2016: Issue 2: Claire Bushby: Asking the stones where to begin

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Claire Bushby. 2016. Vefa (After Halldora) 1. hand-woven Icelandic wool. Photo: Yvonne Doherty at Cirrus photogrpahy.

Claire Bushby’s show was the last show at Free Range. It featured a series of textile works, mostly weavings, and photography, that resulted from her recent residency in Iceland. The work is invested in the materiality of textiles; it uses Icelandic wool that Bushby bought from the country for this purpose. The text of Bushby’s show by Dr. Donna Franklin indicates most clearly the world from which this kind of work has come. It describes the world to be a place where the connection to the resources we use has been lost – most especially in Perth. The manner of this loss is not mentioned, but it is implied that art is a means through which we can reconnect. The form that this loss of connection takes, but that goes unmentioned in the essay, seems most probably to be the industrial process – in the essay, it takes the form of our excessive mining of natural resources. It is the industrial process though that is the form of separation that these artworks seem antagonistic to: the division of labour, the mechanization of work, and the subordination of the individual to the machine. In contrast to this, the process of hand-weaving is proposed as an activity typically full of care and attention – to the material and its origins.

The means of production of these works, though, cannot be described as a sustainable alternative–they demand consideration rather than action. It is doubtful there can be any return to a more originary relationship with an external nature that the essay seems to point to: we are after all still part of its machinations. There is no essentially moral connection to be made with anything. The moral universe is structured of human imagining, and our relationship with the environment has no essential character of sustainability or of order. The natural world is, the more we know about it and look at it, always in chaos. There is no equilibrium achievable within it. Our survival depends on certain factors within it that we could certainly be doing better to protect, but we cannot expect any re-connection with a material world that will save us from what we have done.

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Claire Bushby. 2016. Asking the stones where to begin. Installation documentation. Photo: Yvonne Doherty at Cirrus photography.

However, this is not a slight on the artwork, which is none-the-less very interesting. The process of weaving, especially by hand, something that could be so easily produced by machine is the first paradoxical problem, and relates to the above argument. If we take Bushby’s other projects, such as RT_Samplr as related to this work, we realise there is an ongoing narrative to do with taking highly digital (numerical, computational, abstract) forms and transforming it through the digital (dextrous, finger-based) process of weaving or cross-stitch. Weaving is a process that requires, like computer programming, everything to run according to plan. It is a sort of abstract perfection in organic material. To perform this gesture by hand might be seen as a denial of the industrial mode of production, but perhaps its absurdity is precisely the opposite of this. That it is, in fact, an obsession with the very abstract and wholly powerful ability of humanity to be like a machine, but with foresight and the ability to create. There is something potentially self-absolving about the repetitive process and abstract rules of creating with a loom; cloth was, after all, one of the first industrial (impersonal) products. Its repetitive nature gives itself easily to mechanisation.

JG Ballard, in The Atrocity Exhibition, mentions that ‘the space age lasted barely 15 years…a consequence of the public’s loss of interest – the brute force ballistic technology is basically 19th century, as people realize, while advanced late-20th-century technologies are invisible…perhaps only intelligent machines may one day grasp the joys of space travel, seeing the motion sculpture of the space flights as immense geometric symphonies’ (Ballard, 2014) Well perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that they may also come to take up knitting, crochet, and weaving. The process is essentially mathematical, and alterations in the code can produce extreme, extraordinary and unpredictable alterations in the character of the fabric – or can result in such deliberate and incredible processes as traditional ikat, where each individual strand is pre-dyed and then realigned and woven. These kinds of processes are suggestive of the sort of complexity and essential unknowingness that may one day be of the highest value to them.

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Claire Bushby. 2016. Vefa (After Halldora) 1 and Vefa (after Halldora) 2. Hand-woven Icelandic woolphoto: Yvonne Doherty at Cirrus photography.

It is similarly Bushby’s dedication to manual process that has produced these works (in particular Vefa (after Halldora) 1 &2). These designs, though, are minimal, and speak more of a history of modernism. The most impressive works in the show are almost hard-edged abstraction; their colouration and texture evoking a natural element, and the raw materials they were sourced from, while the form of the work remains wholly within the bounds of an intended, highly structured arrangement. These works are hard-edge soft abstracts, taking the kinds of strengths of Modern art through a post-minimal lens. It seems appropriate that the woven substrate that is often denied by the paintings of the abstract artists (read like this it is worth bearing in mind its implied contradiction of Greenberg’s hypothesis of painting that was supposedly moving towards the zero-point of its particularity) has become, in these works, the central feature.

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Claire Bushby. 2016. Asking the stones where to begin. Installation documentation. Photo: Yvonne Doherty at Cirrus photography.

The last thing I want to address is Bushby’s response to Iceland itself – or rather, contemporary art’s relationship to Iceland. It is a beautiful place, there can be no doubt, but the language that frames it in the current artistic dialogue is more like a tourist brochure than a serious investigation of what an encounter with the island is to us. Iceland, it is worth remembering, is not just the site of abounding natural beauty; it is also an interesting economic and global place. Its small community is perhaps conducive to utopian dreaming, but it is also an otherworldly place: tests for the moon landing occurred there, and it is where Jules Verne’s fictional explorers went under the surface of the earth. The landscape of the small island is however endlessly romanticised, and also its connection with the environment, upon which it is heavily reliant. No doubt Iceland’s revitalised economy and values attract many artists to its shores. It is a phenomenon that has been going on for some time. If the South of France inspired the modernists, contemporary art will be set in the Volcanic rocks and waters of this island. But do we romanticise Iceland at our own expense? With less than a quarter the population of Perth on the island, it hardly seems to warrant its strange notoriety. Perhaps Spaced 3: North by SouthWest will answer some of the questions I have about our relationship with this distant place.

Bushby’s work is a strong series though, and the relationship of textiles to contemporary art production is an important one, most especially as it is a form of art that has long languished, hidden beneath the overbearing weight of centuries of oil paint. There is, however, a strong discourse of the originary and also some kind of return that could limit its potential to transcend its status in contemporary art criticism. What I am sure of is that continued investigation will prove fruitful for the creators of textile art, as it has here, no matter what is written about them.

Ballard, J.G. 2014. The Atrocity Exhibition. 1st ed. 1969. London: Fourth Estate.

by Graham Mathwin