A body of lace

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To the uninformed, an exhibition of lace might bring to mind crochet doilies and booties and other less thrilling aspects of childhood visits to the Royal Easter Show craft halls. A flip through the catalogue of the Powerhouse Museum’s Love Lace exhibition quickly erodes such stereotypes. According to the exhibition brief, the revolution is here’in lace, that is. The works displayed will vary from traditional webs of fibre, to finely worked jewellery or blown glassware, to architectural installations. They will be displayed inside and outside the Museum, bringing together ‘artists and makers from 21 countries to show off their unique interpretations of lace in a host of extraordinary materials.’

The 130 works on display in the Love Lace exhibition are the best of hundreds submitted by artists and lace makers from around the world for the 2011 Powerhouse Museum International Lace Award. In making their choice, the judges (themselves an impressive group of international design, architecture, fashion, lace-making and curatorial experts) ‘considered visual impact, innovation in design, materials and techniques, skill in execution and a conceptual interpretation of place or origin.’

The Love Lace project successfully challenges conventional ideas of lace and how it’s made’and perhaps also what it means to us. As curator Lindie Ward says, although ‘lace is usually associated with textiles, the Love Lace project broadened the definition of lace to include ‘any openwork structure whose pattern of spaces is as important as the solid areas’. Artists’ work was also required to express their own ‘sense of place’. This unusually broad definition was deliberately conceived to attract practitioners from diverse creative disciplines, working with a wide range of materials. The common element in their work is the interplay of positive and negative spaces.’

Australian artist Shona Wilson assembles natural and found materials such as twigs, seedpods, bones and plastics into ‘open-work’ structures. She says, ‘the abstract patterns and forms I currently create have affiliations with mandalas, doilies and diatoms (a subgroup of microscopic planktons). These in turn act as metaphors for universal patterns and macroscopic themes’ spanning my cultural heritage through modern Western science to a universal spirituality’. Delicate yet strong, lace reflects the structural integrity of natural forms and the human condition.’

What is the human condition she is referring to’ For many of the artists in the Love Lace project, lace design clearly speaks about what it means to be human’a finite, organic body as well as an emotional and spiritual being, subjectively located in a specific time, place and culture.

Several artists take new motifs from nature, rather than the floral motifs traditionally found in lace, to explore the organic structures of natural and human forms and their meanings. Peter Battaglene and Fiona Tabart, from Hobart, have created a beautiful glass triptych screen called Arbor Vitae (Latin for ‘tree of life’), etched with a ‘lace-like pattern of the veins contained within a leaf’s simple form’. To these artists, the leaf’s network of lines and spaces reflects the myriad connections and pathways in the natural and urban landscapes, and furthermore, as an ‘organic object belonging to a larger whole, the leaf is symbolic of the relationship we share as part of a larger society.’

The fine structures of lace and their exploration of positive and negative space are the perfect vehicle for expressing the ‘fragility and impermanence’ of the natural world we belong to. Bethamy Linton’s delicately hand-cut titanium collar and cuffs (Heel to Throat) are a tribute to the endangered wildflowers of Western Australia. Ward describes Karen Richards’ animation, Secret Forest, as ‘a world of decay populated by a lacey figure scuttling through a landscape of dead trees’. Richards herself says lace expresses ‘a delicate or even brittle world. Its see-through forms suggest skeletal forms, the inner structures of decayed matter, the organic and worn away.’

Canadian lace maker Lenka Suchanek has turned electron microscope imagery of cell structures into large and strikingly beautiful bobbin-lace panels for her work, humorously titled Are We Made of Lace’ On the back of your hand you can make out the skin’s fine net of furrows, but with autopsy or magnification how many more lace-like human structures can be seen’such as blood and lymph systems, nerve nexuses, cell walls in muscle tissue, and smaller still, the mysterious open structures of mitochondria and Golgi apparatuses’ As Suchanek says, we are all made from a primordial lace.

From our bodies spring our emotional and spiritual natures. Philosophers from ancient times have spoken of the capacity of beauty to evoke responses in us of many kinds, and perhaps no more so than when it touches on our memories and culture, our sense of self and place in the universe. The range of personal expressions of this kind in the Love Lace project is indescribably large and diverse. A small taste of what can be experienced in the exhibition follows.

Sydney artist Helen Pynor has knitted strands of human hair into scale models of the body’s internal organs for her work Untited (Uterus Urinary), in order to ‘explore the complex dialogues between biological and cultural processes’. How is personal experience and culture woven into the body’s tissues’ Can cells and tissues hold individual or even collective memory and take part in our inculturation’ She explains, ‘These strands were grown by women in a distant country and are now twisted into complex forms by me, entangling bodies, time, memory and place.’

Linda Galbraith’s whimsical Steeped In Memory, a tea set made from tea-stained cotton lace doilies, encourages people to ‘delve into their own memories’. She says, the ‘old handmade doilies that I used’ felt like they were drenched with memories’the tea stains somehow represent the discussions and arguments, the laughter and secrets shared over a cup of tea.’

One of the key aims of the Love Lace exhibition is to display work from diverse global cultures, each with its own unique sense of place. Some are direct examples of traditional lace-making, for example Doreen Linkinjawang’s String Bag (which was made using an inherited technique that she is now teaching to her own daughters and granddaughters in Maningrida, Northern Territory).

Others explore place as an element of the human condition, as a subjective being located in a time and culture. Joyce Fleming, a lace maker from New Zealand, describes the historical co-existence and the blending of Maori and European cultures in her lace sculpture Cultures Interwoven. She uses harekeke (New Zealand flax), associated with family, ancestors and the land in Maori custom, to make traditionally European bobbin lace. The boat-like shapes in the lace evoke the historical journeys of Maori people’s canoes and Captain Cook’s long-boats. ‘Shadows cast by these shapes,’ she says, ‘suggest co-existing cultures and the fragility and interdependence of their traditions and customs.’

From the other side of the globe, Patricia Hickman’s exquisite work of netted gold silk thread, Constellation, represents the Hawaiians’ spiritual belief that stars are the knots of suspended fishing nets. In the rainy season, this net opens and the rains bring blessings and renewal to the earth and its people. The net’s lace’like structure of openings and knots, she says, are ‘a natural fit for my themes of cycles and seasons, memory and loss, ageing and mortality. What is absent is as vital as what is present.’

Anna Atterling, the maker of Rain, a delicate, abstract-patterned brooch of sterling silver circles-within-circles, attempts to directly evoke this very human spiritual response to beauty”that fine vibrating permeability that sometimes makes people’s eyes shine.’ Her silver circles are a kind of mandala, and indeed once you start to look for them, there are mandalas everywhere in the Love Lace exhibition. A circle with a central point, like the simplest of lace doilies, is a mandala’an ancient symbol of unity and wholeness, cycles and eternity, the divine and its universal expression. Griselda Gonzales’ bright Paraguayan Nanduti Lace is a hymn to love; Marita Macklin’s extraordinary Aspergillus explores worlds hidden within worlds; and Nadja Recknagel’s glass sculpture Searching for Lightness ‘encompasses frailty and power, rhythm and rigidity, tenderness and the capacity to both destroy and be destroyed’.

These and other provocative and inspirational works of the 2011 Powerhouse Museum International Lace Award finalists can be seen in the Love Lace exhibition from July 2011.