Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Quilts at the V&A

Quilts 1700 - 2010 is a mesmerising collection of stitched, appliqued and variously decorated bedware all gathered together in several rooms at the V&A with explanatory texts, very little lighting, (such is the problem with displaying textiles), and freezing cold jets of air. That latter may be because the dimmed lights and dormitory of beds upon which the said stitchery is displayed, is enough to reduce even the most hardened exhibition goer to a stupor and induces a desire to just kick off your shoes and climb in. Just as you're about to submit, out rushes the cold air-shower and you remember where you are.
It's much more fun to listen to the frighteningly well-informed audience than it is to read the explanatory notes. I never know what to say about quilts. They're gorgeous, all of them - well apart from a couple of horrible contemporary deconstructed 'interrogating the quilt' type offerings - god I wish they'd just go home and watch the telly. This authoritarian desire among contemporary craft makers to interrogate things and people and expose their weaknesses is repellant.

Contemporary Quilts
Apart from the one or two of those, the contemporary work enlivens the show considerably. Two memorable paper quilts, one made entirely of old and new Chinese bank notes, the other from news print - thousands of tiny squares - roughly equal in number to lives lost among Iraqi civilans. In among them, a few tiny painted portraits of dead British soldiers. Works well - something about the background, 'wallpaper' feel of quilting itself, repetitive, detailed, boring in some senses, certainly in terms of the work involved, combined with the extreme intiimacy of the object itself, that vivifies the statement being made such that it goes well beyond vacuuous rhetorical statement. You sense the maker cares. That is one of the great strengths of domestic craft. The bank notes one is more conversant with the 'show off,' display aspects of quilting, which has always been a part of it's identity - 'darling- we must get the x's over and show them the new conservatory,' is just the updated version of 'darling we must get the x's over and show them our new quilts.'

Fantastic quilt done by prisoners at Wandsworth, (men's) prison. Really excellent, this one, and the film that goes with it with the voices of the makers and what they think about it. Grayson Perry's Right to Life quilt is there - excellent idea and works very well indeed, especially in this context - come to think of it, it works better here than I've seen it anywhere before.

Censorship again...
Tracy Emin did a lovely quilted, appliqued bed in 2003, it seems - and it is gorgeous. She's sewn some writing on the to bottom sheet which we're not allowed to see. I stood on tip-toe, put on my long range glasses and gazed into the deliberately obscured gloom, 'I'm not weird it's the hole fucking thing that's weird...' then it gets hidden under the bed clothes. I haven't remembered this correctly unfortunately, but it's something about 'wierd sex' and it's not her at fault. Feels like a protest and I didn't take kindly to not being unable to see it. It is work that we should be able to walk round, but we got only one view. Inexcusable.  I know I'm rather sensitive about these things these days, but I suspect the censorious hand of the public sector again, and I'm getting mightily pissed off about it. It's what gets censored as much as that it is censored that is really starting to make me angry. Ok for Primark and Accessorize to proclaim the joys of sexual attraction for seven year old girls, but not ok for adults to protest about sexual abuse... something doesn't make sense here. If we stick to gallery / museum art, fine for Grayson Perry to do whatever he wants but not for Tracey Emin apparently...

Quilts and meaning is very old hat for most craft makers, especially feminist ones, but I'm delighted that it hasn't become worn out and deconstructed to oblivion, (except in one or two cases).  Artists are still using quilts to great effect and not only about matters of intimacy and sex. Very good indeed to see to prisons and the people in them, war, and the people touched by them, and international finance entering the quilting frame too.