my textile career from 1975
Patrick Gale, a gay, UK author, whose novels are redolent with superbly crafted prose and delicately sensitive constructions of character; both of whom generously lend the fiction their lavender, recently wrote A Perfectly Good Man (2012). It is the picaresque tale of a religious cleric and a teacher dubiously charged with rape, whose paths intertwine. Another of the novel’s characters is called Dorothy (gift of god).
I bought the novel years ago but baulked at the phrase ‘paedophilia’, not another story like that, thought I. My own life contained enough of that.So the novel went unread until now.
Both men are punished by social opinion; the cleric manages to deflect local condemnation, (no details, spoiler alert). He gives a sermon about the resurrection, quoting Dorothy Sayers’ account of Lazarus describing life after death as being the moment of glimpsing the “beautiful and terrible” front of a tapestry while the living must content themselves with seeing only the tangle of knotted threads at its rear.
Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey inhabited a world of panelled houses hung with large scale Flemish tapestries, by and large ignored. Unless I have forgotten some action behind the wall hanging, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius is stabbed through the ‘arras’. One might picture a tapestry making such an impact in Sayers’ or Wimsey’s world.
I was struck, from my career of weaving tapestry for 40 years how we spurn, as it were, the tapestry’s reverse and fixate on the perfect front; though the reverse is a necessary chaos, it plays its role in the completed image.
Back in the 1980’s I wove a series of double portraits of men in amorous embrace, in flagrante delicto; that is, a gay political statement since a gay couple walking hand in hand in public is in itself conspicuous. I re-visited one of the series and its cartoon or behind loom drawing, after I’d recently spent a fortnight in Haarlem and a week in London. I found the cartoon juicy with promise. Below are the three works I wove as a sequence, one leading into the next with inexorable logic.
As a point of reference I add a self portrait I wove or rather completed before the above.
My dad fought as part of the Dutch army policing, maintaining law and order, or as we described her in the hippy 70’s Laura Norda, in Batavia or Indonesia as it is now known. He was born a Calvinist but religion soon loosened its hold on his psyche. So, his military reality was for Queen and country, as he bitterly, sarcastically described it. We, his children, were raised Catholics by our Slovenian mum. That involved exposure to the Church Militant, not to mention the paedophilia of our local priest.
I can think of no better way to be prepared for conscription to fight in the Vietnam War; I was called up on my 20th birthday. The current government was conservative; its greasy political motto was All the Way with L. B. J. When it was replaced by Labor, led by the heroic and legendary Geoff Whitlam, he immediately ordered the withdrawal of Australian troops and any blokes currently being processed by the conscription system were allowed to choose whether they wanted to join the troops overseas. I turned up for the humiliating medical examination. (In high school we had such an event for joining the cadets; I was accused of looking at the bloke behind me, or having a perve.) Here, the doctor was obligated to ask me whether I wanted to join the Australian troops O/S. I declined, saying I felt I was emotionally incompatible. which proved prophetic, given the number of returned servicemen who committed suicide. The doctor was genuinely shocked by my comment; perhaps he expected a pro forma response.
I invite the reader to google the Rolling Stones’ video clip for Gimme Shelter; it is accompanied by images of the Vietnam War. In one version of the song are 2 sequences showing Vietnamese Buddhist monks self immolating. I am at a loss to how someone could manage such an act of protest. Presumably it was love of country, also that any other life worthless.
Which brings me to the current day and the inexplicable reality of the suicide bomber. Ok, approximately from the 1970’s there was the Palestinian Liberation Organisation; I do not remember whether their events were planned to end in suicide? Today, the number of heroic, naive youth, by their manifestos seem to believe in the righteousness of their cause. The writer/journalist John Pilger has described US/UK/Australian military activity in Arabic lands as inexplicable destruction involving inforgivable loss of innocent lives, as western colonialism. Opinionated journalists like Emma Albarici, during interviews with Moslem spokespersons, insist on a particularly skewed dialogue. For me, the so called radicalation needs to be better explained. Nor does it relate to some frivolous reward in an Islamic conjured heaven; although, the Church Militant has historically pertained to the 3 religions of the Book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As POTUS Donald Trump said recently, nobody is innocent.
A wonderful ABC TV presenter Virginia Trioli interviewed the art photographer Bill Henson for the 7.30 show tonight. She quoted Turnbull and Rudd when the latter was PM and NSW police seized photographs of underage girls. Rudd described the work as disgusting and disturbing; Turnbull meanwhile owned several of Henson’s works and said that the police behaviour was pre-emptive and a travestry against free speech and the right to create art without fear of censorship.
Meanwhile, Trioli also interviewed the young woman, Henson’s favourite model, now studying dance in Berlin, who had been 13 when the photos were taken. Asked how she had felt during the sessions she replied that she had felt no trauma. She continues to be on good social terms with the artist as do his other models.
The world of Henson is moody and destitute; as the artist describes it, not necessarily a part of everyday reality, but blurred and granular. Trioli summed up her reaction to the photographs: they asked of her to hold two conflicting experiences in her mind simultaneously, that the images were beautiful and deeply disturbing.
My friend who studies Fine Arts remarked that some images could easily have been close-ups of Caravaggio’s paintings, see below. I thought that while the western world was ruled by a Christian hagiography certain extreme experiences could be extensions of that myth structure. For instance, how would people express their feelings during the Black Death or plagues, or during battles and conflicts, except as references to the Church Militant?
Conversely, now that our lives are lived in a multi-culture there is no single, central mythological system. Yes, we had certain subversive means to describe our reactions to the Aids crisis; however it was scarcely effective, certainly not universally appreciated.
After a recent 3 week visit to Haarlem and London I came home and tidied some boxes in storage. There, I found the cartoon for a tapestry completed in the mid 1980’s which seemed to me to have so much energy still that I decided it deserved to be re-interpreted. You decide how the project worked out.
Cartoon: Duo #2:
The 2 tapestries differ in technique; the latter is completed in my recent interlock method, while the first one was woven with slits that were sewn together later, in some places resulting in a wobbly join. The original work showed combinations of colours that were the spontaneous expression of an earlier time. A friend of mine who recently completed an art course quoted his anatomy teacher saying paint twelve versions of a theme; Van Gogh after all completed half a dozen or so sunflower paintings.
As can be seen from the other two depictions, the weaving of a couple is the last of a series, a fiction or fantasy of surf lifesavers, built on my experience of a beach on the Sunshine Coast. Taken there by my bro-in-law, I was enthusiastically invited to join a group of surfers. Art. after all, follows life? Or vice versa? After all the fiction in which I lived at the time was The Lost Boys By William S. Burroughs, and its feminist equivalent, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word For World is Forest.
Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause…
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
G.M.Hopkins, Thou art indeed just.
I never did good things, I never did bad things,
I never did anything out of the blue.
David Bowie, Ashes to Ashes.
I re-played this song and became obsessed with Bowie’s use of the blue image, the note, the situation. It was how the colours sprang into life, as it were. A spear of blueness that arced into the ether and allowed other colours to trail in its wake.
(The image of blueness is Bowie’s code for his magical practice as is the physical gesture, used in the video for this song, of raising the hand above one’s head, then bowing to touch the earth. Bowie also does this in the song Fashion and in the duet Dancing in the Street, where Mick Jagger follows his lead).
Blue, Feb 2017, 10 cms H X 12 cms W; cotton warp 8 pi; wool, cotton, silk, synthetic wefts. Out of the steamy, inclement weather of February 2017, this work continues my previous improvisations of both parallel and curved shapes that interlock in a dovetail manner. My intention is to create dynamic situations, abstractions, spatial play.
During my childhood and adolescence, while religion still had a grip on my psyche, the most puzzling biblical quote for me was: “I am the lord, thy god, thou shalt have no other gods before me”. The central message of catholicism all the while had been monotheism at the core of religion. Yet, here was a quote that seemed to suggest threatening alternatives that co-existed with Yahweh or the one true god, or whatever.
I am reliving this inculcated stuff for a reason, creaky and dusty though it may seem. A while ago, on my Facebook page, an Egyptian friend who was an archaeologist connected with the Cairo museum posted, as he often does, wonderful photo of ancient Egyptian sculpture, representations of Egyptian deities, for instance Hathor. The sculptures were worshipful in their splendour, but when he waxed lyrical about his spiritual connection with them, as part, no doubt, of his cultural heritage, a western person took umbrage. What followed was an unpleasant outpouring of the unique importance of her one true god and so forth, who reigned supreme.
As above, I began to wonder why somebody would feel so threatened by another’s expression of belief; of course ancient Egyptian religious ritual was intensely involved with magical practice, and as such also threatening to some contemporary minds. That aside however, the cross cultural dialogue reminded me of Akhnaten and his attempt to bring monotheism to his culture, or Aten as opposed to Amun, previously reigning supreme amongst a contemporary polytheism.
There is, I believe, only so far that one can delve into another person’s culture. My local medical practitioner together with his wife run the local medical centre; they are both Christian Copts and on a shelf in the reception area are several references to their home culture: a small image of the funerary mask of Tutankhamun, and several small sculptures of Egyptian deities. One need remember that Sigmund Freud displayed on his desk rows of deities from different cultures, like ushabi gathered to restore a patient’s mental health (?)
Apart from all that, I pondered a figure central to recent catholic church history, the narrative of Saint Francis. Best shown in the movie by Franco Zeppirelli, the work looked at a lyrical spirituality which ran counter to the viciously manipulative politics of the Vatican; when Francis asked the pope to recognise his order, a cardinal seated on the sidelines whispered: ” he will speak to the poor and bring them back into the church”. When I saw the movie on its release, Francis seemed a hippy figure as opposed to the rigid establishment.
Today, the lived lyricism of Francis, like the Persian poetry of the Conference of the Birds, could arguably constitute a type of polytheism: “brother sun, sister moon” etc, etc. Yet, this was clearly not the intention of Francis; instead, there was an effortless oneness present, underlying the multiplicity of natural things. Perhaps we could extend the lesson contained in this great individual, so exemplary in his life that the most recent pope felt impelled to take his name. Francis teaches that polytheism is non-threatening; to be threatened is to imply a weakness in your belief system and possibly a tinge of racism felt against another culture.
For me, there is much potential here for exploring the harmonious co-existence of many cultures, with their differing beliefs. Ainsi soit-it, shanti.
This week, the wonderful Ellen de Generis created a skit based on a film she was involved in, Finding Nemo, the punchline of which was, “in the end all the creatures helped the little fish, because that’s what you do”.
Not if you’re pudding faced President Trump’s advisor Bannon. Somebody who worked with him in the past says he thinks only of war, only war, his world is the OK Corral. How scary is that, because that would mean necessarily nuclear.
My thoughts today surround the question of both homeless people and refugees; I was one myself and lived for my first two years behind barbed wire fencing. My mum told me about Cowra migrant camp, which had been refurbished after it housed Japanese prisoners of war during WW2; they burned down some of the huts. When my mum stayed there at the end of the war the men including her husband, my dad, were sent out to work. The women in the camp went on strike for more food and better conditions (Cowra winters were bitterly cold). Food rations were improved.
Looking at TV footage of Manus Isl refugees, I feel and I am sure many Australians agree with Canadians that, were it possible, we would host refugees home by home, not this de-humanising bureaucratic process that can only produce radicalisation.
Meanwhile, I am at my loom, wondering about my next project. The time scale reminds me of a question my cardiologist put to me about weaving tapestry, about whether I worked to a timetable. Even the amazing, master weaver Archie Brennan said once that he could not and did not weave for long periods at a time. In my experience, short bursts of activity, even going to the loom after contemplating work already finished leads to frenzied activity, work that seems to be unaccompanied by a sense of time. I’m sure my colleague weavers have had similar experiences.
I wrote an artist statement for the above work, the top showing a helicopter in the right eye, in the left the dome of a mosque; I wove the piece sideways, unusually for me, and it allowed me to create a cross grain in the background, giving a military character to the image. “Resettle” was a strip at the base of a larger work that I abandoned for lack of direction.
“This work is intended to make viewers question the privilege of their lives, the relevance of home, garden, comfort, as opposed to the dispossession and suffering of others, namely refugees, displaced persons. Their relevance is always a burning issue; the need for artists not just to make pretty toys for the rich but to make all people think about injustice”.
Helicopter/Mosque, 2002, 40 cms H X 80 cms W, cotton warps 8 pi; wool, cotton, linen, silk, synthetic wefts.
Resettle, 2002, 15 cms H X 100 cms W, cotton warps 8 pi; wool, cotton, linen, silk, synthetic wefts.
Glass recently bewailed his “outcast state”, protesting that nobody believed he could write operas.
He had first travelled to South Africa in 1966 where his interest in Gandhi began. This, his second opera, was intended “to use Gandhi’s involvement in South Africa in the years between 1893 and 1914 as an outline of current global political and religious problems. In South Africa, Gandhi formulated his thesis of passive resistance and civil disobedience known as “Satyagraha” or “dedication to the truth” as a reaction to discriminatory governmental measures aimed against the Indian portion of the population, such as the deprivation of voting rights”.
The announcer on ABC radio classic music described a tour of US music venues where he accompanied a group of accomplished musicians; within a dozen bars of the opera all but he had left the concert venue. He played the exquisitely heart rending Evening song, where Gandhi mourns his followers, slain for holding to their beliefs. Exiting the hall at the end of the work, in tears, the announcer was berated by the other tour members for his lack of musical discernment. They had crossed the road and spent the duration of the concert in a pub.
Given recent events and in expectation of things to come, perhaps passive resistance and civil disobedience are the only dignified position possible.
Tonight, I watched the movie A I by Steven Spielberg, starring the amazing child actor Haley Joel Osment. The movie had such intense religious connotations I cried and went to bed with a headache. Osment’s role of an android trying to adapt to human ways and being enmeshed in the love of his mother and father typified the theme common these days of a Sheldon Cooper or a brilliant but Asberger’s child, ill equipped to manage the social complexities of our world.
Osment frankly has the wondrous demeanour of the Christ child, except that, for reasons of religious necessity, the Christ was always depicted as calmly all knowing, while Osment is slightly cross eyed and puzzled about everything, adorably so; oops, there’s the worshipfulness.
Then, of course, there is a more modern, existential debate about what constitutes human consciousness. The scene of Savanarola intensity, in the circus ground, where the ring master defends his Inquisition-like demolition of the mecha androids, describing their existence as an insult to humans, was barbarity personified. As Shakespeare wrote, “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” It was profoundly disturbing to watch even mechanical consciousness destroyed in such a peremptory fashion. Some robots protested to the end, others accepted their fate smilingly. It reminded me that the order by psychopathic Spanish monks of the Inquisition to immerse heretics in boiling oil had to be discontinued; even hardened executioners were unable to listen to the tortured cries.
Perhaps the movie was made more poignant because earlier on ABC I had watched a story about gay rights in India, where the second highest national court had legalised homosexuality, only to have the superior court reimpose illegality. In that climate of intolerance an unfortunate young man, a doctor no less, caught smooching with his lover in a parked car, with clearly no where else to go, was confronted and blackmailed by a corrupt policeman, exacting money and sexual favours, so typical of the “morality police” in many such cultures. Another individual was threatened with hormone treatment except for the sympathetic and timely intervention of his father with an enlightened cry that homosexuality was natural, and nothing natural needs or can be cured.
His mother was doubtless traditionally unsympathetic because of her desire for grandchildren. Without wishing to make light of her hopes and expectations, today’s situation is made up of so many variables. The mother wanted her son to undergo hormone therapy, as her stereotype of homosexuality was a drag queen or transsexual, both especially the latter being realities on the contemporary world stage. As for gays themselves, young people are demanding the right to be accepted. Paradoxically, the expectations of a grandmother, with a little tolerance, would be amply fulfilled by her son marrying his male partner and raising a family.
The idiot summary of this situation recently used to be “the love that dares not tell its name now won’t shut up”. Sexual and ethnic minorities are invisibile as far as the social majority is concerned. Acceptance requires all parties of society to change, to create a new, co-existent reality? I hope so.