The British Textile Biennial 2019 is a showcase of fabric as a means of expression, exploring the dynamics between cloth, culture, protest and identity. As part of the Biennial the Great Barn at Gawthorpe Hall, a 17th century building recently renovated by the National Trust, plays host to Alice Kettle’s exhibition Thread Bearing Witness. It creates a dramatic backdrop to Kettle’s work; on entering the room, the impression of muted light is immediately overshadowed by the three huge pieces named ‘Sea’, ‘Ground’ and ‘Sky’ (all 2018).
One’s initial impression is scale, massive structures that could easily be mistaken as paintings. However, take a few steps closer and they reveal themselves as a network of delicately intricate works made from threads and embroidery. The visible effort behind these mammoth objects overpowers. There is a great deal to digest; scanning their surfaces reveals so many different things. Even from the back, they tell a different story of detail that amplifies the effort of their production further.
Conscious displacement is traumatic; travelling over large bodies of water or land, with little in the way of belongings is extreme. Kettle has attempted to portray this situation through metaphorical reference of the journey tied together via threads. Each tapestry is a mixture of layered thread work; some areas tightly woven, others loosely stitched. Drawings have been replaced by patches of embroidery, each having their own contribution to the overall narrative. Step back and a huge statement of shape, texture and layers provides for a new experience.
‘Sea’ has an innate sense of drama; powerful blues, flashes of colour and metallic threads. The symbolic reference to frightful sea-based journeys is spectacular. The vivid orange a reminder of life vests, dotted upon the powerful ocean surface. ‘Sky’ like all the three pieces is made from gifted sketches. It’s a shared view, a perspective of contribution converted to textile. The colour of ‘Sky’ is pale, cloud like; interspersed are small images of faces, objects and arrows across the whole canvas. Each one, slightly different. The birds and kite shapes scattered around provide small amounts of visual relief against the large expanse of cold tones. ‘Ground’ stands apart from the other two pieces, as its earthy hues create the idea of pathways across the soil, relocating to new places of safety. Stick like figures scatter across the mud, along with the embroidered word ‘freedom’. The occasional symbol of positivism, a heart, a flower all suggesting ideas of relief rather than anxiety.
Kettle never knew what the real impact of these pieces would be until they were finally hung, the sheer scale of them being used to such great effect. Her aim to use stitching as a language common across cultures resonates; anyone can stitch and it is through this activity that transcends cultures and borders that Kettle’s work can foster a sense of shared humanity set against the backdrop of Pennine Lancashire, where the craft has such a deep-rooted history. Cotton has been a common language in these parts for over one hundred and fifty years, even to the point of causing mass social unrest; the metaphor that Kettle has generated takes on even more cultural relevance which we all should note.
Michael Orr is a freelance media creative based in Preston.
Alice Kettle – Thread Bearing Witness, Gawthorpe Hall, Burnley.
4 October – 3 November 2019.