Monday, February 06, 2012

the body as perceptual tool

Beverly Semmes, Red Dress 1992, velvet, wood, metal hanger.

I re-read an article by the very intelligent but sadly late Polly Ullrich yesterday. Beyond Touch: The Body as Perceptual Tool. It was in the Summer 1999 issue of Fiberarts, page 43-48. All of the ideas in this post are from that article.

For hundreds of years, fiber's association with warmth, tactility, shelter, and flesh, has allied it with the world of physical materials and our bodies and this has put fiber on the lowest rung of the art world ladder. Polly Apfelbaum, Reckless 1998, individually cut pieces of synthetic stretch velvet, fabric dye, approximately 25x25 feet

The Enlightenment in the 18th century emphasized the conceptual, not the sensual, and has dominated our cultural ideals for 200 years, continuing through the modernist movement of the 20th century. Enlightenment philosophers analyzed in order to understand and control the natural world. They isolated art from daily life. Ann Hamilton, Volumen 1996

Beginning in the mid 1960's some women artists recognized that traditional women's work, such as sewing clothing, was viable subject matter for conceptual art. Around that time, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty had recently published his philosophy of perception. He radically repositioned the role of the body in art and fiber art became more important.
"The world is not what I think, but what I live through" Merleau-Ponty Magdalena Abakanowicz, Abakan Round 1967, sisal on metal support and Three Brown Abakans, 1969-71, sisal weaving.

We are a self caught up in things. We touch. We are touched.
Part of postmodern theory is about how reality cannot simply be perceived, it needs to be deciphered, and since there are so many different perspectives, meaning is always changing.
Now the meaning of art depends on audience reception rather than artistic intention. Lesley Dill, Poem Hair Dress, 1993, rice paper, horse hair, tea 40 x 29 x 7 "

More and more, art is turning from representation to the realm of felt experience.
The material world exists all around us, not just in front.
Art work that we have to physically walk through or around demands participation from the audience. The only way to understand this work is to imagine your own body placed inside it.

"Experience is so much richer than light falling on your retina. ....your memories, your varying degrees of awareness of what's going on around you...representing that information is going to be the main issue for art in the years ahead." Bill Viola

This post is a response to last Wednesday's more dismal outlook. It took me a while to write this, and thank you for reading all the way to the end. I do miss Fiber Art magazine, and critical writing from writers like Polly Ullrich.


  1. I miss that magazine too Judy, to read articles which treat textiles as an equal in the 'artworld' are so few and far between. I feel so much energy seems to be devoted to fighting to have a voice within galleries esp. here in the UK that it saps the very energy that I need to produce work of consequence. I will not be sidelined as a middle aged woman with a hobby - lets keep fighting the good fight.

  2. mom wow, i wish id read that essay when i was writing about john cage. ya fibrearts was the best!

    did i tell you that everett and i saw the ann hamilton piece together? just like that person and baby in the picture? when oona and matt came to montreal a while ago.

    love you.

  3. Alas, although I dearly wanted to share the lens through with Fiber Arts looked, I would read...and not 'get' it. I create with fibre for the colour, the texture, the line but, alas, my work is either utilitarian (as in bed quilts or clothing) or (apparently) point-less. Colourful, intriguing (lots of hand stitches and/or beading, or an interesting technique), textural, perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek in what's expressed... but designed to evoke smiles rather than to inspire deep thought. Can it still be "art"?

  4. April, now this photo IS you and Ev.

    Margaret, I think you do get it.
    You are making with your body, and you ask others to appreciate it with their sense of touch.
    Definitely NOT pointless.
    Probably art.

  5. This post is like a spring rain in the desert because my post-graduate work is themed around Body as Cache of Knowing. Because I was near tarred-and-feathered in undergraduate school for proclaiming (and not backing down) that lived experience is invaluable research material, that it often trumps and at least always stands side-by-side with hand-me-down information, that lived experience is invaluable period, not to be discounted or dismissed, ever. Because my thesis was about and an example of autoethnography. Because whether it's written or stitched, I seldom if ever explain my intent, preferring to leave that to the viewer/reader, knowing they are capable, more intelligent than they (and others) give them credit for. Because allowing that space for the viewer to get inside and glean their own meaning keeps creativity flourishing. Because women and their work, art, and play have been sidelined and dismissed far too long. This is rain falling on the desert because since graduate school and since my son moved far away, I don't get this kind of conversation, and I miss it. Oh my goodness, I do so miss it. I'll be talking to myself all day now! Thank you.

  6. judy this is a wonderful post - so thoughtfully presented - yes you could tell you spent time with it. i saw this last night on my iPhone but couldn't respond. the first image actually reminded me of a claire ziesler piece (small image on phone). I relate to this post in a few ways - one being that i had a friend that taught at the school of the art institute where i was a librarian for almost thirty years, who was, the friend, one of the people that was part of the start up crew of self-publishers that put fiber arts together. this was in new mexico when things were simple and life wasn't in just a hurry - he told me that things really changed once they "sold" it to a bigger publishers...but then again that is the publishing world. also Polly Ullrich was part of the SAIC community. though i didn't know her personally - earning a degree and then teaching there she did wander through my library's stacks, passing her hands over the spines of the books and fingering the pages for ideas. maybe that is how all ideas start - one person makes a gesture of thought and then another person picks up the moments and carries it with them and produces more on the chain stitch of living. thank you for sharing this post and yourself. cheers, henrietta. (the refrain from "those were the days my friend we thought they'd never end" just popped into my head...funny that)

  7. I too read this one earlier and was unable to respond. I don't have much to say, except that this is that old argument examined beautifully--is it art?--the argument that goes on forever. The argument that is there because of the 'market\, perceptions of scarcity, not enough room, and too many artists in line with their feet in those designated entrance doors. I am no fine artist, myself, nor am I much of a textile artist either, but of course, it's art. The market place is another story. You certainly have chosen your examples, and the excerpts with astute selectivity. The comments make it clear the need for such discussion is great, for what is represented by a few here, translates to ten thousand like minded others out there. As always, you have, with thoughtful concern, provided a vital service to your readers. What a swell gal, and talented individual you are! You will forgive me if I gush, but I find your textile art so accomplished, I can't help it.

  8. i'm glad to have read this before i go off to work, now i have something to ponder. i will re-read later. and it's a crime that interweave ran fiberarts into the ground.

  9. yes
    emphasize the sensual
    put our bodies in it
    feel the light
    let the light play
    with the work
    yes Judy
    this is a wonderful post...

    xox - eb.

  10. I've always been tired about creation and the body. I find it too self representative, I'm sorry. On the other hand, I agree that the body is the main art tool. How not! So, artworks can be considered as body marks.


Thank you for taking the time to connect. Much appreciated.xx