QRacks the Land © Radical Cross Stitch
I’ve always been interested in feminine perspectives within the arts. That is to say, I’m interested in art that speaks to me as a woman, somehow conveying a distinct essence of womanliness. So when I went to the exhibition “Double Sexus” in Berlin last year, I expected to find a particular feminine take in the sexually charged surrealist sculptures, drawings and photos by Louise Bourgeois, versus that of Hans Bellmer. But I was in for a bit of a surprise. Although Bourgeois and Bellmer never met, their strangely formed dolls were strikingly similar. To the point that the number of distinguishing remarks that can be made about Bourgeois’ work is limited to just one: a specifically female language of expression in her use of fabric.
Fragile Goddess 2002, Fabric, Courtesy Cheim & Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth © Louise Bourgeois Photo: Christopher Burke
It would go too far to label Bourgeois’ textile sculptures feminist. Still, by using fabric she places herself within the tradition of a predominantly female métier. Her sculptures call attention to an undervalued feminine craft, and for my part triggered a fascination in women’s textile work in artistic production.
Traditionally, women have knitted, woven and stitched for economic reasons, and until only recently this work was largely excluded from art historical discussions. But needlework forms a red thread in the history of women’s creative production, with works like the “Bayeux Tapestry”, a large-scale medieval masterpiece depicting the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, or Harriet Powers’ “Pictorial Quilt” (1895-98), showing bible stories with figures of cloths, prove that the craft of needlework and the domain of art have always overlapped.
Needlework and crafts played a central role in the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s, when many women artists appropriated this traditionally female activity in their work as a means of reasserting ownership of feminine production, while also pushing the boundaries of conceptions of what constituted art. One notable example is Faith Wilding’s “Crocheted Environment (Womb Room),” installed in “Womanhouse” in 1972. Its walls are made of webbed ropes, complimented by crocheted patterns. The “Womb Room” can be understood as allegory to motherly care, as it offers recourse, but also requiring a lot of work.
Crocheted Environment (Womb Room), 1972. © Faith Wilding
In that, it interestingly resembles Louise Bourgeois’ oversize spider sculptures, which are, frightening as they may seem, an homage to her mother. The spider symbolizes her mother’s trade as weaver, its large scale representing her mother’s strength, and its long legs forming a protective room. Thus, both artists express an appreciation for motherly protection; but Wilding adds a political dimension by commenting on domestic labor.
Today, needlework is experiencing a renaissance, with many young women rediscovering their grandmothers’ craft to create both artistic works and political commentary, particularly capitalist-critical statements.
Some activist groups, like the “Craftivist Collective” in London, use fabric in their street art. On the occasion of London fashion week 2010, the collective hung up small, hand-stitched cloth banners highlighting the extremely low wages of garment workers in Vietnam to passersby. “Radical Cross Stitch” in Melbourne also displays a very creative way of uttering critique, spreading their messages by applying yarn on fences in a way that makes them look like cross stitch embroidery. Among their works, my personal favorite is a large cross stitch QR-code, titled “QRacks in the Land”, made for the Streets of Melbourne festival in 2009. Suspended in public view, the work questions the use of QR-codes for advertising only, instead of using its potential as a non-corporate communication medium.
Frauke Ehlers holds a B.A. Arts & Culture with a specialization in Arts, Literature, and Culture, and is currently a candidate for the MA Arts and Heritage – Management, Policy, and Education at Maastricht University, Netherlands.