarian entertainment...High Art/Low Art became a workable means of saying "this work is serious and important and has prestige" as opposed to "that work which is frivolous and unimportant". 

An additional art theory that has relevance to this question is Modernism which derides ornament and decoration as 'criminal' because it disguises the simple true form of things. Le Corbusier said in 1925 'the more cultivated a people becomes the more decoration disappears.' Post modernism has 'rediscovered decoration as meaningfully reflecting specific cultural traditions, and rejects absolute truths or grand narratives. Frederic Jameson b. 1934 wrote a criticism of postmodernism which he saw as celebrating 'a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense' as a result of commodity-driven popularism.

I have been thinking myself that the rise in commodity culture has actually increased the value of design to the marketplace, as everyone can see for sure that good design or attractive packaging command greater prices. This complicates the idea of Formalism rather, as 'significant form' that appeals to the buyer is more and more common, and is more generally understood by people without formal education in it.

What is often missing from this is the intensely personal which brings a special resonance to what I think of as works of art.

Anyway, to get back to the point, I do think that whether something is serious and important has less to do with the market-place than the extent to which it expresses something universal in a powerful way. Which does not exclude crafts, design or textile art. Even if the 'fine art' market appears to exclude these at the moment.

So, back to the differences between people who make things - there seems to be an idea among people who call themselves craftspeople that the process is the starting point.

Linda Behar embroidery

An interview with Linda Behar for American Craft 1998 quotes her as saying ' the stitching just took over..I have a very tactile approach to art making...When embroidering I respond to the feel of the fabric in my hands and quality of the threads I use.'  Her interest in texture is clear when you look at what she has made.

The Textile Book by Gale and Kaur (pub 2002 Berg Oxford) typifies the craft approach to textiles as 'meditative, disciplined... persistent approach, and a piecemeal solitary practice,' where the physical act of stitching can create a mood of reflection and be emotionally comforting. Equivalence is drawn between this rewarding experience and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience (pub 1991 Perennial NY) - a pleasurable type of consciousness in which intense focus and concentration occurs in pursuit of a challenging aim. The result is a sense of enjoyment so rewarding that people think that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.'

According to the Textile Book this is 'A term used in some countries to describe someone who designs and makes small numbers of items as an independent or small business.' It seems to be a response to local market conditions and can come from a craftsperson or a designer type motivation to make.

Lindsay Bloxam, a lighting designer who started in embroidery, says' I approach design in a different way to somebody like a product designer...I start with the overall work the problem round the 'wrong way'. 

The Textile book says: 'Starting with consideration of the eventual use of the fabric, textile designers develop ideas and realise their concepts. Marketable fabrics are created on the basis of informed decisions about colour, construction, composition, surface, pattern and yarn structure.'

This reinforces my impression that a designer is someone who makes things according to a brief of some kind, albeit with constant updating of their technical skills and use of inovative materials and processes. The implication when this term is used derogatorily is that there is little original creativity involved. Which idea is easily dispelled by taking a quick look at any of stars of textile design eg Jun'ichi Arai, co-founder of the Nuno Corporation.

Innovative textiles designed by Jun'ichi Arai
on the left : A weave titled “White Swan.” Courtesy Gallery Gen on the right: A detail of Arai’s stainless steel knit. Photo by Evan Kafka both via Metropolis Mag.

One difference between a designer and a textile artist seems to me to be that for the designer the brief is externally defined eg by an agent, an employer, or by the market. For an artist the brief is developed by the artist themselves during the process of making, and may never be made explicit. (Although there are of course some overlaps eg commissioned works).

Textile Artists:
People who call themselves textile artists are different because they wish to align themselves with fine artists in general. This can be discussed in a derogatory way, for example by Colchester in The New Textiles (1991 Thames and Hudson London) who said 'Look at it hard and the debate about art craft and design is about pretensions motivated by ambition, perhaps even greed, and the desire for personal glory.'  Or a pragmatic one - as in The Textile Book 'The issue of textile art is not fundamentally about whether it is art, craft or design, but about accessing fine art's industrial infrastructure, which is increasingly just a part of the media, leisure, tourism and interior decoration industries.' 

How do I view textile art?:
I have to say that for me this is all a bit bleak and materialist, and avoids mentioning the culturally based Romantic idea (which I hold to, again with irrational affection) that the Artist is driven by internal pressure to express their personal Truth in their work. In this context the wish align oneself with fine artists is an identification with the ideal of striving to perfect the expression of that truth through the harnessing of the unconscious parts of themselves by skill. In the last 50 years (IE longer than my lifetime) it has become acceptable to use any skill available for this purpose, so I can't think that textile techniques are excluded. In fact the evidence is that they are very much 'allowed'.

Tracey Emin Helter Fucking Skelter, copied from with the commentary:
'I do appreciate the casual and forthright use of stitching on her signature appliquéd blanket pieces. I’ve always liked the way that Emin uses textiles in such a confident fashion – unlike many other female artists working with stitch (myself included!) she never seems to get hung up on the domestic and feminine history of fabric; she just cracks on and does it with a ‘sod anyone who thinks sewing isn’t real art’ attitude!'
In addition, since I have always expressed myself using the skills and materials available to me, I see no reason why I should change from textiles in order to express myself. Textiles have cultural relevance to me, as a white middle-aged English woman, which cannot be fulfilled by other materials.

Anniken Amundsen
For the research point about two contemporary textile artists, I have started by finding out more about Anniken Amundsen.

Because she uses transparent/ frayed/ boundary transgressing textures;
she uses textile techniques to produce sculptures, often using unexpected materials;
and because there is something about them that appeals to the beautiful/ disgusting aesthetic,
all of which are aspects of what I find I produce myself.
Aspects that I am drawn into, almost despite what I think I 'should' be doing.

I used googleimages,, and Textile Perspectives in Mixed Media Sculpture by Jac Scott (see earlier blog) to compile this summary.

Anniken Amundsen: Invaders
I-09 (Growth Cones)
weave:silicone thread, metal wire, steel
Installation of 3 sculptures
Photo: Kjartan Proven Haudlid

Non-traditional materials including metal wire, fishing line, silicone thread, steel, photography.

Anniken Amundsen: Transition 2003
from Through the Surface
fishing line
Photo from Fibre Arts magazine

Annniken Amundsen: Invaders
I-08 (X-ray growth)
Weave, photogram
digital c-print


Anniken Amundsen 200x266
Miniature pieces for Bite Size exhibition
curated by Prof Lesley Millar at
Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in 2011.

Much of her work is imagery is around cancer, with cell-like objects created on a larger than life scale.

Article about the artist and her work by Oliver Lowenstein.

The installation for Balanced- Unbalanced below (green) takes up a very large space.
Anniken Amundsen:
Invaders I-06 (biopsy)
weave/mixed media
Photo: artist

Anniken Amundsen Installation
Photo by phatsheep
Portage: textiles, extremes of scale
Exhibition at the Shetland Arts' Bonhoga Gallery

Colours seem to have been largely restricted to red, white and metal, reflecting her interest in the inside of the body and its distortion and invasion by cancer, with the occasional dramatically different green the colour of new shoots.

Anniken Amundsen: Installation (detail) for 'balanced-unbalanced' exhibition at Kunstbanken, Hamar 2011
Photo: Jenny Rydhagen


Her work fits particularly well into this section of the course, often being made using variations of basket weaving techniques in three dimensions. Her training is in textile art, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and as you can see she has used other techniques, including photography.

Poster for Through the Surface
collaboration, showing weaving technique used.

Poster for Invaders exhibition 2002 showing weaving with ends of fishing line left to stick out like cilia or sharp growths from cells. 
The imagery is organic, and skinless, in the sense of being about the hidden workings of things. An example is the obvious artery image in the poster above. There is an intricacy to it all, and a meticulous attention to details, alongside a willingness to allow threads to stick out at odd angles.

These drawings from her journal during the 'Through the surface' project 

This imagery and such words as 'tentacles, nodes' seem to express her explorations of tiny, intricate but invasive cancer cells, while simultaneously impressing the viewer with disturbing images of body. Through the surface is an appropriate name for this imagery.

Artist/ Designer/ Craftsman issues
This artist makes objects in a way which appears to be driven by a need to express something about her cancer experiences. They are not conceptual in the usual 'high art' sense, but have a visceral impact which I associate with Art. They are exhibited in galleries and art exhibitions, and make me think about what I know about cancer in a new way.

The designer aspects of these pieces include the decision to use unusual materials with clear colour contrasts and translucency, decisions about size and presentation.

The basket work and other weaving in various pieces is meticulously done to a high level of skill, indicating craftsmanship.

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