Afternoon Dust

Taxonomies

On Wednesday I was in Tilburg, where I saw Dutch artist Christien Meindertsma’s current solo show at Tilburg’s Textielmuseum. Meindertsma’s primary interest is in the “lines that link raw materials with producers, products, and consumers”, lines she traces through a diverse practice spanning product design, artistic intervention, and historical, botanical, and industrial research. Her work One Sheep (2004/10) consists of sweaters knitted with the wool taken from a single sheep, accompanied by a ‘passport’ identifying the animal in question. For her book Pig 05049 (2007), she details all the various products that are made from or through the use of materials of porcine origin, including fruit juice (cleared by gelatine), bullets (pig grease is used during manufacture), and the brake discs of German trains (made from bone ash). Some of Meindertsma’s most recent projects shift the focus from animals to plants: 49 Prairie Plants (2011) consists of 49 sheets of paper, each made from a different variety of prairie grass, while Flax (2012) involved the purchase of a single lot of flax from a Dutch farmer, from which a range of products, from linseed oil to rope poufs, have been produced using every part of the plant. All of these works involve a kind of taxonomic collecting, sorting, and presenting of source materials.

From a contemporary art perspective, the making visible of normally ‘hidden’ processes of production and manufacture perhaps recalls the work of Allan Sekula, who has documented the inner workings of global trade through photography, film, and publications. However, while Sekula tries to show the ‘human effects’ of such systems, Meindertsma focuses on the materials and products themselves; this nonetheless serves to inspire respect for producers (farmers, machine operators, industrial and product designers) through a respect for raw materials and their various uses. Her design products are thoroughly ensconced in a capitalist market system, being sold through design galleries for thousands of euros, yet that in itself reveals the rationale behind the global trade system more clearly than Sekula’s shipyards full of containers. Our ignorance of the connection between the products we use every day and the ecological and industrial systems used to produce them has a price tag, one which can be calculated as the difference in cost between a piece by Meindertsma and a similar item from IKEA.

Meindertsma’s work was accompanied by films by Roel van Tour showing the industrial production of wool and rope; van Tour’s occasional recourse to scenes of formal beauty echo Sekula’s aesthetic ennoblement of work. But what I found interesting about the work of Meindertsma is that the product or material itself is capable of performing a critical function, being both an inscription of industrial, agricultural, economic, and cultural processes as they have developed over time, and a proposal that disrupts common conventions of thought regarding what is valuable. Her critical objects offer a challenge to the invisibility of the producer and the ignorance of raw materials that characterises consumer culture, while at the same time remaining consumer products. And they do all of this without recourse to the misty-eyed nostalgia that has in the past characterised the genre of ‘traditional crafts’ (though the current surge of interest in handicrafts likewise seems to have little to do with a romanticised notion of peasant cottage industry).

On the subject of nostalgia, I must say that my visit to the Textielmuseum thoroughly challenged my own preconceptions about both the history of the textile industry and the state of that industry in western Europe today. As well as temporary exhibitions such as Meindertsma’s, the museum also displays antique spinning and weaving machines, but it is also a working production house. Visitors are free to wander among sophisticated design and manufacturing machines as they do their thing, immediately dispelling any notions of being stuck in the past. Admittedly, the museum produces on a small scale, mostly for the museum shop as far as I could tell, but it is also an important research and development lab for designers to test new materials and processes. Again, the invisibility of the producer is challenged. But perhaps the biggest surprise was tucked away at the opposite end of the building from the production lab, behind rows of 19th Century wooden weaving machines. As I turned a corner, I was confronted with a row of shelves piled high with punch cards, which would have been inserted into the machines for producing different weaving patterns. I realised that I was looking at the beginnings of code. Clearly there is more to the legacy of the textile industry than barren towns full of derelict mills and social housing.

Christien Meindertsma’s website
Textielmuseum website

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