Cornelia Parker and English Eccentrics
section of Magna Carta An Embroidery

Stitching has taken May by storm - two intriguing “embroidered” exhibitions  have just opened within a stone’s throw of the other. Both are deep and thoughtful, fabricated with love, precision, care, intricate detail and made by many hands.

Wikipedia panels stitched by Lorna Pound

embroidery Magna Carta at the British Library

photo by Joseph Turpfragment of Magna Carta embroidery

photo by jospeh turp

The “Magna Carta (An Embroidery)” is an installation at the British Library by Cornelia Parker, to celebrate its 800th anniversary this 2015.The Wikipedia article on the Magna Carta is a constantly changing and visited document and this quill-scribed-parchment of 1215, peace treaty has infused enormous symbolic power.

Cornelia chose to snap shot and reproduce a contemporary artwork from the Wiki page which has resulted in a text tapestry, involving the labour of more than 200 people.

“I love the idea of taking something digital and making it into an analogue, hand-crafted thing” she says.

one of only four surviving 1215 Magna Carta  Stitched by Pam KeelingKing John signs Magna Carta (1902) stitched by Janet Payne, Embroiderers’ Guild (Eastern Region). Part of Cornelia Parker’s Magna Carta (An Embroidery)

The text was scaled to size that was possible to physically replicate in stitch, which governed the finished length at 13 metres when pieced together.

“I wanted the embroidery to raise questions about where we are now with the principles laid down in the Magna Carta, and about the challenges to all kinds of freedoms that we face in the digital age. Like a Wikipedia article, this embroidery is multi-authored and full of many different voices. ”

It is a piece of tremendous discipline, patience and constraint – the detail includes the nuances of hypa-text: shortcut symbols, font emulation, “live links”, bold, text formatting, digi-symbols and more. It recalls the samplers of young girls in centuries past, raised to embroider rather than hunt and ride. However many males have had a hand in this embroidery: Cornelia has involved prisoners from thirteen different jails supervised by Fine Cell Work, and invited many other “common people” ranging from Jarvis Cocker, Mary Beard, Julian Assange, Germaine Greer and Brian Eno to judges and barons, to contribute in stitching.

photo by Joseph Turp

photo by Joseph Turp

C: “All these people have their own opinions about democracy today and I thought carefully about the words they should stitch. For instance, Baroness Warsi, Eliza Manningham-Buller, Julian Assange and numerous prisoners have all stitched the word ‘freedom’, but all have different relationships to it.”   The artwork speaks through many levels and layers, through the process, its physicality, its underside of woven threads, its subtle variation, perfection and flaws.

Illustrations from the Wiki Page have been faithfully, reproduced and embroidered using cushioning and gold thread by the Royal Needlework Society, who assembled the whole. “The work of the prisoners is more skilful and honed” Cornelia  observes, who enjoys the underside ( visible in mirrors )  “  which shows the threads, the gubbins, the backstory and the workings!”     Like a cottage industry, cut pieces have been worked on in different places (many prisoners worked in solitary confinement in their cells) and then collected together, impregnated with traces from their handlers – cigarettes, a tea stain from the US Embassy, a drop of blood, dog hairs, fluff, creased, rolled, wrapped to be rollered and pressed, crispy flat, and now pristine ! … mounted and displayed beneath glass. This process gave rise to a little, but poignant arbitration which is for you to discover.

In contrast to Cornelia Parker's work, is the collection of intense, mysterious and ceremonial artworks by Colin and Helen David, (former English Eccentrics fashion designers )Sketchbook geisha

This is the second in a series from their art project “Living Quarters : Not Only When the Moon Shines” response to living in Kyoto ( the second of four locations - Granada the first ) The Davids live in a location for a quarter of a year, not as tourists but as travelers. Travel writer Paul Theroux said: ‘Tourists don’t know where they’ve been; travelers don’t know where they’re going.’  Two rules for “Living Quarters” are  make somewhere your local and accept all invitations.

The finished work is multi-layered and vibrant, using embroidery, ceramic, screen printing, antique kimono silks, appliqued, photographs and prints on voile.   The artworks are carefully contrived, constructed and layered and begin with sketches, snap shots and photographs.  Sketchbook helen david

“The Kyoto Kimono– a fabric fall of seven meters:  a mind map, a designed, lush, patchwork of silks, appliqued felts and embroidered text, hangs in the stair atrium.

A mind map of the experience,

Japan is rated number 3 in the world economies, yet number 104 in gender equality -  women must “express no opinion” (to find a husband).  The Davids use design and ambiguous beauty to convey ideas of disparity and inequality.  Helen says “We are not afraid of beauty, which in fine art, was for many years, a dirty word. We enjoy the physical processes of making … the key difference between art and design is that art has no specific function and often asks questions rather than answering them, whereas design has to solve a problem."   They derive great satisfaction from the art of making and the application of crafts,  Helen adds  “Perfection is a worry, as “art shouldn’t look like a shop fitting” – a great quote from Phyllida Barlow, artist of the rough and chunky ! ”sketchbook text helen david

In Kyoto, the Davids were invited into a home for blossom watching, they befriended a Shinto priest in the Irish pub, visited a private Geisha house and experienced the tea ceremony in the oldest tea-house in Kyoto. “We learnt a huge amount living in Japan and the most important lesson: to savour the moment. One of our pieces - an embroidery reads : “This Moment Will Never Exist Again” a rough translation of the Japanese phrase “Ichi e, ichi go”.The other great lesson was the design aesthetic wabi-sabi  “A Buddhist idea: based on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, to enjoy the beauty of something that has been weathered, changed by time, broken and mended or patched. This is very green and a great aesthetic to adopt here in the UK.

3d voile print

An immaculate painted design, sepia and silver leaf  -“ The Fukushima Fan”  is about the nuclear accident of 2012  since which the Japanese government has passed harsh laws forbidding the disclosure of accurate information regarding the ongoing radiation leakage . “In Kyoto the nuclear accident is not discussed: it is forbidden”  Helen recounts.

fukushima fan helen colin david

These are all too familiar echoes of other misdemeanours that are swept under the carpet. Essentially, both shows speak through elements of suppression and restraint – the unsaid and the whispers. If art is an archaeology of the mind, here the use of cloth and thread is a reference to the bespoke and the handmade and veil other agendas. The materials and textures evoke associative memories, the embodiment of the stitching conjures a presence of the labourers/ the makers.

Yet another surreal and stitched structure of a hallway in gauze, by Korean artist  Do Ho Suh, is currently installed in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 27 September 2015. These  details show the stair rails and a security key pad. Tailored, measured detail, suspended, fragile - floating  -  the unlikely transparency and lightness surprises us.

photo by tilbydetail installationdetail installation

CORNELIA PARKER:   THE MAGNA CARTER (AN EMBROIDERY) is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB   15 May – 24 July

COLIN AND HELEN DAVID: NOT ONLY WHEN THE MOON SHINES: THE LIVING QUARTER is exhibited at their Studio:17, Crinan Street London N19SQ, Monday to Saturday 10.00am -6.00pm until 22/5/15 or by appointment.

Mixed media designer and artist, Tilby is an experienced production set and costume designer for film, tv, film theatre and opera.

1 Comment

  1. Stitching in May | In Balance says:

    [...] this magazine on a variety of subjects, has written a feature on her website, Big Frieze entitled Stitch in Time that looks at the detail of the exhibits and their [...]