This formed part of the talk given (virtually), October 2020, at Royal College of Physicians (RCP) by artist Rebecca D. Harris and specifically relating to the two artworks ‘Deep Seated Anxiety’ and ‘Untitled (black MRI)‘.
We have a close and intimate relationship with cloth, from birth to death we are enshrouded within this woven material and yet, like our bodies, we have become so familiar, we have stopped ‘seeing it’. In this article I briefly trace our relationship with cloth and how I adopt its use within my arts practice of exploring science and stitching it.
For the past ten years, textiles has predominantly formed my arts practice. I have no nostalgic talks of 30 odd years of childhood memories of knitting or embroidering with grandma. My story is that of a self-discovered retreat in my teens which, for me whilst at art school it naturally evolved and entered into my artworks. I am fascinated, with the adoption of cloth, how I can explore not only how this everyday fabric conceals our bodies, but how, through embroidery and manipulation of the material, the works can reveal physical and psychological states.
Textiles is what I can describe as my main arts practice medium, but this can speak of weaving, knitting, dyeing and so on. The distinction, I think, is an important to make, and in context to the discussion here, would be cloth is my medium.
Middle English cloth, clath, from Old English clāþ (“cloth, clothes, covering, sail”)
The term does not just refer to a literal piece of fabric, for cloth is a much more complex subject matter. The term and practice has been with us since the dawn of humankind — in the etymology of the word, cloth is from: Middle English cloth, clath, from Old English clāþ (“cloth, clothes, covering, sail”) and has many links with various languages across Europe. Cloth on the body first and foremost protects our vulnerability — it conceals our nakedness and protects us from the elements.
It is a two-dimensional object which is crafted to a form upon a three-dimensional subject and transforms into something far beyond its material status. For it has the power, once manipulated, constructed, dyed and embellished to convey gender, wealth, status, sex appeal and so much more. The varying practicalities and signifying content it can possess, when constructed upon the body, demonstrates how this commonplace material has infinite possibilities when adopted within art making.
I am interested in what we can conceal and reveal about our lives and lived bodies with a material which conceals and reveals so much too. Through my artworks I want to go on a journey to reveal aspects of the bodies we ignore, what we cannot see physically and what happens psychologically about what having a physical human body means in our social worlds.
Unlike the work of other sculptors who might, say, use clay or marble and create figurative works, my use of cloth speaks of and about the body collectively.
For the artwork Deep Seated Anxiety, from my body of work, Obscure Objects of Obesity, is an example of where cloth is analogous to skin. In this artwork, from the Under the Skin: anatomy art and identity exhibition at the RCP, cloth, like skin, conceals and shrouds what lies beneath and as used within this artwork, calico cloth beautifully conveys that analogy. This rather insipid cotton fabric is naked, a raw state, a cloth not used for any particular decorative and or finished status. It’s natural state is like that of Caucasian skin and it’s dark flecks in the weave, like freckles.
This very functional fabric is often used for lining or awaiting further manipulation before taking on a higher status within the material world. The first stage of the calico cloth in this artwork was merely functional, before being fully covered with the intestinal like stuffed tights. But as I was covering the form, stitching seams to create a smooth surface, I saw something revealing in the work. I realised I was suturing the skin onto this form, taking an excess exterior and trying to reconcile the two together. It was similar to surgeries on excess skin. So I embraced this idea and started pulling the seams tighter and tighter, sewing them over and over again to form an array of scars upon the surface. When viewing the work you can see the strain and tightness of these seams. This pushed my interest in using cloth as analogous to skin and to further on it significant relationship which could be made with cloth.
Abandoning covering the whole form in the viscera like stuffed tights, I keep them to just be placed in the sort of abdomen area. When curated, I present this piece on a floating wall shelf at the torso level of the average height viewer. Finishing at the sides, I embroider lines to resemble those marks made by the surgeon on the body being targeted for liposuction.
In weight-gain, arguably no other organ is more physically altered and visually modified than that of the skin. In weight-loss, this encasing membrane often doesn’t shrink and stretch-marks are indices to what the skin endeavoured to contain. The exploration of stretch-marks can be seen in the work above in which I machine embroider them onto the calico cloth. I’m interested in how the skin retains the history of its former fat body and becomes a sort of phantasm for the body it left behind, it is encoded with two identities. This ‘new’, socially acceptable form, is concealed beneath clothing hiding that history. These ideas formed much of my project Skin Deep: skin as repository, which also included a research paper.
In Life Sucks above, also part of that project, I explore how the tights are not just analogous to skin, but are a pretend one. Continuing with the theme of excess skin, this piece takes the unfilled stretched tights to mimetically reference, old, tired sagging breasts.
Calico is a material in waiting, like a debutant awaiting its transition into ‘something’. Whereas, the other cloth adopted here, tights, an item of clothing so heavily associated with the female body, yet the most overlooked form of adornment on the body. Unlike calico, tights already have a ‘thingness’, they are an object of the world, a sort of found object for me to introduce into my artworks. Although I do not retain the original form, you still ‘know’ of its origin. I am particularly drawn to these so called ‘nude’ coloured tights, and how they are like a pseudo skin, a very fine and diaphanous material, barely concealing the body, but through wearing this ultra thin material you feel your legs are not exposed. They aim to conceal with their subtle skin mimicry, but expose the wearer’s now streamlined smoothed contours of her legs.
My fascination with the female skin commenced with an interest in what happens with dramatic weight loss, but was amplified upon reading the book ‘Skin: On the Cultural Border Between Self and World’ by Claudia Benthien. In her cultural analysis of the skin, Benthien highlights that the tendency to fetishise the surface of the female body comes from a focus on the skin being a concealing veil of what makes a woman ‘other’, and it is on this surface where that coding of femaleness takes place. For the male body is defined by what lies beneath the surface of his skin, his veins and strong muscles, whereas the female skin must be smooth, hairless and blemish free. She goes on to say:
“undressing a woman of her skin would fundamentally destroy the myth of her being other’ and therefore she becomes defined by being both a container and surface with ‘coding of femaleness [taking] place on the skin”
My preference for tights is reflected in the thoughts of artist Senga Nengudi who selects tights as they relate ‘to the elasticity of the human body. From tender tight beginnings to sagging […] The body can only stand so much push and pull until it gives way, never to resume its normal shape’.
However, in ‘Deep Seated Anxiety’ I use the tights not so much as a found object, but as a material to create something to resemble the intestines. In another viscera type artwork of mine, constructed from a very very long piece of tumble dryer hose, a different outcome is achieved from the same reference. Firstly, the difference is the scale of the object, dwarfing the body of the viewer, but importantly here is the material of which it is made. As a result it does not have the bodily empathy with the viewer, this power lies within the power of cloth.
With soft sculptures you do not just need to solely rely on the form to connote the body, but it is the power of their softness which evokes a bodily empathy. Briony Fer, when writing of the works of Annette Messager, states that soft sculpture invites “a language of anthropomorphism, of bodily projection and empathy. Bulbous forms, organic forms, seemed deliberately to inscribe erotics of the body”. The softness of our bodies can then be beautifully conveyed within soft sculpture and in Deep Seated Anxiety, that softness of the stuffed tights are juxtaposed against the surface of tight calico.
Primarily the body is used to read the artworks, in how it interacts with the familiar objects, and the body’s status as an axis for perception. We are our bodies, of and in the world, and, as proposed by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty; we perceive the world with our bodies. Through this manipulation and emphasising of materials and objects, which exists in the physical realm with us, I use materiality to create a dialogue with our bodies.
So where the body can easily be conveyed within a soft sculpture practice, how can I use cloth just in its two-dimensional form?
It is in the second artwork on display at RCP, ‘Untitled (black MRI)’ that I try to explore this notion. In this piece, another from the seriesObscure Objects of Obesity, I wanted to explore how I could represent a three-dimensional object in two-dimensions, but still contain its form upon a flat surface. Prior to this piece I had started exploring the depersonalised imagery of the body from medical scans. In the example below you can see both the thin interior and the fat encasing, how when staring at this image our viewing of this body oscillates between fat and thin.
InUntitled (red MRI)a life-size cross-stitch embroidery of a ‘Birth-of-Venus-like modest pose of a morbidly obese figure. Although it is relatively easy within the practice of two-dimensions to create a shape that conveys and transmits into the viewer’s mind that of a figure. I wanted to try something further and as my work is predominantly three-dimensional, how could I do something like this on a flat surface.
Staying with the MRI scans I started to think about how the body is literally sliced through, layer upon layer, creating slivers of imagery of what lies below our surface. Individually, each image represents a singular sliced scan of the body, but brought back together it could potentially convey its three-dimensions again.
When you trace around the edges of these slices, you end up with a topographical map of the human form. Layer by layer the landscape is built up, closeness of the lines denoting the steepness of hills and ridges. By working with the MRI scans and tracing each edge of selected scans I could create the body as a contour map.
This method is not just a functional approach of conveying three-dimensions, but enables me to speak of how we view bodies. This reclined body of an obese woman is visually explored, through her undulating fatty landscape of her body, she has lost her identity, she is now objectified.
The creation of this piece was a painstaking process of first perfecting the image on Illustrator and having to print it full size before tracing onto the fabric. Each line is then machine embroidered with a thick embroidery thread lightly couched onto the surface. For me, what further carries this work is because it is embroidered, it has a tactile nature which is far greater than just the image in itself.
I developed this technique further for the artwork,Symbiosis(above), commissioned by the Wellcome Trust and Eden Project for permanent display at the showInvisible You. Taking the idea of the body as landscape, for this commission I wanted to convey that microbes are not blemishes, but embellishments on our bodies. We have a diverse and complex relationship with the trillions of microbes that call our bodies home and the beneficial symbiotic relationships we have with them.
The lack of French knot embroidery and subsequently no colour, enablesUntitled (black MRI)to retain its focus on the bodily form. The use of black linen fabric, moving away from the ‘naked’ calico, gives the white threads an opportunity to come alive and convey the contours of the body.
In closing, what I want all my works to have is a power within them is to affect the viewer, to draw in a curiosity to look deeper at what is on view. Through the cloth chosen, the acts of painstaking and laborious methods of embroidery, I aim to capture the viewer’s attention and for them to think further about the subject matter that goes beyond what could just be done with only the imagery. The tactility, sensual capacity, evocation of the body and the familiarity of this seemingly ordinary cloth, for which we share our bodies and lives with, have such a hugely affective potential with the viewer.
All photographs of the artworks are the copyright of the artist