In this essay Jacquie Chlanda reflects on Hannah Gartside’s Knowing Fabric in the context of the pandemic, looking at the way bodies, intimacy, and memory are embedded in cloth.
In around March of this year people stepped away from one another. Loved ones stopped hugging. We all stopped shaking hands or kissing cheeks. Strangers stepped off footpaths to let each other pass at a sanctioned distance. Bodies—known and unknown—suddenly presented a new threat. The spectre of asymptomatic carriers made our own bodies sites of suspicion and apprehension. A cough, a sore throat made us feel nervous, and dangerous. A hypervigilance of the body became the fast norm. “[Everyone] who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag states in the prologue of Illness as Metaphor. If so, it seemed that the Coronavirus left us stateless in our bodies—the distinction between well and unwell became hazy, the line between our bodies and the bodies of others more permeable.
I’m obliged to qualify what I’m saying here. Early statements about the virus’ universality— as a great leveller—were quickly made moot. And of course, the virus is still live, coursing through communities across the globe. It is still killing people, halting economies. I’m writing this in Brisbane, in November 2020. We’ve been relatively untouched. Very few people have gotten sick with the virus here, very few have died. We’ve been gathering, outdoors then indoors, since June. We’ve been back in bars since early July. Our lockdown was short, and not terribly onerous. And yet, we have had a slice of that strange, acute contraction of life—and could have more of it.
For me, and I imagine for many of you reading this essay, one of the things I was suddenly without was art. Or, at least the possibility to put myself in front of art, to share a space with it. The art that did come into my life during that period acted on my attention in a heightened way. In late May I went to Outer Space ARI too see my friend Callum McGrath’s beautiful work Thoughts and Prayers (2020), and cried. Ten people at a time, another friend touched my shoulder as he left. Tyza Stewart sent me a zine in the mail—a poem, drawings of the river, their garden, a self-portrait with a chook. It was very tender. And on the 25th of June Hannah Gartside delivered a performance lecture, Knowing Fabric, streamed live. I watched it at home on my red velvet lounge. Gartside’s work was made during the pandemic, as part of this initiative, the Institute of Modern Art’s Making Art Work. It was prescient, seemed to speak to the unique circumstances of the context in which it was to be encountered. Most potent to me was the invocation of bodies, persisting somehow in absence. Lost bodies, bodies not with us. The body’s precarity and fallibility, but also its needs, and its intimacies. I missed hugging my friends, I didn’t know when I was going to see my family—and alive as I was to the body right at that moment, Gartside’s performance has stayed strongly with me.
Still from Hannah Gartside’s Knowing Fabric, commissioned for Making Art Work.
Knowing Fabric was a blended thing: DIY instructional (this is how you “love” a thread, this is how you shred a nightie), artist talk, lecture, testimony. Live-streamed, from the outset Gartside worked to collapse the great distance between herself and her audience. Rustling the fabric of a 1930s green silk moiré dress, she asked us to imagine walking past that sound (that slippy little rustle); stroking the velvet pelt of an orange 1960s evening gown, she asked us to imagine touching a person wearing it (like melted chocolate). Descriptions of floral perfume and period blood stains on synthetic nightgowns, a shock hair. She invoked those traces that somehow hurtle the absent other towards us.
The death of her father Tim and Grandmother Peggy in the same year had a profound effect on Gartside’s conception of cloth—losing them made her reach of their garments, and re-understand garments as precious talismans. Recounting the experience of discovering one of her father’s hairs on a shirt, Gartside describes feeling gut punched, winded—as if his body was still present in the garment. A central theme of the performance was the notion that fabric can, in some way, restore to us what’s lost. On this, Gartside quoted Peter Stallybrass:
The particular power of cloth … is closely associated with two almost contradictory aspects of its materiality: its ability to be permeated and transformed by the maker and wearer, and its ability to endure over time. Cloth thus tends to be powerfully associated with memory. Or to put it more strongly, cloth is a kind of memory.
Jenni Sorkin reflects on this too, emphasising the way that stained fabric retains the past: “[within] the brevity of occurrence, stain taints now with then. A stain, thus, denotes the passage of time... a physical manifestation of a moment moments ago.”
In Gartside’s terms (and practice), fabric is a means of tracking, marking and honouring time. Cloth allows the past a place in the present, allows the absent a kind of presence. This idea is resonant in another essay about cloth, or rather a cloth, Georges Didi-Huberman’s “The Index of the Absent Wound (Monograph on a Stain).” Writing about the Shroud of Turin (itself a cloth with a stain, supposedly the imprint of Jesus’ body revealed in the absent or negative image) Didi-Huberman suggests a way of perhaps thinking with Stallybrass’ cloth memory semiotically, or more specifically, indexically.
The power of the shroud is not in the hoped-for image of Jesus (there are many icons), but in its indexical relation to his body; it is necessary to contend not with not the imagistic presence found on the shroud, but rather the very tension that exists between presence and absence. Didi-Huberman argues that the shroud requires a “concept of figurative Aufhebung,” drawing on Hegel’s concept of sublation, aufheben in German, meaning both to cancel and to preserve:
Contact having occurred, figuration would appear false. And the signifying opaqueness itself reinforces the it was of an object (in the Peircian sense, we know that an index does not cease to be an index when the interpretant fails to account for it whereas the existence of its referential object … is semiotically essential). Every figure has its origin where it is effaced, if that place of origin is a place of contact. (Original emphasis.)
In other words, the indexical mark (a stain, a smell, perhaps a hair) is not beholden to mimetic representation but it is beholden to its referent; it always implies the body (or object) that made it and it is the very material quality of absence that asserts that body.
Felix Gonzales-Torres knew this: his untitled billboards of body-hollowed beds from the early 1990s tread this line. With My Bed 1998 I think Tracy Emin knew it too, though to different effect. And Gartside also knows it. A shirt, a shroud—it is cloth’s intimacy with the body of the other, and its ability to outlast them that she invoked when talking about her father’s business shirts (now stuffed teddy-bear dolls) and her grandmother’s floral dresses (a quilt).
Of course our own bodies—the one I’m using to write this essay, the ones you’re reading it with—also share a profound proximity to cloth, and this is the other theme of Gartside’s performance that I want to think through. Early on she told us: I really want to emphasise the intimacy of fabric in daily life. Cloth gives and takes. Cloth protects and also receives us. At another point, she commented that wearing someone else's clothes is the closest you can get to being in their skin. This was not the only time the Gartisde conflated clothing with the flesh and blood body (I began to see the body in death as a kind of carapace, and clothing forming part of that shell, she had told us when talking about Tim and Peggy). In this way she relied on a kind of embodied personification of cloth, speaking to its care-giving. I’ve often seen poets metaphorise the love or the body of the mother in this way. Ada Limón does it in “The Raincoat”:
... My god,
I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her
raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel
that I never got wet.
Sharon Olds does it on a number of occasions, in “Socks” (above) and in “The Animal Dress”:
… a shadow of the glisten on her birth
when she had taken off my body – that thick coat …
Reflecting on her more recent practice, Gartside explained that instead of making things to hold onto she has moved towards making things that you could be absorbed into. To illustrate this she gestured to the bold, geometric quilt hung behind her and told us she feels comfortable in front of it. Her red dress chimed with the red and orange patterning. In pursuit of absorption, Gartside said she has been collapsing and shredding, demonstrating the way she slices the skirt of a synthetic nightie into fine strips (cutting board, a small bladed wheel). This is a technique she used to make Nightie dissolved in lilac (2018)—a work she showed on the screen—shredding, then stitching each tendril into chiffon so that the garment becomes a delicate haze of purple, its discreet edges blurred so that it seems to fade to air. Its quality as a separate thing—over there—diminished.
Still from Hannah Gartside’s Knowing Fabric, commissioned for Making Art Work.
Working mostly with found materials, she explained that an important aspect of her practice is listening to the garments and fabrics she encounters: One of the first drivers in my practice is the act of listening… I consider the material to be alive, or sentient. I want to respect it, I want to understand that it has its own agency and power, and co-opt and work with that into the artwork. Questions she asks of her materials include: What can you do? How can I work with you? How did you come to be here, with me? What experiences have you had along the way—or has the body had that’s been inside of you? This listening featured throughout the performance in a multisensory way—she rustled, and pulled, and stroked. Looked lovingly and then traced a finger.
The Belgian philosopher Luce Irigary is helpful in thinking about this. Against dominant modes of patriarchal thinking which rely on the bifurcation of mind and body, she argues strongly for the need to develop a morphology of the body. She uses this term to describe an active, discursive relationship between the body and systems of meaning (the symbolic: language, but also art, images and other forms of representation):
We have to discover a language (langage) which does not replace the bodily encounter, as paternal language (langue) attempts to do, but which can go along with it, words which do not bar the corporeal, but which speak the corporeal.
For Irigaray the relationship between the symbolic and the body should be one of reciprocity. It is worth emphasising that Irigaray does not see the body as an essential or deterministic anatomy, but as formative of and informed by the symbolic. I see this reciprocity in Gartside’s work. In her attentiveness to the material realities the fabric things that she works with, Gartside listens for the body. And then—cutting, shredding, “loving”, stitching—she makes works that speaks back to it.
In the final act of the performance Gartside shared the first quilt she’d made, from Peggy’s dress, her mother’s night gown. Stroking its steams, sometimes sliding a hand between its folds, she concluded:
I began to see quilts and blankets as a potent object in our daily material culture… They are with us when we’re alone, sometimes feeling into our own longing and sense of aloneness maybe. They are with us during sleep, when we’re accessing our subconscious and maybe other information in dreaming. And then they’re also often with us when we fuck. Maybe we’re under then, we’re over them. Or maybe you make love and they’re also with you then.
I have been trying to think back to the experience of watching Knowing Fabric.
It was cold and dark out. Late June, I was home. Carpet underfoot. My lounge soft. And all around me, cloth.
The author’s lounge.
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 3.
 Kevin Young, Book of Hours (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 28.
 Peter Stallybrass, “Worn Worlds: clothes, mourning, and the life of things,” Yale Review 81:2, 1993, 36.
 Jenni Sorkin (2000) “Stain: On cloth, stigma, and shame, “ Third Text, 14:53, 79.
 Georges Didi-Huberman, “The Index of the Absent Wound (Monograph on a Stain),” trans. Thomas Repensek, October 29 (Summer 1984): 66.
 Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel, The Science of Logic, trans. George Di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 81-82; Robert Stern, Hegelian Metaphysics (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2009), 306.
 Didi-Huberman, “The Index of the Absent Wound,” 68.
 Sharon Olds, The Wellspring (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2010), 49.
 Ada Limón, The Carrying, (London: Corsair Poetry, 2018/2019), 11.
 Sharon Olds, One Secret Thing (New York: Random House, 2010), 54.
 Luce Irigaray, “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother,” in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford; Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 43.
 See: Luce Irigaray, “Women’s Exile: Interview with Luce Irigaray,” interview by Dianna Adlam and Couze Venn, Ideology and Consciousness 1 (1977): 62–76; Hilary Robinson, Reading Art, Reading Irigaray: The Politics of Art by Women (London; New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006), 98.
Jacqueline Chlanda received her PhD in Art History, English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Queensland (UQ) in 2019. She has worked at the National Gallery of Australia and Griffith University Art Museum and taught art history at the University of Queensland and the Queensland College of Art. She is from Mparntwe/Alice Springs