At this very moment, I’m weaving an article on fiber art.
Clicking the keyboard, I put my thoughts into words; swimming in the sea of words, I fish for the traces of thoughts and phrases that spring up vastly in my mind. While through the physical perception of tattoo, I’m weaving words, images and the meanings behind them.
I pick up the pen to write since my memories have swallowed me up. So writing is the fabric of words.
But how can I collect all my wild thoughts to boil down to ideas? Interestingly, the ancient Chinese people often took a metaphor of silk and fiber to describe and depict their thoughts and feelings. They also used the image of “rich brocade” to picture the splendid mountains, rivers and lands. The “rich brocades” are the finest and most colorful silk fabrics.
The English word ‘fabric’ not only refers to the material made by weaving wool, cotton, silk, etc, but also means the basic structure of a building. It represents the sense of a twining and complicated time and space. Therefore, when we talk about “looking at” the fiber art, we may realize the phrase ‘looking at’ is not accurate or expressive. Nearly all the works of fiber art are inspired by life experience and physical perception. These works fabricate certain spaces and sites, inviting people to immerse themselves into it. For instance, the author at this moment is immersed in a dreamy world.
The truth is each and every man in the world with the time and space he lives in have already been the naturally-made “fabrics”. The Chinese mythology records that Nu Wa, the lady who created human being threw a rope into the mire before she pulled it out and spread the mud on it onto the ground. In this way, the muds gathered and became men. The story apparently is our ancestors’ fantasy about the destiny and existence of mankind: the woven rope was pulled out from the mire, producing living creatures. In this sense, the life of mankind is a kind of “fabrics” by nature. In their fertile imagination, the ancient Chinese people took a metaphor of rope as a coiling serpent-dragon, a dragon with a snake head. The image of a coiling serpent-dragon could be found easily in many patterns. For example, the image of twining and coiled serpent-dragon is on the silk paintings discovered in the Han Tomb of Mawangdui. It signifies our ancestors’ understanding of life.
Mary Varbanov once wrote in his notes that “the woolen fabric, like a living creature, lives systematically in a world of human being. The existence of woolen fabric is an exception of the nature’s expression.” The fresh and blood of human being have long been placed in a space of fabrics. If you take a look around, from the tangible clothes to the intangible webs, it is not difficult to figure out that we are not simply facing a world of fibre, but we are part of this world. The connection between weaving and time and space is like the effect of Pandora’s box.Through her work the Stretched Time, the artist Liu Jaijing successfully interpreted such derivative correlation in the exhibition.
People kept record of things by tying knots back in the ancient time. Before the advent of characters, tying knots was a method of recording events for people because the rope was fabricated into meaningful symbols. According to the ancient Chinese literature Explanations on the Book of Changes, ancient people tied knots on a rope to record numbers or as a reminder of some events. Findings of various researches show that this way of recording things were adopted by the ancient people in China, Peru and Indian. Even today, some nations are still using this method because they do not written languages of their own. Nowadays, the weaving techniques of ancient Peru and Indian are reintroduced into the modern fiber art.
As such a technique, weaving has already taken a deep root in our memories. Just as an ancient Chinese poem suggests, “the son is going to travel afar, the fond mother is sewing clothes for him. A thread woven in her hand and she is sewing and sewing.” Weaving and Matrix are seamlessly sewed together. The original meaning of matrix is uterus, the cradle of life. When used in mathematics, this word means the arrangement of numbers and symbols in a grid. The Matrix code laid the foundation of mathematics logic of the world. The movie The Matrix architects a world characterized by a mix of real and virtual elements. In the movie, matrix is not only a virtual program, but also a real place on earth.
It is a tradition in many places in China that the bride will bring a variety of needlework from her own family to fabricate a new life. These needlework represents the memories and blessings from matrix. The Explanations on the Book of Changes reads, “In the ancient times, people kept record of events by tying knots. Later, sages replace the tied knots with books.” In his book Notes on the Book of Changes, scholar Zheng Xuan of East Han Dynasty wrote, “People tie knots to record events. Large knots for big events, smaller knots for less important events. People also use the knots to pray for a peaceful and prosperous life in the year ahead.” Thus, thememories and blessings from matrix were conveyed through the tying of knots.
Even in the masterpiece of Chinese literature-A Dream in Red Mansions, weaving and fabrics have their role to play. In Chapter 52 of this novel, the hero Jia Baoyu accidentally burnt a hole on the precious cape which was made of golden threads and peacock’s feathers. It was the gift he got from his grandmother and he had planned to wear it receiving guests the next day. Jia Baoyu was so upset that the only thing he could do was flying into a rage. At this very moment, his maid Qingwen who had been in fever stayed up and managed to sew and mend the cape for him. But she fainted from exhaustion. The author Cao Xueqin captured the tension and affection in the scene where the brave Qingwen sewed the cape:
Qingwen stripped the linings before she drove in a bamboo nail which was as big as the rim of a tea cup on the back. Then she used the scissors to loosen the threads around the hole, wove two threads, warp and weft, and drew the boundaries. She then sewed along the original lines of the cape. Having sewed a couple of threads, she paused to check if the work was all right …
Each and every thread in Qingwen’s hand was filled with her deep affection towards Jia Baoyu. While the feeling was mutual. After Qingwen’s death, Jia Baoyu recalled his affective relationship with Qingwen and paid tribute to her with a long obituary. He wrote the obituary on a piece of rare crepe. The crepe was Qingwen’s favorite and was fabricated of extremely tiny threads. In Han Dynasty, there was a kind of crepe as thin as mist; in Southern Dynasty, people called the finest clothes as “the clothes of the immortals”. It is said both fabrics were of the same materials as Qingwen’s favorite one. The acclaimed ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan put down in his book The Songs of Chu, “The Goddess in mist-like yarn dress that was waving gently in the breeze slowly walked up. Her dress slightly brushed over the steps, leaving the tinkle of jades behind.” All these written records above are the vivid examples of how deeply cherished the fine fabrics are in the Chinese cultural traditions.
As an art with a long history, fabric art is hard to define under today’s understanding of arts. “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” This is a famous quote from Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich. His assertion is very confusing, but self-evident in the contemporary fabric art. Weaving is almost a natural instinct for human beings, while the fabric art manages to make a close but mysterious connection between our daily world and Art.
At the very beginning human beings kept records of events by tying knots; and later we learned to communicate with languages and image and code; while in nowadays smart phones and cyber world have become an extended part of our bodies to deal with information transmission and intelligent connection. In other words, the memories created by weaving have settled deep in our mortal bodies, transformed into words and images, and become something understandable but hard to be described by words.
Maryn Varbanov emphasized constantly the conventionality and modernity of this ancient art, “Weaving is capable of capturing the very essence of ancient civilizations. For thousands of years, Egyptians had been using woolen yarn and looms to produce cloths; people living along the Nile, for their quest of beautiful accessories and abundance of their souls, discovered the beauty of weaving…many poems also indicated that as early as in the first century AD, China had a relatively mature weaving art.” Maryn Varbanov also shared his artistic presentiment, “I can see the great potentials of the East World in the late 20th century, a world with a long history of art tradition and great contribution towards human civilization, and I’m confident that China, as an oriental country with the most profound cultural heritage, can become a country with the most thriving modern tapestry art in the world after the continuous efforts made by modern painters.”
Such a belief has become an inner confidence and self-conscious act by Chinese artists of modern fabric art. For example, Shi Hui, a student of Maryn Varbanov, has spent tens of years, investigating the expressive forces of cotton, hemp, Chinese rice paper and paper pulp. These are all most commonly seen materials in our daily world, but on Shi Hui’s hands, they are effective and powerful tools to express simple but poetic connotation.
In the 1985 Shi Hui and his classmates had entered the international stage of contemporary art. In 1986, under the guidance of Maryn Varbanov, many art works from China Academy of Art were sent to the 13th Lausanne International Modern Tapestry Biennale, and three art works, namely Gu Wenda’s Spiritual Silence, Shi Hui and Zhu Wei’s Longevity and Liang Shaoji’s the Art of War, were finally selected for the exhibition. Just like what Maryn Varbanov had predicted, Shi Hui and many other Chinese artists managed to keep alive of their artistic creativities when carrying out their practice on weaving, an ancient but modern art.
It has become a natural instinct for fabric artists to believe a traditional but modern concept characterized by intergrowth with materials and the trust of physical properties. This concept, seemingly a ready-made article in contemporary art, is so natural to fabric art. Weaving itself is the Meta language of fabric art. Sheila Hicks, an American artist acknowledged that she was exposed to a state of freedom when working on her fabric art work. She was free to express her thoughts, and there was no need for her to copy pattern or structure from graphic painting. In other words, she trusted her weaving activities, and through weaving, she was able to express her idea vividly.
As of the creation of cocoon, weaving indeed produces a self-protection sanctuary. According to Homer's Epic, Odysseus spent ten years drifting in the sea after the Trojan War. To say no to her admirers, Odysseus’s loyal wife Penelope made up an excuse that she needed to prepare for a grave cloth for her father-in-law Laertes. She spent her day weaving the cloth, but disassembled what she had woven at night. She finally welcomed the return of her husband. Penelope managed to weave a world of herself, which was also the world of her missing and memories to her husband. Thanks to this art of memory, Penelope was able to endure the hardship for ten years and remained loyal to her husband.
Tao Yuanming, a famous writer of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420), wrote the well-known essay Peach-Blossom Spring, where a fisherman accidently discovered a hidden paradise. Local officials decided to send a team to look for this paradise, but failed to find it again. Personally I am more willing to believe it as a metaphor, a metaphor about human memories and how the memories were lost eventually.
This is a paradox of symbolic world.
Ancient people kept records of events by tying knots. The information contained in these knots was not knowledge stored in our computer hard disk, but real knowledge in our daily lives. We are so easily lost in our self-woven knowledge world, and eventually lose the world of ourselves. Italo Calvino, a famous Italian writer, once reminded us of such a danger in his Six Momos for the Next Millennium:
Today we are exposed to an intense visual bombardment, and there is no way for us to differentiate our direct experiences from TV content, even for a few seconds. In our memories, fragmented information exists as piles of rubbish. Among many visual images, it is unlikely for any of them to remain visible as an independent entity.
Italo Calvino made such a lecture in the U.S., as he worried that the tradition of language might be forgotten in the next Millennium, and people would not be able to express their ideas through the use of language. Writing might fail to reveal our secrets, and secrets might be buried deep on the ground and were impossible to be re-discovered once again. “Human beings started to keep their memories since the days when they kept records of events by tying knots, but these knots can become dead knots in the end”. Interesting enough, doctors of psychotherapy also use knots to describe memories that have been forgotten but keep remained in our sub-consciousness. In the end both things and memories are lost, what are remained are those incomprehensible dead knots, also known as the ideology. Now we can witness the rapid development of smart technologies, but somehow these smart technologies can never replace our memories and how these memories are operating. Georges Didi-Huberman, a French philosopher and also the curator for the La Memoire Brule, once wrote that,
At the same time the memories are burning. It is impossible for the memories to be transformed into a collective entity, with each fragment being arranged in an indifferent manner. The memories force the past events to re-generate themselves amidst burning heat and urgency; or we can say that when memories are burning, we will become crazy, provided that we can’t translate such energy into a practice of freedom.
It is exactly the realistic situation encountered by contemporary fabric art. Since the very beginning of tying knots to today’s fabric art, weaving as an art of memory has faced a great many of crisis and challengers. Fabric art, from the perspective of physical body perception, is an art that link human body, skin, woven materials and society as a whole. The linkage helps create an extended space, “but if we can’t translate such a power into a practice of freedom”, weaving can end up becoming a device that triggers lost memory. Fabric art, however, involves multiple time spaces between mortal bodies and cities, and are certainly be trapped in the paradox of our time, a consumption age and a globalization age.
The constructions of buildings, streets, cities to large-scale metropolis, are weaving, a kind of activity to construct geographic space and social space. To construct is to work on fabric, which is exactly the fundamental form of all metropolis, including the complex transportation network. These kinds of constructions can turn into beautiful landscapes, as well as ruins; a form of commemoration or a lost memory. These are inter-connected but mutually isolated existence, we have to question the true value of contemporary fabric art?
In China, a vast social setting for Maryn Varbanov, he decided to look for suitable materials, the right ropes for his art world. In his searching Varbanov managed to discover China’s social structure in great depth and unveil China’s poetic culture. From his point of view, the poetic nature of a specific art was not from any metaphysical spirit of the time, but a world of created art. The world is formed by specific objects and their interaction with manual labor under realistic social setting, and this world is full of vivid memories.
To be or not to be, that is a question.
Any existence is a maze; while the perception on weaving is a time travel to an endless thread. Such an experience is a natural instinct hidden deep in our nervous system since day one of the birth of mankind. It is the same to water and mountain, or the entire universe. For example, oftentimes we say that the scenery of mountain and water is as good as a painting; however when we paint water and mountain, oftentimes we can’t capture the real beauty of water and mountain in the painting, and what we have paint are some lifeless and unimpressive graphic pattern. That is why Huang Binhong, a famous Chinese painter, said only those painters who could see the bone marrow of water and mountains were true painters at all.
It reminds me of another Greek mythology. After killing a monster with an ox head and a human body, Theseus, a prince from Athens, managed to escape from the maze when receiving guidance from Ariadne’s thread. Different to the fisherman story in Dao Yuanming’s short story, Theseus, who was trapped inside a maze, was able to reactivate his memory with the assistance from Ariadne’s thread. Heraclitus, a great thinker from ancient Greek once said that, “it is the same road to take upward or downward.” However, when the live memories are lost, it is very likely that we might not be able to find this road anymore.
In his book On the Equality of Things, the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou described one of his dreams. One day, Zhuang Zhou dreamt of himself becoming a butterfly. He flew in the sky, feeling free and exhilarated. He was too overwhelmed by happiness to realize it was merely a butterfly in his dream. He woke up with a start, only to find himself lying on bed. He was taken aback and couldn’t tell whether it was him who had turned into a butterfly in his dream or it was a butterfly which had became him. But Zhuang Zhou was definitely different from a butterfly. Probably that was materialization.
To me, Zhuang Zhou's dreaming of becoming a butterfly as described in the book On the Equality of Things has another interpretation. We human beings not only have the power to build cocoon, but also the ability to break the cocoon and fly. In a semi-dreaming and semi-awaken state, right in the middle between pre-existence and the next world, only those who have gained a throughout understanding of memory are capable of gaining the yield of materialization, without losing the perception power to comprehend the world surrounding us. When I am writing these, what appears in my mind is Shi Hui’s Compendium of Materia Medica. Thanks to the recreation of these great artists, the floristic world reappears in our lives. To Shi Hui’s own words, the lost things are given a new chance to be reborn.
When I’m writing, I’m also weaving words, image and their meanings.
It is also a quest for the lost time, so as to rebuild a new world with our memory.
Se souvenir du passé, a great novel written by French writer Marcel Proust, has an English title named Remembrance of Things Past; however, some argued that it was more accurate to translate it as In Searching for Time Lost.
How can we prove their existences when they are lost or dead?
Aby Warburg was obsessed with graphic communication and evolution of significance in his entire life. In the last few years of his life, he compiled a book titled Mnemosyne Atlas. In this atlas, Aby Warburg played with all kinds of images, including sculpture, painting and printing materials, and produced a collection of book through the montage technique. What he was trying to do was to recreate a past world, on how people moved and reacted in the lost world, in other words, he wanted to bring alive a memory world that used to exist in human history. It was indeed a great experiment. Aby Warburg was not only an artist telling a picture history, but an image theatre director. He managed to unlock the dead knots of images, broaden the dimensions of images in terms of visual effect, gesture and meaning.
Weaving, as an art of memory, is ubiquitous. From the ancient time when people kept records of events by tying knots to today’s fabric world, we come to learn the mysterious force of nature. We have done a lot of weaving and dismantling, as we are so desperate not to turn our memories into dead knots.
Yang Zhenzhenyu, Deputy Dean of the School of Art Humanities of China Academy of Art, Professor, doctoral student supervisor