shaking out the memory cloth

In 2000 I visited Gretchen Albrecht's home a number of times to interview her for a Master's thesis that I was writing about her shaped abstract paintings. Each visit began with a cup of coffee and a chat before we climbed the stairs to her studio where I would take notes from her visual diaries while Gretchen painted.

During the course of our conversation one day the subject of buttons came up and Gretchen told me that she collected buttons from all over the world. She showed me a beautiful wooden case that her husband James had constructed for her to store her collection in, and as we fingered the jewel-like buttons inside each of the dovetail jointed drawers, Gretchen described her favourite button shop in New York, appropriately called 'Tender Buttons' after Gertrude Stein's famous poem.

Gretchen left the room for a moment and returned with a large square of black velvet that had a selection of buttons of all shapes, sizes and colours sewn onto it. It was a memory cloth, she told me, and the composition of buttons was designed to keep her elderly mother connected to the world through touch and texture, shape and colour, as dementia progressively took her further and further away.

I was so touched by this gesture of compassion shown by a daughter to her mother that the memory of the button covered cloth has remained with me since that time, stored away in the back room of my head, and protected from moths, until the right set of circumstances led me to bring it out into the light again and shake off the dust.

The right set of circumstances began with a visit from my artist / writer friend Raewyn Alexander towards the end of last year where she showed me a set of poems that she had embroidered onto found and family vintage textiles including supper cloths, doilies and an old damask tablecloth. In one of the pieces Raewyn had added a poem to an embroidery that her daughter had begun and abandoned years before. I really liked the pieces and suggested to Raewyn that she sew the poems onto a fabric backing and create a large cloth book that people would be able to easily leaf through. She immediately set about doing so, and I got to read the completed cloth book over Christmas, which is a lovely artefact indeed. You can see examples of Raewyn's embroidered poems at her Happy Teahouse Blog, and for evidence of her neat back-stitching skills, I've pasted below a couple of details from two beautiful polkadot Alice in Wonderland cushions that she made for us a couple of years ago.

After seeing Raewyn's textile poetry book, I decided that I'd like to have another go at making a cloth book of my own (after abandoning my shortlived Rimbaud in flannel project in 2009). My enthusiasm for the idea received a considerable boost when I came across a recently published book about the fabric works made by artist Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010).

From the 1950s Bourgeois incorporated clothing into her sculptural works, primarily as a metaphor for the female body, but in the last fifteen years of her life, she made use of a large storehouse of vintage family textiles, using fragments of clothing, manchester, handkerchiefs and upholstery fabric in symbolic compositions that referred to her complicated relationship with her parents who ran a tapestry repair business in France from 1905. She also employed these textiles, laden with personal memories, to reflect on the passage of time as she neared the end of her very long life.
Among the many and varied textile works that she produced during this period, Bourgeois made a series of cloth books that are beautfully photographed in Celant's book. I have included five examples below to show you the range of compositions as well as the amazing variety of sewing techniques employed by the artist in the series, including applique, patchwork and weaving.
The Trauma of Abandonment (cover and two detail views) 2001

Ode de la Bievre (cover and two detail views) 2002

The Woven Child (Cover and Detail) 2003

Ode a l'oubli (Cover, two details and full view) 2004

Dawn (Cover and detail) 2006

At the same time that I was admiring the book of Louise Bourgeois' Fabric Works, I was also reading an anthology of the artist's writings, Louise Bourgeois Destruction of the Father - Reconstruction of the Father: Writings and Interviews 1923-1997 (Eds. Marie-Laure Bernadac and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Cambridge: MIT, 2008).

The book is full of the usual sort of quotable gems that diligent Art History undergrads carefully integrate into their essays - the kind of art patter that seems as if it means something really profound but doesn't really mean much at all. What I love about the book, however, is that the editors have reproduced a range of little known small-press publications that Bourgeois wrote and illustrated in the late 1940s - strange and grim little parable sequences like the nine part series, He Disappeared into Complete Silence (1947). Here are two (very poor) photos to give you an idea of the content of the parables as well as the layout of the text in relation to the etchings:

Alongside the parable sequence the editors have included an extract from an interview some fifty years later in which Bourgeois explained that this text was about the lowering of self-esteem and the descent into depression, but with the possibility of resurrection and survival. 'It is a descent,' she said, 'but I believe in resurrection in the morning. This is a withdrawal, but it is temporary. You lose your self-esteem, but you pull yourself up again. This is about survival...about the will to survive' (49).

In the interview Bourgeois went on to explain that writing was an occasional outlet for her, and that she only indulged in writing stories when she felt compelled to do so, in order to cope with some event in her life. 'You can stand anything if you write it down,' she said. 'You must do it to get hold of yourself...All you need is a pen and paper. But you must redirect your concentration...Words put in connection can open up new relations...a new view of things' (49).

I have taken a very circuitous route to get to my point, but here it is. Louise Bourgeois' idea about the connection between words and things was going through my mind as I unpicked my Mum's Austin Brown coat a few weeks ago, and that is when the recollection of Gretchen Albrecht's memory cloth resurfaced in connection with Raewyn Alexander's textile poems and Louise Bourgeois' cloth books. From the combination of all these things, the concept for a cloth book emerged, which will use the pieces of the coat to tell the story Mum told me recently about the garment - in essence, a cautionary tale about the lengths that people will go to in order to fit in. 

The story treats the unpicking process as an autopsy of the coat that links symbolically to the larger theme of the narrative. The coat becomes something of a metonym for my mother, and I, the daughter and new owner of the coat, set about deconstructing it in order to understand the story she has told me. I remove the label and carefully separate the lining from the outer fabric to reveal all the 'behind the scenes' details of  the garment - the tacking stitches, the reinforcing of the seams, the batting along the plackets, and the grey wool lining added to high stress areas of the coat like the seat, the underarms and the pockets.

I'm very excited at the prospect of working on this project when time permits between the teaching, writing and curating jobs that I have lined up for the rest of the year, and I hope you'll continue to drop by from time to time and let me know what you think of the Austin Brown cloth book as it takes shape.

Enjoy the rest of your week.


Jack Ross said…
Don't you think that there's something symbolic about the subject-matter of this post - loss, abandonment, dismembering - and the fact that your original draft of the post itself was erased in the great blogger meltdown of Friday 13th?

I'm still coming across strange fossils of recovered text on my blog, unearthed by the webmasters and reposted in the hope that they might contain something significant. Alas, so far - for me, at least - the lost work remains lost.

The one certainty we had left in a crumbling world,, turns out to have been as ephemeral all along as all those dying laptops, crashing programmes, rain-soaked notebooks, and Nazi bonfires which were the traditional enemies of language ...

Louise Bourgeois must be laughing somewhere.
Carole said…
Great blog. I love Gretchen Albrecht's work.

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