The Crafts Council touring exhibition entitled Block Party: Contemporary Craft Inspired by the Art of the Tailor is currently housed in the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery of Leicester, the third leg of its journey. The exhibition seems to reflect upon the location of Leicester as a former centre of garment and textile manufacturing and, in places, it mournfully echoes the decline of tailoring as it once was. The exhibition not only features a wide array of conceptual pieces that gives the visitor an insight into the art of pattern-cutting and tailoring but also brings elements of tailoring heritage to the foreground. Curated by Lucy Orta, one of contemporary art’s most renowned visual artists, the exhibition covers the concepts of Pattern-Cutting as Storytelling, Pattern-Cutting Embracing the Future, and Motif and Manipulation in Pattern-Cutting.
Some of the most renowned artists in their respective fields are exhibited in Block Party. Included are Rohan Chhabra, Claudia Losi, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Richard Sweeney and Dai Rees. Varying fashions and their meanings, manipulated by the course of history, unite under crucial topic areas such as; cultural identity; environmental damage caused by malpractice and its unavoidable impact on life; technological development in production practices, and the concept of consumption.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition is Rohan Chhabra’s Embodying Ethics: Hunter Jacket (2010). Seeing the hunter jacket transformed into a wall-mounted ram’s head leads one to question the ethics behind hunting. The jacket, once used to hunt animals for both pleasure and food, highlights the responsibility that each and every human being owes to himself and his surroundings. The ram, an uncastrated male sheep, is generally known to be a symbol of power, energy, virility, protection and fearlessness. The idea that the ram’s head is “protected” by the transformed hunter jacket speaks powerfully about the contemporary understanding and utilisation of production practices and the erosion of life.
A similar concept is echoed by Claudia Losi in Les Funerailles de la Baleine (2010). The finback whale is made of fine wool fabric, air pockets and padding, and lies lifeless on the pedestal. The image of the endangered finback whale brings a variety of thoughts to mind, from harpooning for blubber and oil to pollution, global warming and the sobering realisation that, whether or not we take the chance ourselves, our children may never have the opportunity to see a whale in the wild. The installation does not only point to the slow death of the finback whale but also to the decay of the world at large where the extinction of species is a daily occurrence.
Girl on Flying Machine (2008) by Yinka Shonibare MBE depicts a headless girl wearing a brightly coloured African-style fabric dress (Dutch wax-printed cotton) positioned leaning in a cycling position on a unicycle with a Da Vinci-esque vertical propeller in yellow, white and blue. The piece emphasises the much-loved English saying “the sky is the limit” or the reaching of one’s potential; no barriers and no feelings of resentment due to being disadvantaged by one’s gender or ethnicity. She, however, is motionless. The wings of the propeller do not turn. The unicycle is silent and still, as is she.
Richard Sweeney’s Angel (2011), pattern cut out of water-colour paper and stuck together with adhesive, is a great example of the union of hand-craft and computer-aided design with CNC manufacturing techniques. At first glance, the angel’s arched-back, her body contours flawlessly streaming, her feet slightly hovering above the ground bar a single toe for support, her upwards tilted head and wavy hair made of strips of paper appear to have been formed from a single sheet of paper magnificently folded into a 3D figure. This figure, otherwise predominantly attached to religious iconography, is stripped from its theological meaning by its subtle design. Angel offers a fresh-perspective on neo-classical sculpture and exemplifies the creation of a living being through the still yet flowing contours of the body.
Contrary to the possibly light-hearted emotions Sweeney’s Angel evokes in the viewer, Dai Rees’ Carapace Casing 3 (2003) made of laminated marquetry leather hide, enamel and stainless steel offers a 3D installation which carries the same intensity of rawness as experienced in Chaim Soutine’s Carcass of Beef (c. 1924). The immediate and subconscious effect of Rees’ work on its viewer, as it hangs from its stainless steel chain and hook, is a manifestation of part human, part primal pain and suffering. The adorning of the leather hide with elusive floral patterns attempts to minimise the deliverance of agony inherent in the work.
As experienced by all artists during the creation of the works featured in Block Party; pattern-cutting has been a laborious activity in tailoring houses across the world for centuries. At a time when bespoke tailoring is on the decrease, exhibitions such as Block Party remind us of the magnitude of the job individual tailors undertook, long before the development of textile machinery and subsequent technologies. The conceptual meanings of the art works constructed through these labour-intensive pieces also unite that which is old and dying with what is new, upcoming, and conceptual.
Block Party: Contemporary Craft Inspired by the Art of the Tailor, 16/06/2012 until 02/09/2012, New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, 53 New Walk Leicester, LE1 7EA. www.leicester.gov.uk
Block Party will travel to the Sheffield Institute of Arts from 09/11/2012 until 17/12/2012. www.shu.ac.uk
Yinka Shonibare MBE Girl on Flying Machine (2008)
Image © the artist and courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London and James Cohan Gallery, New York
Text: Hande Eagle