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Keeping in Touch
Weighing around 6,5 kg, Keeping in Touch is a collaborative accordion bound artwork involving some sixty South African fibre-textile artists, four of whom represent community based groups. I submitted it for the Voyages of Discovery Fibreworks VI exhibition at the art.b gallery, Bellville, in July 2010.
How do artworks begin? Where do they come from? Perhaps the origins of this one can be traced to my having met two significant people, roughly ten years apart and the publication of a book.
In 1996 I met Margs Garratt for the first time at an exhibition at her home in Nova Constantia, in the Cape. She had birthed her new baby, Innovative Threads, with the aim of exhibiting the best innovative quilts and textile art South Africa had to offer. Over the next ten years, Innovative Threads grew up. At first innocent and naïve, it became better known and well travelled, more worldly and sophisticated with some pedigreed patrons and a website that became an international hit. Then, in 2006 came Liza Gillespie’s book, Innovative Threads: a Decade of South African Fibre Art, where she chose to ‘showcase at least one artwork from each artist who had exhibited at Innovative Threads since its inception’.
At about the same time Liza’s book rolled off the press I met Cheryl Penn. She arrived one day at a drawing workshop I was conducting in KwaZulu-Natal. We became friends and I learned that she was a Masters student who was writing her thesis on altered and collaborative books.* I read her thesis and decided to make my own collaborative/altered book: I would alter Liza’s book!
I decided to ask everyone who featured in the publication to alter their own page in some way and as I intended to exhibit the new work alongside the old work, here could be mapped the visual-verbal dialogue between Here-Now and Then. To live is to make marks, surely, and I liked the idea of layering new idea or marks upon old…of new work growing out of old work or lying next to it. This was also an opportunity to bring some of the participants of Innovative Threads together again in a sort of Post Innovative Threads reunion – a celebration of past (and present) successes seemed appropriate. The book could also become a union of both a new exhibition and its catalogue since the actual work would be bound in a book format. Finally, a book/catalogue that is carried about and composed of actual works, as opposed to reproductions would constitute a perpetual exhibition that is never dismantled.**
The title of the book – Keeping in Touch – was revealed to me as I was disassembling the old book in order to reassemble it with all its new pages. An artist makes an idea visible via a medium and the medium is a transformative device that lies between imagination and expression. In this case it was the tactile medium of paper and fibre that uncovered the idea of keeping in touch with one another.
The book is still ‘naked’ in the sense that it hasn’t a jacket cover. As yet it roams pure and unashamed like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden! I am, however, in the process of completing a touchy-feely textile robe in which the book will be wrapped once it (inevitably) leaves the Garden….
In addition to the collaborative book, I made another book, Documenting Keeping in Touch; that documents the aims, inspiration and collation of Keeping in Touch. This book is not accordion bound - although there are a number of fold out pages - but a glued collage book that has been stuck together with the email correspondence that passed between me and the book’s participants. It is indeed the contact between people that has quite literally stuck everyone together. This book contains, amongst other things, additional correspondence, photographic documentations and various maqettes that I found necessary to explore. Somewhat quirky, the book does nevertheless suggest how ideas germinate and evolve. These two books have the same dimensions, 24cm X 24 cm, and like twins, they support and inform each other.
Aside from the enormous fun element of the project, however, I have always been fascinated with the physical layering of the pages of books; that solid block of knowledge caged between the covers. By ‘knowledge’ I mean any information deemed necessary to be passed on and shared with a group. A closed book contains massive information impacted and compressed within its successive layers of pages – pages that await unlayering! A shut book waits silently, darkly, to be opened so the squashed information can escape and see the light of day. Knowledge needs to run free. May the ideas contained in these books too, roam loose and wild.
The guest speaker, who opened the exhibition, enjoyed the collaborative book calling it ‘… the finest voyage of discovery; moving from the known to the unknown, from the past to the present, it’s a process and a record… an object of wonder, contemplation and inspiration…’ .
*The full title of her thesis: ‘The use of the artist’s book as a versatile form of expression in the work of selected artists, with particular reference to the altered book’.
**Screens – Major Minor Signatures (2005), a small accordion bound artwork, possibly sees the germination of this idea. The work celebrates the cooperative efforts of Fibreworks members who took part in Major Minors, a travelling exhibition of miniature fibre-textile artworks that was launched in May 2003. I cut up one of the catalogues, reassembled it in a collage and then asked everybody to sign their work.