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Needle and Thread

Natalie Bradbury takes a trip to the Whitworth and weaves patterns of delight

Published on September 26th 2008.

Needle and Thread

What, Where, When? 'Cloth & Culture Now: Contemporary International Textile Art', The Whitworth Art Gallery, until 14 December.

Contemporary textile artists from Estonia, Finland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania and the UK.

Textiles: what's there to look at?
Works range from large panels to small fragments of cloth magnified as a comment on the role of science in art. Masae Bamba's installation 'Flame', which uses traditional Japanese Shiborizoe dying, creeps up the wall like a tie dyed fire made out of crinkly crepe paper. Agneta Hobin from Finland reinterprets another abstract sensation, 'Air', in patinated bronze wire and woven strips of mica. Her sculptural hanging cages twist and glitter golden as you walk past, and cast shadows on the gallery wall. Helena Hietenan also incorporates light into 'Reflective Surface'.

It's all a bit whimsical, then?
Some of the work is delicate and beautiful, but there's often a political message lurking behind fragile lace. Estonian artist Aune Taamal's dreamy, sheer organza cloth is one of the most striking works in the show, a fine white gauze comprised of angels – as a recognisable symbol worldwide, the artist uses it to 'connect people across national boundaries' – embroidered with gold thread, like dewy spiderwebs caught in early morning sun. Another Estonian artist, Mare Kelman hangs Estonian national lace patterns cut like giant snowflake decorations or paper dolls.

Isn't it a bit hard to be challenging with fussy, old lady embroidery and cross stitch?
No – many of the artists whose work is on display come from Baltic states, former satellite countries of the Soviet Union. Textiles are closely bound to heritage, and retaining national pride in the face of oppression. Lina Jonike uses folk iconography and rustic images of Lithuania such as an ice fish house to acknowledge the crafts of her grandmothers, patchwork and textile factory workers. Many of the countries represented retain close ties with nature, a constant theme in the exhibition.

A strong sense of place and time also comes across, because as well as containing found objects, the textiles are often intricately worked and adorned like the creation of history.

Ieva Krumina, admitting how closely her cultural ties are defined by textiles, likens Latvian identity to 'wearing a coat', and even the everyday pair of gloves by Peteris Sidas is marked out as a product of his country Latvia; the knitting pattern is local to the region of Courland, where he grew up.

Traditional techniques are reinterpreted by new technology and innovative use of materials: Krumina's 'Nobody' is a screen print onto bin bags, whilst Laime Orzekauskiere updates old Lithuanian stripe motifs with digital technology and fellow Lithuanian Auste Jurgelionyte creates animation from textile art.

Severija Incirauskaite – Krauneviciene, too, recreates Lithuanian identity by transporting the often passive and interior art of sewing outside. Pretty, traditional looking roses are taken back to the garden, embroidered onto cans and buckets in 'Autumn Collect'. The muted reds and pinks of the thread don't look out of place on the tools, reflecting the often fine divide between utility and art in textiles.

Michael Brennand goes beyond the stereotypes of William Morris and art nouveau to create a popular culture patchwork which comes at you in all directions. Brightly coloured sew on patches that look like amoebas, skulls and faces bounce off a canvas embedded with marbles and necklaces.

Aren't quilts a bit old fashioned now?
The Estonian artist Krista Leesi's quilt may look like a conventional piece of female quilt-making, but there's a clue in the title, 'For Your Eyes Only'. Step closer and you'll see that the black and white, pixellated patches of cotton reference modern brands and slogans, from 'FCUK' to 'Men are Pigs'. Also depicting Russian dolls, when seen from a distance they comprise a recognisable James Bond figure, gun at the ready. So, textiles enable a meeting of past and present, creating a poetic space where it's possible to be emotional and personal, subversive and internationally relevant at the same time.

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