Bodily memory plays a large part of our response to textiles and clothing, we know how a garment will feel without touching it as a result of the tactile memories stored in our fingers. It is more normal for us to wear clothing than to be naked for most of our waking hours, and as such, what we wear becomes incorporated into the surface of our bodies as a second skin. Looking at clothing triggers these associations.
The relationship between clothing and the body has informed Liz Williamson’s practice for many years, both literally and conceptually. Her Darned series, for example, investigated the impact signs of wear, and bodily occupation on garments; or her series of functional wraps and scarves that have warmed numerous wearers through many a cold, frosty winter. Her recent work continues this pre-occupation, examining and revealing the bodily memories encapsulated in clothing, and the intimate association between clothing and the body.
This is aptly revealed in Williamson’s work, Remembrance; which features 3 sack-like elements that hang, draped side by side, on the wall. Each piece is woven from strips created from her old garments, which have then been overdyed with a Logwood dye. The muted purple colours at once unify the disparate fabrics, but at the same time allow a trace of the previous garment to show through. Hints of pattern and texture suggest their previous incarnation.
The thick knobbed texture of the weave is reminiscent of rag rugs, and evokes the historical association with the reuse of garments in this fashion. Not only is the rag rug thrifty, it carries with it the association of previous use of the fabrics, re-purposing something that would otherwise be discarded. This also links the work with Williamson’s previous practice: she first began weaving by making rag rugs on a standing loom, tying them to memories of her mother cutting strips of fabric for her to weave. Historically, rag rugs were made as part of a Bride’s trousseau. Thus memories of garments are interwoven with traditions of making in Remembrance, connecting the bodily memory of wearing the garments, and the trained skill of the maker, with the body of the viewer.
This is not the only way that Remembrance suggests a connection with the body. The three forms hang, loosely draping, reminiscent of folds of skin. Skin acts to protect the internal structures of the body from the external environment; through scarring and stretching, it also marks the passage of time on the body’s surface. The sack-like shapes of Remembrance also suggest protection; that there may once have been something snuggled inside the drooping forms.
The mouth-like opening, and slits in the sides of each piece suggest orifices: places of potential entry and exit. The soft tactility of the work provokes the urge to put one’s hand inside, to interact with the work. These holes act to suggest that Remembrance’s sacs have been used, or are available for use. Items that the body interacts with through use become identified as part of the body, and connected with it. As Elizabeth Grosz suggests they become ‘intimate, vital, even libidinally cathected parts of the body image.’ As such they become psychically invested with the urges, drives and energy of the body itself. The skin-like folds and apertures in Remembrance thus evoke the body in more than just literal ways, the work actively and seductively speaks to the body of the viewer.
Another of Williamson’s pieces, Cascade, operates in a similar way. This work features a series of different sized loops of woven strips, joined together and hung from the top. Each strip is a different length and has a series black leather loops inserted through the purple woven backing. The work is reminiscent of an oversized necklace (reinforced by the fact that Williamson has used this technique to make actual neck pieces before). That she has chosen to arrange the loops randomly, rather than in size order, suggests that these loops might have been worn, and have been disturbed from their regulated pattern by the actions of a body. As such they evoke the motion of the body, and its trajectory through space, as evidenced by the garments we wear. These gestures are also suggested through the techniques Williamson uses to construct the work: the rhythmic pattern of the weave echoing her repeated actions in making.
The close relationship between textiles, clothing and the body lies at the heart of Liz Williamson’s practice. While Remembrance and Cascade typify this association, other works in the show also suggest bodily traces. In this latest exhibition of her work, earlier ideas about use and association with the body are further developed, alongside a considered and knowledgeable approach to materials. The resulting work speaks compellingly to the body of viewer, and is subtle, seductive and suggestive.
Liz Williamson: New Textiles is on show at Craft Victoria (Gallery 1) from March 11 – April 21, 2011.
This article was first published in Craft Culture, an online collection of articles on craft produced by Craft Victoria.