Contemporary stitches: concepts, time and process
Text: André Gali
Published: 11 Mar 2011
The exhibition ‘Strikk – Masker i samtidskunsten’ (Knitting – Stitches in Contemporary Art) was on display in Gallery Format from 15 January to 13 February 2011. It focused on young contemporary artists who include knitting in their artistic practice. Norwegiancrafts interviewed three of the participating artists, Siri Berqvam, Kjersti Andvig and Kari Steihaug, on how their works explore the concept of knitting and challenge established notions of the technique and culture of knitting.
Kari Steihaug: Ruin, 2007 (detail). Photographer: Thor Westrebø
Knitting may be considered a technique and a medium for making clothing, a way to produce a warm sweater, jacket, mittens, hat or something else to wear during the cold winters in Norway. It has traditionally been a homemaker’s activity, something to do in-between other activities like preparing meals or taking care of children.
Today both the traditional role of the homemaker and the traditional role of handicrafts are challenged; few Western women are full-time housewives, and the traditional use of handicrafts – making functional objects – is replaced by a more artistic approach to crafts.
This seems to be a natural development in Western consumer culture; the society needs women to work outside the home, and women as well as men want to develop and have interesting careers. At the same time, mass-produced functional objects fill the need for clothes, vessels, bowls, cups, accessories and jewellery. You can buy cheaper mittens at Hennes & Mauritz than you can make yourself at home.
Ironically, this development has resulted in a renewed interest in the handmade object as a unique product, usually backed by a personal story about the maker (as we explored in Norwegiancrafts Issue 2, 2010: Craft and Economy). But this is not the focus of the present article; instead we explore how knitting as a technique and cultural symbol has entered art galleries and art museums in the form of highly sophisticated works of contemporary art.
Siri Berqvam: 2 hours 15 minutes, 2007. Photographer: André Gali
Child-like view on everyday life
Siri Berqvam is an artist who uses different kinds of textile materials to explore the consumer products we surround ourselves with in our everyday lives. She started making textile versions of mundane objects while working on a master’s degree at Bergen National Academy of the Arts in 2006.
‘I was mostly interested in working in three dimensions, and when I realized I could make textile sculptures of everyday objects, things that were literally directly in front of my nose, it felt like something just fell into place’, she recalls.
In contrast to many of her fellow students, she had never been interested in textile art as a way of working with two-dimensional planes or pictures; she wanted instead to explore textiles in ways that were unpredictable and maybe a bit surreal.
‘I wanted to make everyday life seem to go a bit astray’, she explains and stresses that the caricatured manner in which she makes her textile sculptures reflects a child’s way of looking at the adult world.
‘The child-like way of thinking is something that appeals to me on a philosophical level as well’, she explains.
Siri Berqvam: 2 hours 15 minutes, 2007. Photographer: André GaliSpending time in the kitchen
With a caricatured approach that draws on Pop artists like Claes Oldenburg, Berqvam has created tin cans, a radio, a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine, a match box, and more, always in soft textile versions. In 2007 she knitted and crotched a full-size kitchen sink with vegetables, and a stove with pots and pans. The work is entitled 2 hours 15 minutes, and was created while Berqvam was at home on maternity leave.
‘This was the first work I made after graduating from Bergen National Academy of the Arts in 2006’, she explains, and it is also the only knitted work to date.
‘During my studies I had embroidered and sewn commonplace objects that were placed on the floor. This was to degrade them somehow, and not to put them on pedestals. But when I started on the kitchen, it was largely defined by my situation at the time. My first child was born and I was at home with him.’
The intimacy of the homely atmosphere became even more explicit in this new situation.
‘A kitchen is a place where families gather, as well as food and eating is important defining us as social beeings. I wanted to emphasize the social element and the feminin role. Making unfunctional knitting in contrast to traditional womens work.’
Siri Berqvam: 2 hours 15 minutes, 2007. Photographer: André Gali
- But why a kitchen?
‘It just seemed natural. I had already been working with tin cans. These I had sewn and embroidered. Tin cans are objects that belong to a homely atmosphere, something you have in your house, so the kitchen was part of the same idea. And since my theme was home life, the kitchen seemed like a natural thing to make.’
The title of the work refers to the time listed in cookbook recipes, but it also reflects time as something that becomes increasingly more valuable in contemporary society.
‘I had a lot of time. I was at home and found it a bit strange not to be working on my ideas. I felt I had to find a solution to my situation, so I made my time visible in this work.’ Usually the time spent on housework just disappears, but in knitting and crocheting this piece, Berqvam could put her time into something concrete.
Kjersti Andvig: Coupez Leur la Tête!, 2006. Photographer: Kjersti Andvig
Knitting and death
Time and process were also important to Kjersti Andvig while she worked on Knit until Death (2006-2008), a project exploring the connection between knitting, the death penalty and the development of modern democracy. Among several knitted works she made during a two-year period, we find a replica of a guillotine and a replica of a death row cell. The starting point for her project was Les Tricoteuse (the knitters), French women standing next to a guillotine, knitting, during the French Revolution. The moment the guillotine blade separated the head from the body, they would drop a stitch, hence creating a hole in the knitting. These holes were later used as statistics to count how many executions there had been during the day.
‘It all started when a friend of mine taught me how to knit,’ says Andvig. ‘I became fascinated with the technique. But knitting also interested me on a conceptual level, for everything depends on one singular thread.’
She made five or six knitted pieces in the course of the project, starting out with a large scarf bearing the inscription ‘This time it’s personal’. This was before she knew about the connection between knitting, the French Revolution and the death penalty.
Kjersti Andvig: Coup de Grâce!, 2007. Photographer: André Gali
‘While I was knitting the scarf someone told me about the French women knitting during the Revolution. This information incited me to knit a banner saying ‘Coupez Leur la Tête!’ meaning “Off with their heads”.’
A death row cell
When Andvig learned about Les Tricoteuse, she realized she had to try to make contact with someone on death row.
‘At that time I found the starting point for my project. I decided I wanted to work with knitting, and I had a theme. My first thought was to contact someone on death row and ask them to knit something.’
But what should this person knit?
‘At some point it just seemed inevitable that he should knit his own room.’
Then a complicated process started. Andvig had to find this person, get in touch with him and convince him to go along with her idea. She had to read through several thousand pen pal requests online – this, she says, was the worst part of the process. Eventually she decided to pick someone from Texas, since it has more cases of capital punishment than any other state in the USA.
Kjersti Andvig: No One Here is Innocent, 2008. Photographer: Kjersti Andvig
‘This was how I found Carlton A. Turner, who I ended up working with,’ Andvig explains.
‘I had some criteria though: he should not be a religious man, he should not claim to be innocent and he should not be black. I ended up with a black man, and he was religious, but not in a preachy way.’
The time-consuming process of contacting Turner, getting him involved and knitting the cell started in 2006. It ended shortly before his death in 2008.
‘I wanted him to knit the cell himself, because I had this clear idea of a serious criminal working with knitting, but it turned out that it was almost impossible to get knitting needles inside the prison. I also realized that Carlton wasn’t really interested in learning how to knit,’ Andvig remembers.
Kjersti Andvig: No One Here is Innocent, 2008 (detail). Photographer: Kjersti Andvig
She ended up knitting it herself, with a little help from friends and family. The cell is the right size of the original cell, but otherwise it is filled with symbols and signs that were not present in the original room.
‘At first I just wanted to make a clean replica of the cell. But Carlton thought otherwise, he wanted to include all sorts of gang related symbols, knitted text and a flag, and I realized eventually that the work became a lot better from his ideas.’
She stresses that the work was a collaborative effort, and that Turner brought in perspectives she herself could not have anticipated.
The work was first shown in a solo exhibition named Personne ici n’est Innocent (No one here is innocent) in Marseille in 2008.
‘In a way, it seemed appropriate to show it in France since the project started with the French Revolution’ she reflects.
Found objectsKari Steihaug: 4. Klasse (4th grade), 2007. Photographer: André Gali
Also for Kari Steihaug, knitting is a collaborative effort. She explores personal histories by collecting knitted clothes that would otherwise have been thrown out, using them to create installations.
Steihaug uses found objects as the starting point for her works. She continues there where other hands have left off, ripping out and knitting anew, turning things into fragments, collecting, adding and subtracting.
‘It was the theme that functioned as my doorway to knitting’, she begins. ‘I was working a lot with time and vanity and human presence. And at some point I became interested in clothes and textiles as the membrane between the body and the world. Protection and vulnerability are important aspects of my work.’
Kari Steihaug: Arvegods (Heirlooms), 2006. Photographer: Roar Øhlander
‘It became natural to explore textiles closely associated with lived lives’, she explains.
She is concerned with knitting as a way of expressing these kinds of themes, and in the act of knitting itself. Her concern is with disposable culture, that is, the practice of buying, using and throwing away. This she comments on by collecting cloths people have made themselves, with love and purpose, and displaying them in certain ways.
‘Within this thematic, the knitted clothes became special. Time and history linger in the yarn. I have been working with them now for many years.’
‘And for a long time I was only unraveling. When you unravel a garment, it is as if you open it up, and the thread becomes almost like a signature. It dissolves form and goes from one shape to another.’
Kari Steihaug: Ruin, 2007. Photographer: Thor Westrebø
Time is on our side
In the knitting exhibition at gallery Format, Steihaug showed a piece entitled 4. Klasse (4th grade). This is based on a Norwegian school class picture from 1967, where all the pupils are wearing knitted sweaters.
‘While doing the class portrait, my idea was that it was a common reference point, something almost all native adult Norwegians can recognize: lining up and having your class picture taken. I searched for a class portrait from when I was young. I remembered seeing my cousins’ class portraits; they grew up in the countryside and not in the city as I did, and there everybody had hand knitted sweaters, and it made a huge impact on me at the time.’
Steihaug stumbled across the class portrait while working for a time in western Norway.
Kari Staihaug: 4. Klasse (4th grade), 2007 (detail). Photographer: Thor Westrebø
4th Grade consists of 21 cardigans and pull-over sweaters from the 1960s. The strands of yarn are unraveled to a certain point and then used to knit the picture.
‘I search for points between memory and expectation. The yarn strands stretching across the wall can be read as lines of connection, as heart rhythms, something fragile that binds us to each other.’
In knitted material, Steihaug thinks, the clothes can be seen as layered time, a visual trace of time spent.
Knitting was integral to Norwegian culture. It was a matter of keeping your family warm by giving them clothes. Many of the clothes Steihaug has worked with are old and have patterns that tell the viewer where they originated from and when.
‘This is something that already exists in the material I use. So at some point my artistic ideas and knitted garments seem to be different sides of the same coin.’
The exhibition Strikk – Masker i samtidskunsten (Knitting – Stitches in Contemporary Art) in Gallery Format. Photographer: André Gali
High and low
Time, process and concept are key aspects for these three artists. They work very differently, but each uses knitting as a craft and an idea. It seems that knitting has become as valid an artistic means as painting and sculpture.
Berqvam, Andvig and Steihaug explore the history of knitting as a woman’s craft: it traditionally belonged to a certain culture, had a certain (low) status and was for a certain purpose. In combining the craft of knitting with contemporary art strategies, they level out the usual conceptions of high and low culture, showing that the seemingly uncomplicated medium of knitting can be used to achieve highly philosophical works of art.