By Jennifer Kaye, 1996
Memento vitae is a Latin phrase, which, literally translated, means “reminders of life.” It plays upon the better-known phrase, memento mori, which means “reminders of death” - those allusive symbols incorporated into Renaissance and Baroque paintings as reminders that beauty, possessions and life itself are transitory and fleeting.
Like these paintings, Gunilla Josephson's work is also highly symbolic, but in a much more affirming way. She draws her inspiration as an artist from the rich cultural legacy of her native Sweden and its Nordic neighbours, creating objects that make reference to specific types of historical textiles such as blankets, tablecloths and cushions. Made from felt or linen and multi-layered with wax, her objects do not share the function of their historical prototypes. Josephson has referred to this separation of form from function as “a liberation of the cloth from itself.”
Josephson recognizes that liberation is a process in which there is something both gained and lost, and she presents both sides of the process. What is lost, in this case, is the usefulness of the prototypes to which Josephson's objects refer. Her “blankets,” for example, are interpretations of historical blankets that were handmade for use during specific life rituals such as childbirth, marriage and death. They were an important element in the observance of rites of passage and were considered valuable family heirlooms. Thus, they acquired a symbolic value in Nordic society that arose specifically from their utility, and which was enhanced by their beauty.
Josephson's Untitled (Barnfilt), for example, is an interpretation of a blanket that was made by a mother for her child in the 18th century from the cloth of a dead soldier's uniform. The utility of the original is emphasized through an inscription at the bottom of the work that reads “SOV GOTT,” meaning “sleep well.” There is clearly symbolic value in the original, which derives from its intended daily use as a cover for a mother's child. This value would have been appreciated throughout Nordic society at that time.
In Josephson's wax interpretation, however, the utility of the original is lost. No longer capable of helping anyone to sleep well, Untitled (Barnfilt) can participate only symbolically in these past traditions of textile creation and use. The loss of utility that is achieved through Josephson's act of liberation gives her work a melancholy air, which is reinforced through her use of wax as the primary medium - a substance that can itself vanish through use.
At the same time, there is something gained through this act of liberation. Stripped of their function, Josephson's objects have become purely symbolic. As such, they take on an iconic quality that makes them “larger than life.” It is as if the originals, now immortalized in wax, have acquired a life of their own through the intervention of the artistic process.
In discussions about her work, Josephson has addressed this dichotomy of gain and loss through liberation in the juxtaposition of two Swedish words - tjeld and lösöre. Tjeld is an old Swedish term that means “covering cloth.” The historical traditions of textile creation and use, to which Josephson's work refers, centre around tjeld - textiles that have an intrinsic social value that is derived from their utility. Lösöre, on the other hand, is a more current term that means “the stuff that we cart around with us when we move from place to place that is seemingly insignificant, but that nevertheless gives us a sense of ourselves and our history.” In a sense, lösöre is like tjeld that has been liberated; it has lost its utility, and thus no longer plays a central role in daily ritual. But lösöre also gains in symbolic value, acquiring the ability to define personal identity and history.
A familiar type of textile whose value has shifted in this manner is the quilt. Once valued equally for functionality and beauty, quilts are increasingly becoming collectibles valued as precious objects that only symbolically refer to the past traditions of their creation and use. In fact, since the widespread industrialization of textile manufacturing began in the late 19th century, this shift in the perceived value of textiles has become quite common in keeping with the post-Industrial Revolution commodification of items that were once humbly essential to daily existence.
Through the works of art in this exhibition, Gunilla Josephson has indeed liberated cloth from itself. Consequently, her works function as memento vitae - reminders not of death, but of the lives that were lived in meaningful connection with their historical prototypes, and of the symbolic lives of the objects themselves.
My work initiates a dialogue with textiles from past Scandinavian contexts and is based on an attempt to address and communicate an uncertainty. A grandmother's textile, as a highly symbolic, inanimate object, comes to us in the present and helps us define and understand our own relation to our time. Momentarily, it makes sense of the world for us.
But the textile also presents us with a loss: we are reminded that the true knowledge of the textile can never be recaptured. In turn, our own contexts, our own selves (as experienced through a code of visual or linguistic symbols) are also permeated with these encounters of loss. In other words, the ambiguity characterizing this dialogue stems from the constant slippage between the ability of the “new” textiles to carry meaning, and the failure of the meaning. The reconstruction of textiles opens up a space for a contemplation of this double activity.
This uncertain dialogue is carried out through a series of displacements of the symbolic qualities of the textiles. A thread, a word and a functional object are shifted to a line of wax, a series of letters, and an art object. The pliability of cloth is replaced by the tautness of the wax blanket. The characteristic patterns of a weave or embroidery are “reproduced,” thus referring to, but not repeating these traditional processes. Traces of textiles are found in the wax, and with these traces, the works signal the eruption of what is wholly “other” to a symbolic system such as the textiles, emphasizing the ever-changing meaning and context of each symbolic object and activity.
Gunilla Josephson is originally from Sweden and currently resides in Toronto. She studied at the University of Stockholm and received an MFA from the Academy of Arts and Design in Stockholm, Sweden.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada