Exploring the monumentality of fabric across modern and contemporary artists

STIR delves into fabric sculptures and the evocation of fabric in modern and contemporary installation practices that defy the very nature of monumentalism in art.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Feb 13, 2022

Installation art has a history in modern and contemporary art practice as defying the object-oriented conceptualisations of Western art. In its devouring of material, whether industrial, organic, compact, virtual, and more, the installation creates a site specificity in the realms of museums and exhibitory formats, as well as the public, taking from a history of land art. The use or evocation of fabric in sculptural installations becomes an interesting point of contact to consider the materiality of media and their manipulative nature that defy perspectival nature. Fabric has been used across various cultural traditions and geographic locations to imbue matters of historicity, culture, myth, media and more. The following article looks at the employment of fibre, fabric, textile, and evocation of such in order to engage with the monumentality of the installation history that the following artists set out to defy.

Detail view of Specimens by Do Ho Suh | Specimens | Do Ho Suh | STIRworld
Detail view of specimens by Do Ho Suh Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Korean artist and sculptor, Do Ho Suh looks at the conceptions of home that have been part of his life over the years and across the world, moving between metropolitan cities of Seoul, London, Rhode Island, and Berlin. Through his fabric art sculptures, Ho Suh recreates the structures that have encapsulated his homes across time, in an occupation and re-enactment of domestic space, placing these works against the normative formulation of monumentality. Monumentality as a vision in sculpture and monuments themselves tend to be a history seeking and constructing mission that eulogises traditionally nationalist leaders and thinkers and epitomises the nation state from ancient to modern and contemporary times. The nation-state is represented by the gargantuan figure of monuments and statues that are placed in public squares, publicly accessible spaces such as gardens, courtyards, and more often to a proto-religious end. Ho Suh’s fabric sculptures in turn grapple with the fabricated figuration of sculpture, against the use of industrial or traditionally sculptural rock-based mediums. While monumental in size, the artist’s use of synthetic and natural fabric speaks to the porous nature of a home, as described by the Lehmann Maupin catalogue essay, seemingly permanent but immediately variable as well. Domesticity comes into conversation with the masculinist nation state.

In deference of the domestic, one can think of the divine and its position in the South Asian home, while in conversation with a public nature of monumentality in the conception of artwork. Post-Independence Indian modernist sculptor, Mrinalini Mukherjee, incorporated craft techniques and textile traditions into the conceptions of her famous large fibre sculptures. Organic material such as described in the curatorial note of Phenomenal Beauty - Mukherjee’s late retrospective at the MET Museum in New York - bamboo, cotton, jute, hemp fibres, and more have been used in the assemblage of her sculptures. This is speaking to a monumentality that is brought on, not by use of industrial or post-colonial techniques, but instead hark back to a grounding of craft and labour traditions. In conversation with mythic and folklore forms that take from representations of divinity in South Asian tradition, Mukherjee brought new considerations to the abstractionist dominant modern form. Taking from tradition, Mukherjee used these figurations as a springboard to resuscitate and create her very own forms attuned to the mythical proportion of the sublime.

Sheila Hicks at the Stedelijk Museum, 1974 | Sheila Hicks | STIRworld
Sheila Hicks at the Stedelijk Museum, 1974 Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons / Nationaal Archief Netherlands

Through her investigation and incorporation of traditional and indigenous weaving techniques from the materials’ countries of origin, American textile artist Sheila Hicks makes large scale installation art that oscillates between the miniscule and the monumental. Her works take the form of wall hangings, fabric sculptural installations, rugs, and more, making use of organic material. Through her research and use of traditional art techniques, Hicks looks to the ubiquity of fibrous material and textiles across cultures as described by the MoMA, and their extremely specific cultural set-ups that are received through the techniques and designs that are documented or remain undocumented. The eventual monumentality of the fibre sculptures as developed over a period of time, challenged the male dominated space of sculptural and installation art, something that Mukherjee was known to do as well. Here, similarly to Mukherjee, Hicks makes the case for craft traditions in conversation with scale. Through fabric, she also investigates cultural relations such as in Prayer Rug, evoked through the use of tassels in arch formations, reminiscent of Islamic architecture.

Man’s Cloth, 2002, Aluminium and Copper wire, El Anatsui | British Museum | El Anatsui | STIRworld
Man’s Cloth, 2002, aluminium and copper wire Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Contrary to other artists in this essay, Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui is known for his bottle-top art installations and sculptures that take aluminium bottle caps from alcohol bottle recycling plants, to then weave them into fabric-like installative sculptures through the use of copper wires. Unbeknownst to the viewer, these fabric-like sculptures take on a tentative flowing form that is transformed by the materiality of the very medium, creating a sense of lightness. Everyday materials such as wood, bottle caps, wires, and more, are incorporated into his oeuvre. Once again, here it is the assemblage that creates agency from recycled material into its sculptural form, defying its original purpose. The monumental nature of his sculpture art also come under question as they are notably said to be taking different form every time they are installed, as spoken about in the Jack Shainman Gallery catalogue essay, defying the pre-set notions one has about the so-called 'monumental'.

The Silk Rainforest, 1975, silk, linen, and cotton, Sheila Hicks | Sheila Hicks | STIRworld
The Silk Rainforest, 1975, silk, linen, and cotton Image: Courtesy of Flickr

These artists, in interaction with various local craft traditions, techniques, dialogues and narratives, use monumentality as a ploy to defy the very nature of perception, that which is learnt as well as accepted naturally. They bring to light a variety of cultural techniques that question the very objecthood within art production, with the conception of the installation art history as occurring between the interstices of material flows.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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