Of Correlations and Connections


Nesa Gschwend in Conversation with Janine Schmutz


    Fundamentally, the world does not consist of the singularity of existences, but solely of relationships. The triumph of rationality originates from the textile as a primordial form of         creating relational structures. It is from textile crafting that the world’s comprehension and determinability emerges. Bazon Brock

Which works of art are, from your point of view, at the cen-tre of this exhibition?

    At the heart of the exhibition are various works made of used textiles and cloth from my own family. The installation «Folded Memories» (2014) consists of 42 textile balls containing docu-

ments, letters and notes that have accumulated over time in my family. Through this process of making the balls, I absorb the stories, developments, personalities; I integrate them into my own biography and let go of the past. No-one knows what exactly is hidden or rather tied/stitched into these balls. To find out, we would have to cut them up/destroy them.

The artist Louise Bourgeois once defined cutting/cutting up as an act of violence, sewing on the other hand as an act of healing. For me, «caring» is included in this process. Through textiles we foster family ties, which are further enhanced by the artistic process. Obviously, in «Folded Memories» a part of me is tied in. This installation is shown in the Äbtesaal, a hall whose walls are covered in paintings displaying a series of birds. In combination with my two videos «Nest» (2013) and «Egg» (2005/14), I establish an intimate connection with these murals of 1606 AD.

Another central group of artworks is «Textiles of a Childhood» (2014/15): it runs through the whole building and consists of wax and of textiles from my family: embroidered bed linen from both my grandmothers and my mother—some almost 100 years old, table cloths, dresses, etc. The material itself has content, but to me it is even more important how I connect myself with it. This group of artworks forms a part of a series that will engage me for a longer time. At the same time, it is a homage to my mother. In such a manner, the theme «family-history-stories», birth and death, runs through the exhibition as a red thread and connects with the history of the baroque building.

Further, small objects made of my own hair, which I collect regularly since nine years and process artistically, are displayed in «Hair» (2006-2015). These works have been crafted with a variety of textile techniques, such as felting, crocheting, knitting, sewing, knotting and twisting.  Recently I have also added reverse glass works.

What incentives drove you in this exhibition at Sankturbanhof Sursee?

    My artistic work is basically installative, i.e. my works are always in dialogue with the environ- ment and the space. The Sankturbanhof Sursee—with its baroque and predominantly catholic history and collection—reminds me of my childhood, during which I often visited my uncle, who lived as a musician in a monastery in Italy.

Interesting references to my work and objects are established with the reverse glass paintings by Anna Barbara Abesch (1706—1773) in the Sankturbanhof collection. She lived an extraordinary life as a female artist in the 18th century. Further references emerged with Leibniz′s letter (1709) that dwells upon the allegory of folds—a subject I ponder again and again myself.
Gilles Deleuze has written a wonderful book on the endless folds in the philosophy of Leibniz. Leibniz′s idea, that nothing has a beginning or an end—that everything unfolds and folds continuously is indeed a thought which is anchored in Indian philosophy.

The main incentive, however, to put my works in dialogue with objects of the Sankturbanhof was Georg Staffelbach′s collection. It contains several artefacts from India – for instance the two stone sculptures of Durga and Shiva, which he brought back from his voyages. These are displayed jointly with my artwork created in or inspired by India.

What role does your experience of various places and travels play in your artistic processes/works?

    Travelling for me is always about the possibility of meeting other human beings, in particular if I stay longer in one place. In India I spent several months as «artist in residence» and had the opportunity to exhibit and realize projects. I perceive India as a very complex country, in which human fate is much more apparent than here. In Varanasi, where I lived for six months, I established a friendship, among others, with the sadhu woman Aarti—a homeless widow who lives in an alcove on Tulsi Ghat, a section on the long stairs along the Ganges. The video «Tulsighat» (2009) shows this place at different times of the day and with a multitude of activities along the Ganges.

The video «Madaritola» (2011/12) has been produced in a village in Madhya Pradesh in central India, in collaboration with the human rights organisation Ekta Parishad. This village—inhabited by 700 expulsed aborigines—does not exist officially. However, the video shows a community whose members lovingly care for each other and try to survive with the simplest means, in spite of the many threats they face, such as hunger, expulsion and violence.

In addition, the two tableaus «Connected» (2015) put in dia-logue various objects, which are inspired from my travels: e.g. the photographs of an Indian sacrifice—the Tulsi puja—at the Ganges, during which women invoke the goddess Durga for their family′s well-being, and two of my earlier wax works «Votive tablet 1+2» (1994). They are made of melted and merged votive candles, each containing a wish to the Mother Mary. Two almost identical rituals from two very distinct cultures.

What are the key processes that you undergo during the creation of your works?

    The artistic path is always a path to your self, from which you develop a universal language. A sort of transformation from the subjective to the general, in which the viewers can mirror themselves.

At the core of my work is the handicraft—creation with the hands. I call this «thinking with the hands», as well as combining various materials, media and contents. It is a very textile-like process, reflected in every medium—be it drawing, object, video—basically in my whole thinking and acting. «Connotations» or «connections» are key concepts for me.

Some of my works look very fragile: they appear incomplete, hence point beyond themselves and are making an effort to maintain a balance between micro- and macrocosm. Although they are robust, it takes very little to disturb this balance.

In «Stitched Portraits» (2011-13) I often show a fleeting, ephemeral facial expression that captures the connection between the inner and outer world. Stitching in particular points to these both sides, since—in contrast with painting—the needle perforates the canvas, violates it so to speak, and draws the inside out with the thread, and vice-versa. The tactile work with textiles or wax—both having skin-like, corporeal qualities—is thus a central means of artistic expression for me.

Since when have you been working with «textiles»?

    I grew up in the Rhine valley, and historically this whole region fed itself until the 20th century from embroidery, a textile craft. This leaves important influences and traces. My grandmother was a seamstress. I loved to spend time at her place as a young girl, and I passionately cut up and stitched together cloths. Relating to textiles was thus primarily through my own involvement, a hands-on and haptic experience.

Later I became fascinated with the relation of textiles at other levels, such as philosophy, for example in Deleuze′s work on folding, unfolding, refolding or Roland Barthes′s text fragments, which he kept re-combining in various ways.

My video works too, are like «textile processes»: they are in fact cut and «stitched together» based on paper patterns. Particularly through the new media, such as the «world wide web», the textile principle and the textile terminology have shaped the basic understanding of the world.

Furthermore, textiles play a central role in the lives of all people and cultures, whereby they also refer to colours, patterns, house constructions, etc. The American art historian Beverly Gordon summed this up beautifully:

    Being human means living with cloth. Our contact with textiles literally ranges from the moment when we see the light of day—when we are wiped with absorbent cloths and our naked body is wrapped tightly—to the point where we are, clad in a shroud, put to final rest. No matter where we come from, we are involved in textiles every day. Woven, knitted, embroidered cloths help us survive. (in: Art & Textiles, 2014)

How important is the time factor—transience—in your works?

    Decay or death is a transformation, too. This becomes most obvious in the objects that are made of my own hair. In addition, wax captures the process of transformation very well. In an instance, an amorphous liquid turns into a mouldable mass, which then solidifies.

What relevance does Red colour hold for you?

    The starting point for most of my artistic work is the body. Red as a colour is therefore obvious and represents blood, skin, beauty, violence, sacrifice and power. Red was for a long time a very precious colour. Amongst other things it was also produced from carmine acid. My installation «Homage to a Louse» (2014) refers to this complex process. It consists of remains of opuntia that were originally covered with lice for harvesting carmine.

Red also contains a very wide spectrum of colours that ranges from tender pink to scarlet and from carmine to earthy brown-red. In India, bright red is as a symbol of fertility. With the colour red, which I often combine with black and white in my works, I also feel a strong resonance.

What role do the visitors/audience play in your exhibition/installation?

    Originally, I started my artistic activity with performances.The audience, or the input from outside, is therefore essential for my development as an artist. The aim of my work is to reach out and touch people. Each exhibition offers me the opportunity to view my works in a public context and to put it in question. Especially exhibitions in other countries are important to me, since they provoke very different encounters.
For installations, scenography is essential. Contextualization and «walkability» of an installation are the key aspects, since the observer can establish a very different relationship with the artwork. He does not face it, but rather becomes part of it. The exhibition at Sankturbanhof is conceived, in its totality, for immersion, and at certain points I place limits or create openings.

The concept of «connection», which is essential not just to textiles, runs through the exhibition as a link.

The conversation took place in Basel on 8 February 2015.