By Kai Chan
Cloth is essential to human living, but when does a piece of cloth become “meaningful” to someone? What causes this transformation? Does a snake ever ponder the skin it has just shed? Does a butterfly remember the different forms of existence through its metamorphosis? What lives in the human heart?
My earliest memory of cloth comes from when I was six years old. I was living with my grandmother in her huge old house in a village near Guangzhow, China. My grandmother had a slight body with bound feet, but she could carry a wooden ladder twice her height around the house to put burning incense in front of the gods and ancestors in the specially built balconies. She also had a huge voice to match her strength. I was always careful not to invoke one of her thundering scolds upon me. One day she gave me a pair of red shorts that she had made for me. I was very excited because until then everything I wore was either black or dark blue. I remember I wore those shorts and ran out to the streets to show them off. Now, many years later, I still remember my grandmother’s stern face, but every time I think of those red shorts, my heart glows for her.
After I came to Canada, my mother used to send me a “care” package every year. In it, there were always some clothes that she thought I should be wearing for they were the fashion in Hong Kong. I usually put them in the closet and tried to ignore them because they were so different from what everyone around me was wearing. After my mother died, I began to wear them. For over the years I have grown used to their presence, and mostly, they reminded me so much of my mother.
In the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto that I frequent on Saturdays, I have often seen an elderly lady there. She carries an old, market basket that is made of grass, with long shoulder straps like the type I have seen in the markets of Paris. Her basket has been mended many times over with threads that match the colour of the grass, and the stitches now cover the entire basket. I often wonder about the stories behind that basket, and have many times been tempted to stop the lady and ask her about it. My curiosity was aroused by those carefully applied stitches. I wonder if the lady is aware that she has changed the entire appearance of the basket?
Does any snake ever notice the changing appearance in human beings? Are butterflies aware that humans may go through a metamorphosis without changing form?
- Kai Chan, 1992
By Ingrid Bachmann
The curatorial project Poke Out Her Eyes and Other Stories attempts to address several intentions; first, to examine the role of textiles in shaping and reflecting cultural, social and individual identities; to extend the constituency of the Museum for Textiles to a new and varied audience, and; to question certain conventions of museum practice.
Our locus is the city of Toronto and its environs. Although Toronto is a large, Western, industrial city with a significant textile manufacturing industry, the majority of the contributors’ stories concern textiles and cloth in the realm of the personal and the private. This provokes a number of observations and speculations about the roles of textiles and textile objects in people’s lives including the notions of cloth as carriers of personal and cultural narratives, issues of collecting and collections, the problematic of the object in a market economy, and gender issues as they relate to the historical Western association of textiles with women.
Poke Out Her Eyes and Other Stories
The majority of objects in this exhibition function as heirlooms or family mementos and reveal the capacity of objects to serve as traces of meaningful experiences. Heirlooms are intimately linked with the life histories of individuals and mark rites of passage such as birth, death and marriage. Susan Stewart, in her seminal book On Longing, suggests that “the function of the heirloom is to weave, by means of narrative, a significance of blood relations at the expense of a larger view of history and causality”.1 In other words, it collapses the three-dimensional world of individual and collective experiences, the public or exterior world, into a representation or material sign. The heirloom offers this reduction of physical dimensions, of individual and collective experiences, to expand the personal. For after all, “without markings, all ancestors become abstractions”.2
To retrieve such memories or perhaps more accurately, to invent memories, is one purpose of the heirloom. This retrieval, as Maureen Sherlock notes, “is loaded with contradictions, for our memory of the past is difficult to separate from the project of our desires”.3 Thus, the heirloom, the keepsake and the memento function metonymically: the memory of the life experience is replaced by the memory of the object. As contributor June Dickin remarks of her submission, “the coverlet is worn and torn and not saying anything of beauty, but it is my legacy and memory of a truly remarkable lady.” In Freudian terms, the heirloom can be seen as a fetishized object “doubly charged with significance: as guarantor of completeness and as memory of lack”.4
Most of the textiles in this exhibition have little material worth within the system of the exchange economy of late capitalism, but because of their intimate connection to biography, they are all of great value to their owners. Despite the absence of a collective or monetary price tag, the value of these objects is projected into them by the desires of those who preserve and collect them. Stewart suggested the heirloom “speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing â€“ for it is not an object arising out of a need or use value: it is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia”.5
Recent critical theory has focused on the position of the object as fetish in a commodity culture.6 Consumption has been described as “the scripting of a passive individual who is moulded by and identified with a hegemonic ruling ideology”7 - that is, late capitalism. However, the fetishized object, in Karl Marx’s terms, must have a reference system within the system of the exchange economy since it is the object’s position in a system of referents, and not any intrinsic value of the object itself that determines its fetishistic value.
In Western society, even though we live in a world of objects where cynics would suggest that “you are what you own,” where the old adage “I think therefore I am” has long been replaced with “I shop therefore I am,” and where our social relations are mediated by objects; they are not, as Maureen Sherlock asserts, reducible to them.8 In this environment where advertising and media constitute a massive ideological intervention in our daily lives, many of the objects in this exhibition offer a site of resistance where value is determined by personal narrative and a living relationship with the object rather than by a consumer ethos. The collecting of memorabilia (objects outside of the market economy, with its attendant influences of consumption and advertising) frustrates the homogenizing power of consumption and begins to reclaim a site for the active construction of the world.
An example of this reclamation can be seen in Nancy Fisher’s handmade skirt, which has become a uniform of sorts - free of fashion and market influences. “It was a wonderful experience,” she writes: “freedom from the tyranny of clothing, always comfortable, always calm. Of course there is no point in reducing one’s wardrobe to only one outfit, but it does have some important consequences. Less time is spent in selection, in care, in decision making and thus more time is available for other things. Wearing the same clothes for every occasion takes away the special association of clothing with role and event. This is contrary to most ceremonial and ritualistic behaviour let alone dressing up… Because I wore the same thing all the time, clothing barely entered my consciousness.”
This ability to confer status on objects and representation that are excluded from the dominant aesthetic of the time is a way of asserting one’s position in social space9, and is also evident in the eloquent and moving stories contributed by Selma MacHenry, Gordana Olujic Dosic and George Chambers. They bear witness to historical events that risk being forgotten in a world saturated by media hype and politically controlled agendas.
It is significant to note the “home” for these objects is the home. A great deal has already been written on the association of textiles with women, with the home, with women’s production, and of the role and reception of textiles and textile practices in reflecting dominant social and cultural values. It is significant that the majority of the contributors to this exhibition are female, that these objects have little material or monetary worth, and that their nexus of movement is the home.
In Western culture textiles function on many levels; as a means to profit in the textile and garment industries; to mark important and ceremonial occasions in both the public and private spheres (banners, commemorative cloths, christening robs), and; as signifiers of behaviour and cultural customs. Margo Fagan describes a towel that was hand woven by her husband’s aunt for her dowry in pre-war Italy. “She said it was such a tedious task to sit for immeasurable hours just spinning and weaving. While working, she’d imagine her future and how she would eventually use all the cloth.” As it turns out, this aunt grew quite old and never did get married, but when another woman offered to buy her dowry she said she would rather “poke out her eyes” than give it up.
- Susan Stewart. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University press, 1984), p.137.
- Ibid., p.139.
- Maureen Sherlock. “Home Economics,” in Arts Magazine (Summer 1992), p.51.
- Victor Burgin. The End of Art Theory, (New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1986), p.19.
- On Longing, p.139.
- Commodity fetishism is a term coined by Marx in maintaining that though commodities appear to be simple objects, they are in fact bundles of social relationships once they enter into the sphere of market exchange and value.
- “Home Economics,” p.51.
- Ibid., p.55.
- Trinh T. Minh-ha. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics, (New York: Routledge, 1991), p.230.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada