the Back Page: ‘Rewind Kaunas’ :A Survey Report of Kaunas Biennial Textile ’11 by Xu Jia PDF  | Print |  E-mail


Since its launch in 1997, the Kaunas Biennial of Textile, the most important of its kind in Europe, has been held for eight times. Going beyond traditional tapestry, where it found its origin, the content of the exhibition has transcended the category of traditional textile. And this year, high technology media such as LED and intelligent optical fibre have been introduced, along with the mode of performance art. In addition to showcasing the latest technological achievements in the field of fibre, it also hints at the tendency of fibre art’s transformation from appreciation to experimentation. As one of the few exhibitions dedicated to textile art, the Kaunas Biennial of Textile announces the emergence of fibre art as a major branch of contemporary art, and its break with traditional forms and future of diverse development. 

Man often attempts to link up the variety of objects around us with the temporal frame of past, present and future in order to inspire cognizance of the existence of the self. Textile has both natural properties and human passion. Its treatment is direct and full of change, which has decided that textile can occupy the stage of contemporary art as an independent object. The Kaunas Biennial of Textile is firmly rooted in the form of art, and offers discussions on textile art in order to prompt reflections on contemporary art in general. It is a unique conceptual platform in Europe as well as in the world.

This essay will plant the Kaunas Biennial into the context of globalization and examine its impact on European art in terms of media expansion and public participation. In the meantime, it will search artists’ works for the critical power of language, so that a retrospective look at history and a forward look towards the future can be made. 

Rewind as A Way of Curating

The theme of this year’s Biennial is Rewind-Play-Forward, just as the instructions on a cassette player. The entire Biennial is divided into three sections: Rewind, Play and Forward. ‘Rewind’ has the highest concentration of artists’ works. This is also the keyword of this year’s Biennial, and furthered divided into three sections, ‘Rewind History’, ‘Rewind Personal History’ and ‘Rewind into the Future’, which are the by-themes of the exhibition.

Why ‘Rewind’ is adopted as a keyword remains a crucial question that has been discussed throughout the duration of this year’s Biennial. ‘Rewind’ can be interpreted as ‘replay and play again’, since the prefix ‘re-’ means ‘again’, just as the ‘rewind’ button on a cassette player suggests ‘listening again’. Applied to works of art, it allows the viewer not only to see, but also to re-experience what the artist has experienced. Here art has transcended the category of ‘appreciation’ and entered into that of ‘experience’.

This is perhaps but one of the many reasons why the focus is on ‘rewind’. Press the ‘rewind’ button on a cassette player and the music will be played again, yet the weaving of textile cannot be repeated. On the contrary, the ‘rewinding’ of textile may mean its dissection; hence dissection has become a new approach to art. Today when contemporary art is undergoing rapid development, attitude towards textile art is also being upgraded, yet quite disoriented. The Biennial does not want to join the bandwagon and push forward at full speed, and instead proposes to ‘rewind’. Alerted artists should slow down for a moment of reflection while keeping abreast with what is going on. In the meantime, the ‘rewind’ here does not imply a retrospective look without any objective. Rather it retraces the history of development of fibre art and culture, and re-examine some of our concerns in the context of individual life and collective experience, before reaching a verdict on our options at the moment and future paths of development. 

Regardless of the theme of the exhibition, artists’ works are no doubt the most attractive part of the Biennial. This year, many artists have come from all over the world to the Kaunas Biennial. There are artists from Lithuania as well as from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australasia. They have brought with them different cultural circumstances and angles, enriching the works exhibited at the Biennial. 

 ‘Rewind History’ is mainly an exhibition of traditional European tapestry works from the 17th to the 20th century. Meanwhile some textile works under their influence are also exhibited. 

 ‘Rewind Personal History’ constitutes the main part of this year’s Biennial, with a selection from over 300 works and 31 projects from 43 countries. The aim is to understand textile as a connotation and conceptual mediator of personal experience. This section includes works entered for the competition and those by special guest artists. The competition entries are mainly by young artists, the fresh blood of textile art. Works by guest artists, no doubt the backbone of contemporary textile art,  reveal the mainstream of its development.

 ‘Rewind into the Future’ is focussed on experimentation, applying an archaeological approach to demonstrate the latest technological achievements in the field of textile, such as high tech intelligent textiles and the application of various sensors and communicators.Tomato Series by Lina Jonike of Lithuania tells of a series of individualistic experience. The artist highlights the use of tomatoes as a medium of life in order to examine their users. The exhibition is divided into two parts: tomatoes feature as the protagonist of the first part, and the history of their growth from the sowing of seeds to harvest. The background is dim, with only the tomatoes looking deliciously fresh in the foreground. The artist applied cotton threads as well as digital printing to represent the pot and tomato groves as if captured by an old Polaroid. The protagonists, namely the tomatoes, were stitched with cotton threads. The thickness of the textile lent the tomatoes a vivacity springing from the canvas, if not from the soil they grow in. In a few other works in the same series, tomatoes explode in the corner of the canvas, and viewers cannot help checking their own clothes for red spills. Her works are often characterised with a strong narrativity. The tomato plays the roles of a fruit, a favourite object, unknown life and created material as well as the protagonist of the story, so that the audience is able to re-experience the story of the cycle of life between the tomato and human beings. 

American-born Chinese artist Beili Liu’s work Seduction derives its theme from the ancient Chinese legend of the ‘red thread’, which is supposed to connect two individuals whose fate is inextricably linked in a union of romantic love. The legend of course refers to the story of the ‘old man under the moon’, but the artist has de-emphasised his role, and granted to the red thread the dual identity of dominator and mediator. The work consists of a few thousand hand-wrought discs of red thread drooping from the ceiling of the art museum, suggesting the convergence of the fate of thousands. While representing the general experience of ‘convergence’, Seduction also implicitly expresses hope for transcending cultural difference. As an artist of Chinese extraction, Beili Liu has the countenance characteristic of a Chinese person, and she lives in America, the most open country in the world. Yet the artist still runs into questions of cultural difference. As the artist herself has indicated, she is inspired by her roots to find untraditional means of expression for traditional themes. This is no doubt an attempt at retracing history in search of roots. While searching for the disc of red thread that belongs to oneself, the attempt also hints at the stories of millions of ‘international citizens’ with similar stories as hers. They have their own cultural traditions, and even at a time when an individual’s cultural identity has been blurred by the globalised cultural context, they are still trying hard to find a kind of connection that points to the return to one’s homeland.

From ‘Rewind’ to ‘Play’ and then to ‘Forward’, the artists and their works represented here at the exhibition have a very strong temporality to them, including treasures from the past (the collection of the Lausanne Biennale), selected contemporary classics and experimental works that represent the future. The purpose of retracing history is to let history and the present collide and conflict at a certain point in order to activate a new meaning. Therefore 'history' and 'future' meet in the process of retracing, and the subject of this process is everyone present.

Interwoven Social Changes.

Any major event in contemporary art cannot be separated from its social context, and art has always been at the cutting edge of its time. The establishment of Bauhaus in Germany after World War One opened up the era of industrial design. The rise of non-museum art since World War Two signified art’s descent from the ‘sacred temple’ to the midst of the people. The emergence of postmodernist movements at the end of the 20th century suggests the transformation brought by social change. The popularity of the concepts of environmental protection and sustainable development at the start of the new century has also crept into art works. 

Every work of art reflects the characteristics of its age directly or indirectly. The exhibited works at this year’s Biennial is no exception. There has never been a shortage of works reflecting and inspiring social change or exerting a direct impact on the direction of social development. When we set out to interpret a piece of work, one of our primary concerns is the relation between the work and social change. What are the concerns of the artists by now? Perhaps we can find a few clues from the works themselves.

12 moons Gao Yuan

   Twelve Moons, by the Taiwanese artist Gao Yuan, tells of the stories of twelve mothers and twelve children as well as the twelve Chinese zodiac signs. The work has adopted the format of synthesised pictures digitally printed onto a piece of cloth, presenting the object of attention to the audience in a most clear, real and refined way. The artist has closely grasped the relationship between the rapid development of Chinese economy and the models she has been looking for. The artist intends to discuss four kinds of relationships in her work: 1) the mother-child relationship. Since China has adopted birth control policies, the only child has become the ‘beloved heaven-sent’. Yet, due to the large population base and the economic situation, the importance attached to new born babies has not been increased; therefore there are disparities between the status of the child in the family and that of the child in society at large. 2) the gestalt relationship: the layout of the picture and the contour of the circular frame are reminiscent of renaissance portraits of the Holy Family. In her creation, the artist has touched on the relation between contemporary Chinese society and the Renaissance Italy, in order to create a kind of conflict and confrontation between differentiated qualities and highlight the issues of value and cultural turn faced by today’s China. The mother and child’s facial expression is peaceful and harmonious, suggesting the kind of hypnotic and latent circumstances of contemporary China. 3) the tattoo relationship: if one looks closely at the work, one will notice that each baby wears a tattoo of the Chinese zodiac, a sign of the baby’s character as well as fate. The fact that the artist chooses to express the Chinese zodiac with a Western symbol also implies the intertwined cultural diversities which is again embodied in the connection made between the Renaissance and contemporary Chinese society. 4) the relationship between man and landscape: each individual figure comes from a specific background and is constituted by a series of urban landmarks and living conditions, which reflect the on-going modernisation process in China. After three decades of rapid development which have ushered in great changes in life and the social setting of the country, many problems start to surface. New born babies come under the dual influence of happiness and misfortune, just as the modern circumstances they find themselves in.

Fiona Kirkwood a heart devided

FionaKirkwood HeartDivided

A Heart Divided by Fiona Kirkwood, a South African artist, discusses the issue of cultural diversity against the backdrop of globalisation. Born in Scotland and growing up in South Africa, she now lives in Edinburgh. The entire installation is composed of a hanging plaid of hair representing the timeline, a digital print board woven with hair and a movie, suggesting the subtle complexities of different genders and cultures. The thick plaid in the middle of the installation represents the timeline of a clan. The cloth tags on it represent points in time worthy of memory and tell of the story of the temporal nodes of the clan. This thick plaid is not only a symbol of multicultural convergence, but also of expectations for renewal and cycle of life. The artist deploys her own hair as a metaphor for identity, implying her life in two entirely different worlds. While hanging the plaid in the central location of the work like a monument, the artist is also establishing a kind of memorial to herself and the history of her clan. The colour scheme of the work is characteristic of South African tribes, which again bring us back to the main theme of multiculturalism.

New Multimedia Narratives.

The death of Steve Jobs has attracted our attention back to the field of intelligent technology. We have to admit that Jobs’ apple, like the one hitting the head of Sir Isaac Newton, has changed the world. With the continuous technological upgrades, artistic means are also getting more and more diverse. The ancient art form of textile is also witnessing the explorations of different media and the introduction of new media. In this year’s Biennial, quite a few works have adopted an eclectic approach to media and achieved a new kind of aesthetic effect with the use of high-tech digital amplifier systems.

Traces by the Welsh artist Ainsley Hillard is an audio-textile installation. While showcasing a textile aesthetic, she has also incorporated sophisticated digital means that combine the senses of vision, hearing and touch to create a multi-layered sensual experience. The chairs printed on the textile come from an old building and gets a magnifying treatment with computer software. Interestingly enough, at first sight, one might mistake what hangs from the ceiling for a column. In fact the curves presented by hand weaving have lent a new volume and lifelike quality to the chairs. The audio effects of the work come from echoes of low whispers and the chiming of bells that accompany the footsteps of the audience and their conversations. Stillness is also employed as an element. Precisely due to this the artist has described the work as an ‘audio-textile’.

Wearable Absence by Janis Jefferies from the UK and Barbara Layne from Australia is a work they jointly created in 2010. The latest technologies of digitalised communication, such as wireless and bio-sensing technologies, have been used to create a series of models of the human body as well as clothing. They are made with cotton, artificial fibre and flashing LED lights. Body temperature and respiration sensors are attached under the female jacket. The heart rate and galvanic skin response sensors are located in the fingers of the glove. The intelligent garment comprises of 64 LEDs, whose triggers is embedded in the lower garment. Once the arm is held down at the side, the message scrolls horizontally. The still images and videos are displayed on the personal digital assistant (PDA), which is a palmtop computer and mobile device kept in a jacket pocket that is the main controller that is linked to the Internet and presents still and moving imagery. This artwork has wide potential applications including the performance sports sector, the world of fashion and the area of therapy, health and well-being.

Life’s Presence and Participation.

Today, as urbanisation is happening at a great speed, ‘public participation’ has become a key index in the evaluation of cultural events. Popular virtual communication tools such as Weibo (Chinese for micro-blogging), Twitter and Facebook have changed our life. We can know what’s going on anywhere in the world without going out. We can offer our own verdicts. The bytes on the Internet are no longer mere information, but also the objects of our conversation or criticism. The same holds for art. Since the birth of non-museum art in the last century, with the spread of ‘Pop’ culture, ‘the public’ has gradually evolved from the appreciator of art to an active participant, or perhaps even the one in control. Here the participation by the public of a consumerist society will necessarily entail the attrition of the energy and volume that there once were. Today, we are already used to intoning ‘art cannot be separated from the public’, but what do we mean by ‘the public’? ‘What does ‘mass culture’ mean? Should the artist serve the public or guide them? These are perhaps the urgent questions that contemporary artists need to think about. From some of the works exhibited at this year’s Biennial, we can see some artists’ reflections on these questions and their attempts to respond to them. 

He Disappears in a Cloud of Black Ink by the Norwegian artist Tonje Hoydahl Sorli has a lot of Pop features. She employs popular culture to express individualistic reflections. The artist adopts a cartoon language to express a rollercoaster experience: surprise, a squeal, exclamation marks, dark clouds, wide eyes and flowers. When these memories were given the form of the Disney cartoon figure Daisy Duck, another story is born. Perhaps the audience can find resonances in these familiar figures. This set of installations is expressed in tapestries on steel frames, with the stitches on the other side also considered part of the work, inviting the audience to participate directly in the restless restoration of scenes and memories. 

a wordrobe for my shadow

A Wardrobe for My Shadow, by the Canadian artist Amelie Brisson-Darveau, is a very individualistic work. She sees the shadow as a portable stage as well as the subject of a narrative of even a dance. The design of the work was inspired by an old building in Canada. The cut can be seen as a re-creation of the new living environment, which is a combination of individualism and mass appeal. The work individualises the shadow while imbuing it with materiality. The individual refracted in the shadow is not only the artist herself, but also the audience taking part in the work. Here Brisson-Darveau tries to embody what is shapeless in concrete forms, echoing the fact that to ‘rewind’ is by itself not to ‘restore’. Here the shadow wardrobe does not come with glamour, rather it is as simple as real life.

Wind from the Plateau by the Chinese artist Wang Haiyuan is very striking. What concerns him is not the China undergoing rapid transformation, but the China with strong ethnic characteristics. The work was inspired by Tibetan Fengma scripture flags. As the artist uses raw paper, silk and yarns of ramie to make flags in rhombus, rectangular or square shapes with varying lengths (from 10cm up to 60cm), and hangs them on the high places of the pasture, he is also spreading the faiths, life and culture of the Tibetans. This work remains in the Tibetan Plateau. The real participants and audience of this work are those herdsmen. In the exhibition hall we can see but a photo-like shadow of the work.

Fragments, Dissection and Rebirth

The American architectural historian and critic Kenneth Frampton once says, ‘Modern architecture is a critical history’. When it comes to art, we can also say, ‘Modern art is a critical history’. The masters of Impressionism subverted the traditional understanding of ‘what is seen’ and started the free explorations in light and colour. The Three Greats of Post-impressionism then became dissatisfied with natural expression and started to express feelings of the self. The cubist paintings of Picasso literally deconstructed traditional painting. The nihilistic stance of Dadaism held all art in disdain. Andy Warhol challenged Dadaism with the Pop language of the print. The emergence of Fluxus was an expression of the artist’s negation of existing forms. The history of art’s development is itself a history of negation of various schools. Today this critique is continued. The language of the artist is the sharpest, most sensitive language. The critique of the artist is also the most profound critique.

A closer look at the Biennial will attract our attention to a few works with a strong critical stance.

The Camellia by the New Zealand Artists Susan Jowsey and Marcus Williams is a series of installation works created in 2010. In the works we can see abstracted vision, kissing and breathing, which are expressed geometrically with black and white cotton threads. The artists focus on day to day family scenes, which are expressed with woven textile and photography. The artists are after a way of ‘gazing’. The gaze of the mother is soft and tender, whereas the father’s is warm and serious, and the daughter’s innocent and imaginative. In the meantime we can see from the materials used by the artists the impact of the different media of ‘seeing’ can have on ‘what is seen’. The mother sees a slightly distorted world through the glass window. The father sees a world with magnified yet limited frames through the camera. The mother sees through association an imagined yet real life-sized world. Here the artists suggest the rich diversity of what can be seen in different contexts, which hinge on the individual’s perspective.

Tilleke Schwarz Play with me 2006


The series by the Dutch artist Tilleke Schwarz tells of a long story that covers daily life, mass media and traditional wisdom and records every little detail that interests, surprises or moves her. The artist is happy to integrate totally unrelated items into one picture to express the wonder of the world. Through personalised experience, the artist depicts a very complicated and diverse world. While reflecting on certain events, the artist also restructures them before stitching them onto the canvas with cotton threads of different colours. The combination of different techniques, colours and materials creates a very interesting mix, which also includes the artist’s rewinding with her heart and hands as well as the audience’s rewinding with their eyes. These three types of rewinding can also be seen as re-creation. The hand-sewn lines and patches of colour offer us a glimpse of the artist’s passion. The interweaving colour lines have a fairy tale feel to them, and at the same time suggest of the pace of a ‘slow life’, an apt reminder of the richness of life.

If we situate the Kaunas Biennial in the context of contemporary art, the exhibition is more or less an artistic gathering focussed on and calling for tradition. The boundary crossing use of media and the critical and reflexive sparks of some of the works also suggest the Biennial’s commitment to the transformations and reflections of the new era. A linguistic critique is perhaps the best tool for this purpose, which is also the key component of the series of seminars and lectures accompanying the Biennial. ‘Rewind’ will not only invite questions on the collision between multitudinous cultures, but also situate it in historical vision in order to re-examine its various entanglements. It can both heat up individual memories and incorporate them into a common historical questioning of the This is also the original intent of setting ‘Rewind’ as the theme of the exhibition, of searching for answers by retracing history, and for methods in the exchanges and collisions between different cultures and regions so that art may be reconfigured and reconstructed in the context of globalised development. 

Xu Jia, China Academy of Art 2011/10


Xu Jia is a graduate student at the China Academy of Art who did her BA at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University. In the fall of 2007 she did an Exchange to Rhode Island School of Design, USA, Major in Architecture. As an artist she has been exhibiting since 2008. She attended the Kaunas Biennial 2011 with Shan Zeng of the China Academy of Art, and Shi Hui (Head of Fiber and Space Art Studio, one of the Directors of the Hangzhou Triennial which is preparing for “Fiber visions” First Hangzhou International Fiber Art Exhibition taking place in China in 2013.   

Photo information:

photos provvided by author except those marked  with * phottos by Joe Lewis Taken with permission.

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