“Thin Membrane Pictures Come Down” Text by Linda Schröer

Linda Schröer - Curatorial Assistant of Dortmunder Kunstverein, Germany, September 2014
(This text was contributed on the occasion of the solo exhibition “Thin Membrane Pictures Come Down” on 13th September – 9th November 2014 at Dortmunder Kunstverein, Germany.)

«When I am in the museums, I feel ghosts speaking to me. They are the ghosts behind the fabric: royalty and rulers, workshop managers, designers, thread dyers and weavers. They speak of hierarchies and processes, of wealth and strict working conditions. In these times, rulers aimed to display their power with the best techniques and the newest patterns.»
Aiko Tezuka

On April 24th 2013 the whole world was shocked by the pictures from Savar in Bangladesh when the nine-level building of the Rana Plaza plant, which was home to many clothing factories, collapsed and over 1000 people lost their lives. Only few weeks later a factory in the capital Dhaka, not far from Savar, burned down, and already in November there were reports of two more fires in local textile factories in the newspapers all over the world. These headlines were accompanied by the protests of the textile workers against their working conditions and their substandard wages, forcing many well-known textile corporations to a complete clarification of the origin of their products. A shift in the way of handling these textile workers became visible as a result: in a huge fund-raising campaign, C&A donated $500,000, KiK and Primark $1,000,000 each, whereas H&M planned to inspect their 700 subcontractors more thoroughly. On top of that, the statutory minimum wage was raised and tighter fire prevention, building and safety regulations were imposed. Bangladesh is, following China, world’s second largest textile producer; about 4500 factories produce roughly 80 p/c of the country’s exports.

This shows that, over the course of globalization, the textile production centres upon fewer and fewer countries, because large producers barely manufacture their products inside the countries where they sell them. Symbols, ornaments, patterns and fabrics are no longer evidence of individual culture, but meaningless mass designs by large corporations.

The textile objects and installations by Aiko Tezuka from Japan deal with the history of textiles and discuss it up until today. Thus she buys old fabrics, often in flea markets, but also clothing at huge chains of retail stores like H&M (Two Identical Scarves from H&M, extracted Threads #4), and takes them to pieces. By extracting several wefts or respectively warps, the fabrics lose their original form and colour, the former patterns are irretrievably destroyed. But the process of deconstruction is always an act of reconstruction: new forms and ornaments evolve, hidden layers inside the fabric are revealed almost surgically. The disbandment of the fabric into its constituent parts accentuates the impact of the single thread that only attains creative appeal in the network with other threads. The colour also emerges in a new quality: extracted from the mesh, the single tones shine, whereas they appear dulled in the overall context. This effect in the eye of the onlooker and the demonstration of colours being formed by single dots respectively lines connect to the concepts of impressionism and pointillism.

This shows that Aiko Tezuka’s works, although she was born in Japan, studied and taught there, is mainly influenced by a westward understanding of art and the European art history. This is also an example of globalisation, greatly advancing, beside the cultural communication, especially the economical exchange in the world. It leads to mass production and therefore to a throwaway society and the loss of awareness towards the historical value of textile production, whereas this development is not new in the 20th century. In some cases, identification of a particular fabric with a particular culture dissolved early and may go back so far that traditional Japanese fabrics have not only been lost entirely or barely preserved, but – despite modern technology – cannot be reproduced using original contemporary techniques. According to Tezuka, this upheaval begins in the middle of the 19th century in the course of the Meiji Restoration. During this time an appreciation of The West and a change in Japanese culture occurred: Western culture with all its accomplishments became a paragon and was aspired to be emulated, whereby many Japanese traditions – as before mentioned techniques of traditional fabric production – got lost. This new orientation also took place in painting, but rather determined by a way of fruitful exchange. This is evident in the movement of Japonism in the 19th century and paintings originating from the last quarter of this century by Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh and Pierre- Auguste Renoir who formally or content-wise took up the new influence from Asia.

Such historic aspects are seized by the large-scale work Thin Membrane / Pictures Come Down that can be seen in Germany for the first time: 25 embroidered motives are assembled altogether on the transparent, 4 meters by 4.28 meters piece of cloth. These motives vary from illustrations of a cat’s cradle over depictions of a masterwork of European art or Egyptian clothing to Chinese landscapes and Japanese furniture decorations. Tezuka combines high and low art and especially accentuates the outlines of these images, showing mostly fabrics without the corresponding bodies in their various draperies. Thin Membrane / Pictures come down makes clear that the human history is a history of things and also of textiles. Fabric, respectively clothing, reveals facts about era, culture, origin, predominant style, class and gender. The images, embroidered by Tezuka onto the translucent fabric, pick up elements from painting, sculpture and tapestry and reveal close ties between these forms of art: whereas painting and sculpture were organised in guilds during the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the strengthening of the individual as a consequence thereof transformed their appreciation into an intellectual work. The products of tapestry were seen as symbols of power and wealth from the ancient times on. Not only were they decorative, they also provided insulation when hung on the wall and were portable when rolled up. Frescos on the contrary were considered a tacky surrogate for the precious tapestry in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. But as painting rose in prestige, the value of tapestry decreased and it remained a craftsmanship no longer valid as proof of ingeniousness.

Against this agreement and especially against today’s trends Aiko Tezuka endorses the aspect of the handmade: the three-piece series Operation, of which one work is shown in the exhibition, encourages the onlooker to re- enact the process of her artisanal work. This is not only achieved by the motives – knitting, operating and sewing hands – but also by stitching with dark yarn onto transparent fabric. The embroidered image can be seen in the foreground, but the threads on the rear side form a sketchy shape. Also the title emphasises the aspect of manual work: the term operation – Latin opus, meaning work – suggests the act of surgery, which originates from the Greek cheir for hand and ergon for work or labour.

As mentioned before, a similar change like the one of the craftsmanship affected the value of textile fabrics: Once a sign for wealth, today anyone can buy clothes anywhere. Therefore Aiko Tezuka is also interested in aspects like: what is the meaning of fabric and clothing to their owner and wearer? Which changes do they cause? Which individual stories are behind a piece of fabric?

In her new series of works Certainty / Entropy Aiko Tezuka turned her own designs into real fabric for the first time and thereby interweaves the chronicles of a society: Peranakan is the description for an ethnic community living on the Indonesian archipelago and British Malaya, now Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, that combines Malayan and Chinese culture. During her research Tezuka learned that local fabric designs entail strong influences from the Colonialism: Irish and British motives were combined with Asian ones like exotic fruits or animals. Worth mentioning here is that the selection of motives focuses on three spheres of life: prolificacy, rich harvest and safety. The Peranakan Designs are a typical attestation of fabric closely entangled with cultural history. Aiko Tezukas own layouts seize their basic structure and combine traditional patterns, that for example symbolise Singapore’s rich flora and fauna, with internationally known symbols like the VISA logo, the Peace Sign and the “@” icon. But the symbols contradict themselves; they are icons of consumption (Master-Card), emblems of mass production of food and clothing (European Organic Label), they are symbols of life (uterus, DNA strand) as well as renewal (Recycling icon). Tezuka deals with lost history and the eternal cycle of raw materials, economy, life etc. through her fabrics, respectively her motives. An apparent contradiction, reflected in the title, where certainty is opposed to entropy.

Aiko Tezuka exposes in her newest works how we take up and use the emblems of our society without challenging them, buy clothes without knowing their origin, accept a food industry which impact on the environment is completely unclear and much else. Just as former fabric patterns and motives once were tokens of their era and significant carriers of meaning, today’s world wide used, more or less significant symbols are literal emblems and ciphers of our culture.

Aiko Tezuka was born in 1976 in Tokyo, studied painting in Kyoto and taught in Kyoto and Okayama until 2009. After that she went to London, moved to Berlin in 2011 and received a scholarship for the international studio programme of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin in 2012. Aiko Tezuka currently lives and works in Berlin.

English editorial reading: Matthias Fabry