From Soft Surfaces to Political Concepts

Michael Beutler Weaving Workshop, 2009-2013

Caroline Achaintre, an artist who participated in Decorum: Carpets and Tapestries by Artists at the Musee D’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, shares personal reflections on the exhibition.

It’s a good time for tapestry. This art form, which has always been situated between fine art and craft and is often seen as minor in comparison to painting and sculpture, is finally being appraised on its own merits, with major survey shows all around the world. Recent big shows include To Open Eyes: Art and Textiles from the Bauhaus to Today at Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, and Soft Pictures at Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Torino.

Tapestry sits very happily in a contemporary art context, as the Musee D’Art Moderne de Paris demonstrates in the exhibition Decorum: Carpets and Tapestries by Artists (on show from October 2013 to February 2014). The curators Anne Dressen and Marc Camille Chaimowicz display a tremendous range of unknown (literally) and very well-known twentieth-century artists such as Anni Albers, Pablo Picasso and Sonia Delauny, in addition to contemporary artists like Dewar & Gicqel and Pae White.

I myself have worked with wool for twelve years. It was the intensity of woollen objects that initially attracted me to the medium. A woollen image or object is composed from many threads and fibres (perhaps they could be compared to pixels), which when combined result in a phenomenon of heightened intensity. For me, a woollen artwork says more about time then craft. This is brilliantly manifested in the title of a work by Mike Kelley: More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987) (made with handmade soft toys and crocheted afghans, this blanket is not part of Decorum, but another work by Mike Kelley is included in the show.)

Caroline Achaintre Moustache-Eagle, 2008
Anna Betbeze Hoarfrost, 2011
Francis Bacon Sans titre, 1929

Upon entering Decorum, I instantly sense this density of time, this aura of wool if you like. It is present in the sum of all the works as much as in every individual piece. This show blows me away. Far from being minimal, I enter an opulent and intense universe with worlds that stimulate my senses. A playlist of ambient music (‘furniture music’), which is put together by the art historian Jean-Philippe Antoine, serves as an audial backdrop.

This exhibition has a high concentration of excellent pieces combined into original constellations. Co-curated by the artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz, it includes his trademark dog-footprints embedded in a carpet runner that extends through much of the space. This bold intervention, plus Chaimowicz’s wall décor, make Decorum fresh and contemporary. The recognisable footprint pattern holds the melange together, uniting it with a strong scenography and sense of drama.

The rooms are organized thematically rather than chronologically, but the curatorial interventions in combination with the thematic groupings are what successfully build bridges between the works: contemporary tapestries, rugs, woven and other woollen pieces from the twentieth century, Post-modern works, sculptural tapestries from the 1960s, plus works from the Bauhaus era, Art Deco and the Arts and Crafts Movement. Through the constellations, the curators create a kind of dramaturgy, one enhanced by the at-times dim lighting and ambient music. Of course, some pieces are dramatic in their own right, for example Hommage a Piere Pauli by Jagoda Buic. Made from dark sisal fibre and hanging in a semi-circle, this architectonic installation suggests a place for performing some sort of ritual. Performative aspects such as this turn the exhibition visit into an exciting journey.

This survey exhibition includes works that, rather than being textiles themselves, reference or mime textile practices. Michael Beutler’s installation Weaving Workshop, which presents meters of rag rugs ‘extruding’ from a pretend loom, looks almost like a historic presentation in a craft museum. Franz West’s Auditorium is an installation of worn Turkish carpets thrown over flimsy sofas (a place to hang-out and relax?). Aldo Mondino’s Mekka Mokka, an ephemeral carpet made from coffee beans, copies so well the intensity of single fibres, but in combination with its motif of a mosque, it draws me into the world of Kelim carpets.

Rosemarie Trockel Ohne Titel (Amaca, rot-weiß), 2000
Pae White Berlin B, 2012

John Armleder’s Furniture Sculpture – basically three rolls of carpet leaning against the wall, but in a very considered composition – elevates the exhibition context further, as does Mike Kelley’s Daisy Blanket, which widens the playful spectrum of making, needlework and high and low art.

Once accustomed to overstimulation – and I mean this in a good way – my focus turns to examining individual works. Of the more traditional tapestries, three in particular charm me:  Märta Måås-Fjetterström’s Unicorn depicts the mythic animal walking through a geometric forest; Le Corbusier’s Marie Cuttoli appears in the form of a still life next to a nude composed in the most exquisite colour combinations; LeTripleau by Asger Jorn and Pierre Wemaëre shows three flame-like creatures with angst-ridden eyes.

The quality of the show is so high that almost every piece is excellent in its own right. In fact, it is only my affinity for certain pieces that directs my exhibition visit.

Other works that appeal to me are Post-modern in appearance, but play more abstractly with form and colour. Nathalie du Pasquier’s Equador is a bold and bright floor carpet with a zebra pattern and geometric shapes, and Alexandre da Cunha’s Navajo is a wall-based piece made from cleaning mops and blankets. The arrangement of its elements renders it a post-modern sculpture.

Always drawn towards  animist qualities in objects, I am fascinated by the woollen works that appear as sculptures the longer I look at them: Dewar & Gicquel’s Gibbon is a monkey playfully growing out of the wool; Rosemarie Trockel ‘s Untitled (Amaca, rot-weiss) is made with a red and white shag-pile; Vidya Gastaldon’s God Mother is a tall ‘bobtail’ with rainbow-coloured pompoms; and my own Moustache-Eagle is a shamanistic wall-piece that simultaneously appears as an eagle and a moustache. The woollen works in this section seem to possess a life of their own, a soft soul.

Decorum includes a larger section of sculptural woollen works from the 1960s. Mostly made by women, these works reflect a fearless will to explore material possibilities, sometimes with great whit. Take for instance the works by Shelia Hicks, Maryn Varbanov, Akiko Sato, Helen Frances Gregor and Elsi Giauque: Hicks’s Menhir-She is a ‘thing’ covered in what looks like floor-length hair; Varbanov’s Anytime is a very three dimensional relief in white and red; Sato’s White Spiral is basically what its name says it is; Gregor’s Totem is a seemingly sacred wall-hanging in black and purple; and Giauque’s Élément Spatial is a brightly coloured installation with geometric shapes made from stretched string.

Guidette Carbonell Hibou-rock, 1978
Elsi Giauque Élément spatial, 1979

The survey exhibition also includes contemporary works. Anna Betbeze has used destructive rather than constructive methods to produce Hoarfrost. Her bleaching and cutting into already existing rugs results in a work brimming with raw energy. Then there is the kilim floor carpet by Alighiero Boetti’s Alternando da 1 a 100 e viceversa; it depicts some kind of code written in alternating black and white cipher. Boetti is an artist who masterfully combines conceptual art and craft techniques.Judith Scott’s  Poupée-bouteille, an object made from obsessively wound wool, evokes a magical or introverted totem. And Jules Leclerq’s Compostions érotique avec nus bleus is a very dense piece of naked couples and individuals in erotic poses. These are just some of the contemporary works that merit further thought.

Decorum manifests a joy and genuine love for textiles, surfaces, intensity and tactility as much as witty ideas and political statements. Given that weaving has been practised in all countries and at all times throughout history, the exhibition unleashes dialogues between contemporary and traditional artists, and between tribal and anonymous artists as well as those who are very well known. A joy!

Marc Camille Chaimowicz A partial vocabulary, 1984-2008
Anni Albers With Verticals, 1946,
John M Armleder Furniture Sculpture (n. 234), 1990

Born in 1969 in Toulouse, Caroline Achaintre grew up in Germany and now lives and works in London. She explores a wide range of artistic media, including ceramics, drawing and wool. Her wall-carpet Moustache-Eagle is featured in Decorum: Carpets and Tapestries by Artists. After the Paris show closed in February 2014, it travelled to Shanghai, to Power Station of Art, where it was re-curated by Anne Dressen in collaboration with Gong Yan. Achaintre's works will be on display at Tate Britain in October.