The hand is covered in stitches, and they’re not the medical kind. In pink thread and neat patterns, which follow the head and heart lines, the living human hand on the screen has been embroidered. The effect is unsettling, making the viewer want to gawk at it and turn away with a shudder, all at the same time.
The artwork, “A woman’s work is never done,” by Eliza Bennett, is part of the National Museum of Norway’s new exhibition of contemporary embroidery, titled “The Needle’s Eye.” On view through May 16 at Oslo’s Museum of Art and Design, the exhibition is presented in collaboration with the art museums in Bergen, which previously showed another iteration of the same exhibition.
“We noticed a trend towards contemporary art using embroidery techniques,” said Anne Kjellberg, who alongside Knut Astrup Bull curated the Oslo exhibit. But, as the curators freely acknowledge, given many viewers’ associations between embroidery and femininity, choosing to show embroidery as contemporary art means questioning attitudes and assumptions towards women’s work and art. That’s a massive topic, and though “The Needle’s Eye” presents a wide range of art in response to it, I am still as conflicted about needlework and its associations when I leave the show as when I arrived.
Everyone has an attitude towards embroidery, and it often starts with a personal, direct experience, Kjellberg points out as she leads a small group around the exhibit, pausing before Bennett’s video installation. While many viewers in Bergen had strong reactions to the work, seeing references to things like self-harm and women’s other suffering through bodily modification, the curator’s main reaction to the work was to remember her childhood, when she and her sister had experimented with putting a few stitches in the calluses of their hands. “It was a little painful, and very exciting,” Kjellberg says.
That contrary attitude continues through the rest of the exhibit. Presented with historical samplers, I see drudgery and bored little girls forbidden to climb trees like their brothers, while the curators point out that learning the craft of embroidery gave women a money-earning skill to fall back on, should they fail to get married. Each work signifies both a thing and its opposite at this show, and by the time we reach the end, where artist Elana Herzog is busy installing her work with a staple gun and scraps of fabric, I am longing for someone to explicitly admit that plenty of people assign low status to embroidery because of its association with women. But the exhibit fails to excavate the problem, noting only that it exists, and that embroidery in contemporary art has become the voice of the minority.
“It can be dangerous to generalize that a process is political, that this is inherently feminist because it’s embroidery,” Herzog tells me, pulling off her blue rubber gloves and taking a break from her work. Having come of age artistically in the 1970s, she says she actively resists anything that takes her out of the mainstream, but points out that younger women see the situation differently. The crafts theory movement is associated with gender slippage, she points out, and when I attempt to get her to elaborate on why that might be, she just laughs. “You can Google it.”
It’s only later I realize why this answer bothers me. The reason is that Google is one flat undifferentiated mass of information, where the less background you have in an area, the less you are able to evaluate what you find. Going to exhibits like this embroidery exhibit is an attempt at grasping a field, and when the answers instead of narrowing the possible range of interpretation simply contradict a viewer’s every impulse, while insisting that each response is as valid as any other, the result is to leave viewers with inchoate, unsorted feelings around what they have seen. It’s fair enough that each viewer brings their own background to embroidery, but what I missed in this exhibit was the courage to draw some conclusions, to assert that yes, women’s work is denigrated because it is associated with women, and then to take the next logical step from that realization: discuss what that does to the art on display, and what that does to the artists who work in that medium.
Photo credit: Nasjonalmuseet, Norway