I’ve been thinking lately about when I over-think work and when I don’t. There are pictures but this post is long, so you might want to make a cup of tea …
In November, I spent a week at West Dean College making felt, working with artist Jeanette Appleton. I wanted to finish a piece I had started in 2017 which came out of the opportunity to engage with a room in the house, the Boudoir, not normally open to students. What I responded to was the idea of the boudoir as a place where a woman would wait – for someone, for something, for something to happen – unable to act. I started on a piece about abandonment: a cloth beautiful but abandoned, a remnant, something folded with hidden areas, something that could be full of possibility or full of sadness.
Anyway, I worked. And I worked. And I worked on it. I realised later that I had created quite some technical challenges for myself. I was attaching prefelt sections to a base cloth, but the prefelts themselves had already been worked quite a bit which makes them harder to felt to another cloth. And they contained lots of fabric scraps: and you can’t ‘felt’ fabric to fabric unless you put some fibre between the layers, but I couldn’t see where the fabric scraps were … Then I decided to create ‘folds’ in the cloth as part of the felting, which is quite doable but slow. And on top of that, I have a long-term shoulder problem, which means I have had to re-learn how to make felt without making it worse.
Oh yes, and then it turned out my base cloth wasn’t colour fast and released a dark blue/grey dye over everything … though in the end I liked the effect, better than my original plan.
I was not happy with the outcome. Here it is draped over a chair as I had imagined. Not the right kind of chair but still it was clear that the fabric would not create the effect I had in mind. But there were some interesting things going on especially between the felted areas, which were now fine but quite firm, and the translucent, weightless base cloth.
While we were talking about it, I put the piece on the floor and because the felt areas and the folds had built-in structure, it fell into a form that had some of the qualities I wanted. Here it is on the floor and then creeping out of a handily placed chest. The piece could work if I considered it not in the abstract, but in the context of a specific site and how the two interacted.
What has this got to do with Marina Abramović? Jeanette had given us an excerpt from an article called ‘Express Yourself’ in the Guardian Weekend magazine,of 25 August 2018. In it Abramović talked about lessons she was always coming back to that she had learned over the course of her career:
- The worst is the best.
- More and more of less and less.
- “What you are doing is not important, what is important is the state of mind in which you are doing it.” Constantin Brancusi
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
One way of looking at the problems with this piece is that I was making it in a state of mind that was too rigid, too determined. When instead I looked at it with a more open mind, accepting that it didn’t work as planned (i.e. was a mistake) but considering what it could be, rather than what it should be, the answer literally fell at my feet.
While I was waiting for that first piece to dry, I played with putting together strips of brightly-coloured old pre-felt – some as much as 10 years old, left-overs from other projects, or trial pieces for different textures. I was intending only to work them together into bigger pieces to make it easier to store them as a resource for future work. I don’t have a picture of the work in progress but someone was looking at it from the end of the table and said it made them think of someone climbing a big staircase. I straightaway thought about some photos I had taken on a recent trip to China, of people walking on the Great Wall. So I adjusted the piece a bit and finished it off. It’s the kind of piece that I couldn’t make intentionally.
I wanted to see if I could get my subconscious to do a bit more of the work. So I started a second piece, also made of pre-felts in my stash, about another place we went to on our holiday: Pingyao.
It’s an ancient walled city, a place of grey brick, hidden courtyards, red and yellow flags. It’s in a province which still has a lot of pollution; on a rainy morning you could taste it in the air. Here’s the finished piece.
I liked it but wasn’t not completely happy about grey slab in the middle. Then I looked at our photos of the town and particularly the walls, which were veiled in long grey/brown fabric. We couldn’t work out what they were for – maybe something to do with the plan for refurbishment. I had brought that ambiguity into my piece.
What I think happens when I make work like this is that I’m drawing on my existing skills and knowledge of materials, guided by a sense of what is important, but without a blueprint for what the product should be like. The skills and materials point is important for me, because I’m aware that I can be a lot more intuitive with felt than with drawing, but then I don’t have that level of skill (or confidence) with my drawing. A lecturer at Wimbledon taking about curating a show, described the ideal as having commitment to the overall intention, but not attachment to a particular outcome. Which brings us back to Abramović and Brancusi.
So, I have arrived at a familiar staging-post: where the piece I made from left-overs, at the end of a workshop, works and achieves my intentions better – or perhaps more easily – than something I had worked on for months. I wish I could find a short-cut. But it seems that I have to toil through the over-working and over-thinking – the making of mistakes – to get it out of my system, before my subconscious can do its thing. And maybe also that toiling is also part of what builds my skills and knowledge of how my materials perform that underpins what the subconscious gets up to. It reminds me of something I talked about in my final presentation on the MA at Wimbledon, thinking about my attempts to find out what I was interested in:
I felt I kept getting somewhere, only to find no there there.
And I kept rediscovering, forgetting, rediscovering again – twins, doubles, multiples, links to archaeology.
When it keeps happening, it’s a feature not a bug.
Going round in circles is my method, not a flaw.
Another wonderful thing about felt is that it’s a double-sided cloth. You tend to make it with a ‘right’ side and a ‘wrong’ side but sometimes the reverse turns out to be better, largely because you are less precious with it. So here are the reverse sides of my two pieces. I don’t think either is ‘better’ than the obverse, but they are interesting!