It is unfortunately the case that very few museum exhibits anymore actually challenge a patron’s perceptions, or redefine an artform. In the constantly connected digital age of smartphones and the internet it is depressingly normal to hear about how it has all been done before and that nothing is new. Which is why the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles‘s second International TECHstyle Art Biennial (ITAB) was such a pleasant surprise.
This is only the second ITAB the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles (SJMQT) has hosted. The museum launched the contest in 2010 as a “juried exhibition of work by artists merging fiber media with new information and communication technologies … as a medium of artistic expression, and/or in the content of their work”. This year’s exhibition features over 40 works by over 30 international artists whose experience ranges from established textile artists, to artists who have never worked with textiles or technology before, to technology experts with little to no textile background. I did not see the inaugural ITAB, but the diversity and skill of the pieces featured in this year’s exhibit are astounding, and redefine both textiles and textile art.
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and as the first museum founded in the United States to focus exclusively on quilts and textiles as an art form, it is rather appropriate that the SJMQT should host an exhibit that re-examines the link between textiles and technology, and how both shape the modern world. This year’s exhibit opened on August 7th, and will be up until October 14th — overlapping with the first month of the Zero1 Biennial Festival.
ITAB begins with art quilts, and both traditional quilts and embroidered or woven portraiture which has been achieved through a combination of computer-assisted programs and hand techniques. Inside the main gallery, a duo of handmade kimono adapts a traditional design and embroidery to the modern world — depicting a highway with an airplane overhead on one, and the same highway at night, with fiber-optic moving lights that continue along the accompanying obi to replicate the headlights of the driving cars.
Traditional methods are re-envisioned in many pieces throughout the show. View Source by Patti Shaw uses html language as the pattern for her quilt, but does so using bleach pen and embroidery, with a binary quilting pattern of zeroes and ones that becomes apparent only after observing the piece closely. Wallpaper is turned into wall art, and another artist recycles used photographic printing ribbon to crochet whimsical structures that could be a landscape out of a Dr Seuss book, or a primeval alien world. Laura Ficher takes traditional army blankets made of felt — one of the oldest fabric technologies in history — and recreates traditional quilt patterns using light reflective applique fabric of the type used on modern running shoes, and light reflective thread in the embroidery. Expertly arranged on “camp beds” near another piece that is a tapestry of a pixelated forest image creates a cabin-like feel in one corner of the gallery.
Then there are the pieces which highlight the advancements in weaving technology. Taiwanese artist Huang Wei-Yin created an enormous tapestry in which three different patterns can be seen depending on whether it is seen in regular light, low light, or under blacklight; and in another piece, reinterpreted the traditional Buddhist lotus symbology (seen above) in the same way.
The digital jacquard loom was particularly popular for artists creating textiles out of unusual fabrics, such as aluminum foil, or to create infinite patterns without repeats — patterns that could literally go on forever and never replicate themselves. This succinctly ties the modern methods and creations to past invention, since the jacquard loom itself revolutionized weaving in the eighteenth-century.
Another unique interpretation was the utilization of “low tech” methods by designers and artists. In an age of Photoshop and digital programming, it is easy to forget that technology does not always require a battery supply. Using staples and the foil that encloses wine and champagne bottle corks, one artist created a rather beautiful piece that seems to be part tapestry, part sculpture. A Korean artist created a dialogue about her culture’s attitude towards age through the hanging of three industrially-manufactured hairnets designed for different levels of “gray” in the consumers’ hair. Another artist created a sculptural piece out of mass-manufactured orange netting. And yet another artist combined both “low tech” and “high tech” by using a traditional Korean patchwork technique to create a fabric QR code that visitors can scan using their smart phones.
Curator Deborah Corsini said that while the array and number of pieces was immensely satisfying, it also created a challenge in the hanging of the show. She played with a small-scale model for weeks, and the result she achieved is absolutely spectacular. The exhibit flows seamlessly, and the viewer is never overwhelmed.
Unexpectedly, I found myself confronted with biasses I had towards my own field. Largely focusing on the historical aspects, or the social issues surrounding clothing and culture, I did not realize how finite my own definition of textiles and textile art had become, or that I had forgotten the importance of how the objects I study are made. I came away with not a new definition, but no definition, and the reassurance that actually, not everything has been done before, and there is something new to look forward to.
At the core of this year’s ITAB is the intimate relationship between technology and textiles. This is a relationship that is not often addressed. The manufacturing process and the work it takes to create new innovations and new interpretations of old technologies is frequently overlooked in favor of end results and beauty in mainstream discussions. But the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles has made it a central part of this year’s ITAB, and perhaps this year’s Zero1. If museums are supposed to incite creativity, to challenge perceptions, and to educate, then the ITAB exhibit does even more: it makes you wonder. It makes you wonder what else can be done, and where we will go next.