I recently spent about a week in Kansas City MO, a small but culturally lively modern city with a wild west frontier past. In the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art there, a huge sculptural wall hanging by one of my favourite artists, Nigerian El Anatsui, loomed high above me, literally stopping me in my tracks. Like much of Anatsui’s work this is all metal, but the way it is presented I always think of it as ‘fabric’ meaning I think of him as a textile artist, therefore. I forgot to ask the title of this piece, which was not on any nearby placard – but in one way it doesn’t matter, as his work is highly distinctive, quite unmistakable.
I’m only guessing that laid out flat this piece might be approximately 5m square – but it was hard to tell because of the draped and folded nature of the installation which looked like magnificent shimmery heavy tapestry or furniture fabric. It is undoubtedly quite heavy, being made as it is of flattened metal bottle tops and and labelsconnected with wire. Anatsui’s sculptural art includes often gigantic wall hangings but includes free standing 3D works, too, always up-cycling thousands of units of durable discarded waste materials. Many of his wall hangings can only be described as ‘vast’ and some have been presented covering whole building facades, so judging by some of the images here , the piece I saw in Kansas City is quite modest.
There are many online links and articles about his work, but this one caught my attention showing a lot of his process carried out by studio hands, flattening out and joining said labels, caps and tops into units he calls ‘blocks’ which he then moves around. (Note the many large heavy duty bags around his studio containing his major raw material the bottle tops and metal bands from the recycling centre) He takes digital photos to keep track of the changes in the composition until he is pleased with their arrangement, and then all the blocks are fastened together – and here, so powerful is the effect of his work on my fabric focused mind, that I almost wrote ‘sewn together’. This is absolutely akin to the process of designing a contemporary or traditional quilt from fabric units, so if you know quilts, I think you’ll find the handing and assembling of these units quite wonderful.
A few years back I was critical of curled edges on art quilts hung in an exhibition in Santa Fe NM. Regular readers might wonder if at last I am going soft on this standard of art quilts hanging flat against the wall. I’m not, but at issue is a matter of intent. Those I commented on were clearly meant to be flat but weren’t, but they may have once been blocked to flatness and became curled in the humidity that day. There’s a common misconception that blocking a quilt is useful for straightening and flattening. I’ve found myself considering what ropes and pulleys, or smoke and mirrors I’d need to use to bring about a draped, carelessly folded or wrinkled look to the mosaic stuff I’m exploring, and whether that would be interesting or even relevant …