By Ruth Scheuing
“Text means Tissue; but whereas hitherto we have always taken this tissue as a product, a ready-made veil behind which lies, more or less hidden, meaning (truth), we are now emphasizing, in this tissue, the generative idea that the text is made, is worked out in a perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue - this texture - the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of (her) web. Were we fond of neologisms, we might define the theory of the text as an hyphology (hyphos is the tissue and the spider web).”
- Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
Ordinary textiles have meaning in everyday life: we sleep between sheets; we use towels, curtains and tablecloths daily; we wear clothes intimately, and; we communicate our needs and desires through clothes.
Language uses textile terms metaphorically and in common sayings. We speak of the “social fabric” of a society, which we might attempt to alter; and “the thread of life,” by which some of us barely manage to survive. Our lives become “interwoven” with the people around us and sometimes they become “enmeshed.” We try not to be fooled by “the emperor’s new clothes,” but sometimes we are, anyway.
Implied narratives are important aspects of language. This started with Penelope who, through her weaving and unweaving for three years, stalled the demands of her while Odysseus was away for 20 years (13 Men or Penelope, Penelope, Buried Stories).
Other stories from Greek mythology, written down by Ovid in “Metamorphoses,” and which deal with weaving, have influenced this recent work. These stories and this period are interesting for the ways they reflect social values that shaped Western culture as it exists today.
The exhibition contains three separate but related bodies of work: i) Alterations/Transformations, ii) Busts, and iii) Metamorphoses.
Alterations/Transformations function as literal deconstructions of men’s business suits through a process of selectively removing threads without adding new elements. Suit fabrics represent “invisible” symbols of power. These interventions into fabric structures, as if they were in fact real “fabrics of society,” examine and take them apart “thread by thread.” At the same time, the fabrics remain a relatively meaningless and subordinate aspect of a social construct. The structure of neutral grey becomes apparent as an interweaving of black and white threads and pinstripes become actual design features allowing for a multitude of imagery.
Busts is part of a series of larger-than-life-size women’s dress tops in white sheet metal, cut after traditional dress patterns from the 19th century and held together with screws and bolts, or “pop-rivets” - materials with typically masculine associations. The tension inherent in the process of shaping the unyielding metal into an apparent soft fabric construction makes the otherwise apparently seamless communication process visible.
Clothing functions as a codified system of communication, defining and expressing the identity of the body to the wearer and the observer. And from microbiology we know how cells (including skin cells) communicate information through osmosis via semi-porous membranes. Clothing as a “second skin” works in similar ways with respect to cultural and social factors, which in turn both influence and project the identity of the individual.
Metamorphoses are changes of form, shape, structure or substance. These transformations can be part of a natural organic development or products of magic (and maybe art). They result in a complete change of character, appearance, condition, etc.
In the third series, Metamorphoses, a suit exists as an object in itself, and in its relationship to the body. On one hand, it is patterned as a structured woven fabric, but it is also patterned after the body by the tailor. Tension exists between the grid structure of the flat woven fabric and the body whose shape it follows, highlights or defines. At connection points such as shoulders, darts and lapels, this tension is most visible.
Through metamorphoses each suit becomes an autonomous object with the potential to overcome its own history; that is, it evolves. The flattening-out of the suits in this exhibition is both real and metaphoric. By opening up the seams, the graphic contours of patterns that represent parts of the body become visible as two-dimensional surfaces. As “maps for the body” they allow us to “read” and define a resemblance to the body, similar to the explorer who codifies a new land or territory as a two-dimensional surface on a map.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells important stories of women who gave voice to their work as weavers and spinners, including Arachne, Philomela and the three daughters of Minyas.
Arachne challenged Athena in a weaving competition, for which they both completed a tapestry that contained imagery depicting specific narratives. Arachne depicted 21 instances of “seductive deceptions,” or rapes, by the Olympian gods of mortal women (stories such as “Leda and the Swan” and “Europa and the Bull”). When Athena saw this she tore the tapestry apart, punishing Arachne both for this challenge of a goddess and patroness of weaving, as well as the apparent representative of the male pantheon. Arachne in her sorrow tried to hang herself. Athena, regretting her rash act, changed Arachne into a spider instead, a primordial but silent and self-generating weaver - rendering Arachne a voiceless symbol of the defiant woman.
Philomela was raped by Thereus, her sister’s husband. Afterward he cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling. To overcome this, Philomela weaves her cry for help and revenge into a coat and sends it to her sister. This simple, domestic “`meaningless” garment easily passes the scrutiny of her jailors. Her sister understands the message and saves her, and both sisters avenge themselves quite brutally on Thereus. For this, all three were transformed into birds, forever chasing and being chased, twittering beyond human recognition.
Alcithoe, Leuconoe and a third unnamed sister, the three daughters of King Minya, defied the festivities for Bachus and instead celebrated their allegiance to Athena through their weaving. While working together with their maids the sisters tell long stories to pass the time so both their hands and minds will be occupied. When Bachus sees this he is furious and transforms the beautiful work of tender ivy leaves into a mass of garish living vines. And he transforms the three daughters into bats.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada