Sarat Maharaj

1.The century’s boxing match. A knockout roar of muscle across the stadium. Eubanks strides towards the ring. A spotlight chases after him, half catches up, jig-dances over him, speeds ahead. What’s he got on. 

A smock, a long T-shirt or kaftans cut off at the thigh? Hi-tech medical gown, an A-line mini, blouson or Grecian rustic tunic? Rough-hemmed toweling, chemise, loose-fit cheesecloth, cling-film muslin, fray fringe…. What seems like ‘manly swagger signs’ switch into ‘womanly sway signs’ and back again. A shuttle sets up between them, to and fro. Neither one thing nor the other, it seems to be both. We face an ‘indeterminate garment’. 

2.An ‘undecidable’ – as Derrida puts it, something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another. (1) Belongs to both, we might say, but not belonging to either. Should we comprehend ‘Textile Art’ under the chameleon figure of the ‘undecidable’?

3.We stand in front of Duchamp’s Genre Allegory. (2) Two regimes of seeing hold us in their grip, a deadlock of two genres and their discourses. A cloud of cloth bulges out of the canvas frame, ready to tear away, to cascade out of it. A laddered fabric moulded into lumpy from, half-sagging, half-tumescent. Perhaps it was once a crackling sheet of stiffening for collars and cuffs, dazzle tissue-lining which evaporates as it’s ironed – a yard of moiré, a ‘fusible’. As we look, cloth seems to run away from itself, playing on its own thread and threading, ‘spinning out its own yarn’. We are called to look on it as if at a painting, but one without paint and pigment. Cloth stages the syntax of its own forms and textures. We are struck by its sheer ‘painterliness’. 

Against this ‘pure formalism’, the pieces read as ‘history painting’. Duchamp stretches and shapes the cloth so that it suggests a profile portrait of Geroge Washington, a star-spangled flag or blood-soaked gauze, a drenched bandage. It speaks of the scars and wounds of war – the violence out of which nation, patriotism, politics is carved out. Cloth serves as sign, stands for something else. Duchamp ties it in quite an arbitrary, factitious way with idea of war and conflict, as ‘emblem’ of it. It becomes symbol, hurtles away representing something other than cloth, triggering off yet another stream of associations. We are in the allegorical mode – an excess of signs. (3)

In the Duchamp piece, therefore, cloth is all even as it is nothing. It is everything, ‘bare stuff and fabric’, that set off a visual dynamic for formalist ends. At the same time, it is nothing as it effaces itself to serve as figure or cipher for some idea or concept, for programmatic ends. The two genres play off against each other, citing and cancelling out each other in an unending tussle between them.

4.‘Supreme Quilting Co.’ – before us a photo of a bleak, redbrick building slinking sideways out of view. It might be Southall or the Midlands, even North England in the 1970s. In front of the building, Asian women in winter coats over their traditional salwar/kameez. Women from the Punjab, what a journey from the green, dusty countryside into the centre of the modern? Some are holding up placards, some huddle up to a fire in a drum, a makeshift brazier. A mythic scene of workers on strike in the machine age, marking out the site of dispute and disagreement – conditions of work, labour and production. 

However much the ‘quilt’ aspires to the state of ‘artwork’, it does not shake itself free of references to the world of making and producing. Hung up on a wall, framed, put on display, it catches our attention as statement of form, colour, texture. We soar away with its allusive, narrative force. But we never quite manage to set aside its ties with the world of uses and functions, with the notion of wrapping up, keeping warm, sleep and comfort, some feeling of hearth and home. In all of this, it is no less easy to blank out memories of its links with the domain of processes, crafts, and techniques. 

Half-on-wall, half-on-floor, it stands/lies/hangs before us: everyday object and artwork in one go. Domestic commodity which is at the same time the conceptual device. The quilt stands/lies/hangs before us as a speculative object without transcending the fact that it is a plain, mundane thing. Not entirely either and yet both, and ‘undecidable’.

Meyer Vaismann, Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons – the everyday consumerist object aspiring to the conditions of artwork while adamantly holding onto its brute mundaneness? Is it simply a calico mattress-divan or has the shift of the context made of it an object for another kind of attention? Has the quilt not always straddled such a double-coded space, an ambivalent site of this sort?

5.It seems at odds with Greenberg’s view, pre-eminent amongst the classic modernist stances, that genres should be clear cut, self-contained, their boundaries crisply defined and meticulously patrolled. Each genre pares itself down to the textures and logic of its own medium – holding check on the drive towards spilling over into another. 

6. ‘O busy weaver, stop. One word, why these endless labours? One moment speak. But no, the shuttle flies and the figures emerge floating from the loom, from the rolling mill, from the vats admitting not a second’s interruption. You would say that production wishes more and more to mime perpetual motion, to draw near the heart of nature which establishes us here. We who contemplate the factor are deafened by its humming. It is only when envelope death. Death weaves life. I am the image. I am the carpet.’ (4)

7.The silk might have been woven in some faraway, colonial place. Few knew where. An ancient craft for the most modern things. Bales of it were bought over, cup up, fashioned into parachutes somewhere in Britain. Where exactly? Hems and seams, who stitched the parachutes together? At once delicate fabric and tough engine of war. Sacred cloth and air force material – floating, lifesaving and death-dealing umbrella.

War surplus, the shift to tough synthetic material, few knew how these silk parachutes came to be sold off in faraway Apartheid land. Lying opened out in the courtyard, like some creature wounded and brought down, last gasps of its billowing, wavy forms stretched flat across a vast carpet of sinewy hessian sacks basted together. My grandmother carefully cutting into the silk, close along its paneled seams and edges, folds and joins, reclaiming yard upon yard for some other uses. 

At once sacred cloth and object of warfare, life saving and death-dealing engine – now run up as shirts, pants, skirts and saris for us, the ragged of Apartheid land. For us, on that Apartheid shore aliens, colonial subjects, soon to be called ‘Burghers van die Republiek’. Soon to be cast out as ‘the exiles’, then to arrive as ‘immigrants’, then to live as non-nationals, forever non-citizens – belonging by not belonging, neither insiders nor outsiders, ‘swarthy resident aliens’ always? (5)

Textile Art am I you?

Source: Janis Jefferies (ed.), Reinventing Textiles (Volume 2: Gender and Identity) (Winchester: Telos Art Publishing, 2001), pp. 7-10.
1.Jacques Derrida, ‘Living on borderlines’, in Deconstruction and Criticism, pp. 75-176.
2.Genre Allegory may be described as an assemblage work made of cloth, nails, iodine and gilt stars. It is held within a private collection in Paris. 
3.Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.174.
4.Jean Baudrillard, uncited source. 
5.Lyotard & Monory, Récits Tremblants, p.119.