Thought Lines – Study #2, 2017 [Front]
Artitute: While your embroidered compositions take on the rubric of rule-based minimalism, it is also tempered by your intuition and intimate contact with your objects. Do share with us more about your methods and processes.
Berny Tan: Each one of my twenty studies was created with a set of rules in mind, and these rules actually emerged out of certain anxieties or thought patterns I recognised in myself – for example, the mechanics of overthinking and how one mentally labours over one issue, or the impulse for perfection and how that conflicts with the impossibility of perfection. I didn’t write these rules down until after I finished the embroidery, but I had a logic of stitching in my head that I would apply and tweak if necessary. Once the system was set, I could almost “mindlessly” stitch for hours at a time while entertaining myself with Netflix or music, almost as if for that period of time I could detach myself from the anxieties that spawned the studies in the first place.
The rulebook accompanying the embroidery series. Design by Modular Unit.
A: You also have a book published alongside your exhibition, part diaristic, part documentation. How do you view this publication working with your artworks.
BT: The publication contains the systems of rules that accompany each study. I knew that I wanted to have this text available to the viewer, so that they could put themselves in my position as the maker. It functions as a kind of optional opportunity for empathy. I deliberately created a separate publication to house the text, rather than presenting it as wall text, in order to give the viewer this agency to choose how they would prefer to engage with my work.
With this series, I deliberately tried to keep the writing as objective as possible. I debated whether or not to have some more personal, confessional, emotional vocabulary seep into the work, but ultimately I thought that would be too oppressive for the viewer. I hope that intimacy can arise more organically as the viewer observes each study and tries to understand how it was made. It’s part of the reason why I chose to reveal the back of the hoop – I want to reveal as much evidence of the working process as possible, and give the viewer the opportunity to decode the work.
A: There is also an openness in your codes and rules. They relate more to emergent treatment of your material, rather than a diagrammatic plan of the final physical outcome.
BT: In a sense this is part of the reason why I chose not to write down the rules first, but rather keep them in my head. There’s a certain flexibility I still have to maintain because the material may not respond in the way that I think it might. I also try my absolute best not to draw any diagrams before starting the work, in order to keep the focus on the way of working rather than the image or pattern that it eventually creates.
Thought Lines – Study #17, 2017 [Front / Back]
A: From looking at your pieces, one feels the labour that has gone into it – the tension and the minute detailing. I’m curious about the physical sensations and experiences of your mark making process.
BT: There is this inherent quiet violence in embroidery that is not very frequently acknowledged. The fact is, every stitch can only be created by piercing the cloth with a needle, and thereby “destroying” the integrity of the fabric. The needle itself is a sharp object and I have absolutely drawn blood from my own fingers multiple times. Even without pricking the skin, just holding this small metal object tightly between your fingers can be painful. Furthermore, because I was using a small hoop, I often found myself hunching over into my own work. I was sewing for 8-12 hours almost everyday for six weeks, and by the end of it I could feel the strain of it in my right hand, my forearm, even my shoulders and back. I think my vision was fuzzy for some days too. There’s an unassuming cruelty to the physical process that I didn’t expect. It wasn’t debilitating at all of course, but it was a kind of latent suffering that I had put myself through.
Nonetheless, one of the principles I bore in mind as I developed the twenty different systems was to find that sweet spot between therapy and torture. Occasionally I would start pieces and then abandon them because they were too simple (or even too painful). I definitely want my own physical experience of creating the work to mirror the kind of tension that I feel exists in my own head, or in my own approach to life, in which I find myself caught between two seemingly opposite extremes. For example, being too emotional versus being too rational, or wanting to let go versus exercising immense restraint, and ultimately paralysing myself as a result. I suppose it’s a way to feel like I’m doing something (by creating work rooted within this space) even though in reality I’m not much closer to solving my actual problems.
Thought Lines – Study #1, 2017 [Front]
A: Thread and fabric had long been associated with schools of fibre arts, but your current body of work seems to transcend that, finding their own autonomy apart from the crafts, like Claes Oldenberg’s pillowy soft sculptures. What are your considerations when choosing your medium?
BT: I’m very consciously working against the image-making that underlies almost all forms of traditional and contemporary embroidery. I’m absolutely not against image-making as a way of working with fibre and I don’t think my work is above it at all, but what initially drew me to embroidery were things like the obsessive process of working, the line quality of thread, how it can be a form of drawing, and so on. These are all quite formalistic and conceptual concerns. In order to be honest to the nature of my own attraction to the medium, I feel that it’s necessary to keep my work firmly in the realm of abstraction, at least visually.
However, I acknowledge that embroidery cannot escape connotations of femininity and feminism, particularly with the rise of overtly feminist embroidery in recent years. This is something I’m still struggling with, in that I am not directly addressing or trying to subvert these concepts, but my work does benefit from them in some sense. An important aspect of my approach is that the intensely structured quality of the work exists in an ambiguous tension with perceived delicacy and softness. I’ve also found that the labour of sewing is a crucial access point for women, particularly those without a background in art, since most women are more familiar with the act of stitching. For example, it allowed my aunts to understand my practice with more immediacy than if they encountered, say, an abstract painting.
Thought Lines – Study #12, 2017 [Front / Back]
A: How do you determine the scale that your works take?
BT: I knew that I was likely to keep my work framed within the embroidery hoop, so I started first with deciding on the size of that. I had done previous studies with the 4-inch hoop because I was just exploring at that point, but I enjoyed the feeling that I was “researching” something. Subsequently, someone mentioned to me that this size actually reminded them of a Petri dish, which I think feeds into the sense that this is a series of experiments. But what personally draws me to this small size is the idea that each study is akin to one “thought”. As I keep stitching into this circle, it’s as if I’m reworking and overworking this thought, the way that I tend to do in my own brain when I mull over an issue twenty thousand different ways.
I’m also of the opinion that if it were larger, the overall image will supersede the details of the stitching, no matter how abstract the piece is. I think there’s more of a push-and-pull in using such a small size – on the part of the viewer, by forcing them to move in closer to the work to observe the details, and also on the part of myself as the artist, spending hours upon hours on this tiny hoop. It magnifies the obsession as well as the futility of all this labour. After all, there’s a uselessness to expending so much mental energy on anxiety, and yet I can’t seem to break out of this pattern – I want the embroidery to be able to mirror that in some way.
A: It really works for the viewer’s encounter with your objects – your choice to suspend your pieces in a militaristic lineup throughout the exhibition space, rather than installing them on the walls:
BT: Yes, I chose to present my works in a regular grid – five rows of four embroideries – at a uniform height, and in the chronological order of when I started each study. It felt more honest for the overall series to have its own rigid system of presentation. I specifically worked against that curatorial impulse to match the studies according to their aesthetics. In my opinion this shifts the emphasis from “the way it looks” to “the way it was made”. Conversely, I think there’s something more organic about this presentation, because it’s the chronological progression of my thought processes. When you see a similar aesthetic playing out between #2 and #6, for example, you might realise that there was something I felt was lacking, that I could push deeper or in another direction. That’s really how thoughts processes work. They’re not linear, they ebb and flow, they get repressed and then they resurface, no matter how much we want to organise them.
Thought Lines – Study #15, 2017 [Front]
A: And also, by presenting in a way that the backs are exposed, it foregrounds your process, highlighting an almost performative element in your stitching as well.:
BT: Performativity does suggest an element of flux, of the passage of time, that I think is necessary to lift my work from the merely decorative/ornamental. The embroidery hoop offers a natural and nuanced play of front and back, since the stitches are created by sewing into the cloth. I’m comparing this to, for example, revealing the back of the painting, which would feel like a more contrived subversive gesture. Nevertheless, embroideries displayed in the hoop generally have their backs obscured, and I basically had to frame my works in a way that isn’t “recommended” (since they cannot be removed from the hoop to be washed or adjusted). But I wanted the viewer to be able to see details like how closely I worked toward the edge of the hoop, the places where I chose or didn’t choose to secure the thread with a knot, even where I had made mistakes. That performative element extends to the audience as well, in how they have to move around and interact with a work that has two sides.
A: In a time when we are so at ease with streamlining our routines, habits, and actions with apps and algorithms, the “quiet violence” is perhaps a way of reclaiming the body, and find a place for neuroses, anxieties, and the immediacy of physical sensation.
BT: There’s a kind of masochism to the series that’s definitely an important part of establishing tension in the studies. Creating a physical process out of my own thoughts is also a way of acknowledging that I am putting myself through a lot of intense emotional labour every day. I’m trying to create something positive out of these destructive feelings. On the other hand, I actually do feel it’s a way of detaching from my anxieties rather than getting closer to them – I’m dispatching them to the realm of the merely physical rather than the mental, where they are the most potent.
Thought Lines – Study #11, 2017 [Front / Back]
A: As with the lines thought and gesture in your embroidery, there’s always the choice between continuity or an end. So what’s next for your practice? How do you see your ideas evolving?
BT: I will probably be taking a break from embroidery for a bit. This series was in the making for almost two years and I do feel that it has reached a comfortable conclusion for now. In the next few months I’m looking at returning to parts of my practice that I had previously abandoned, such as the visual language of diagrams and data visualisations, and how that can be applied to literature. One big project that I’ve been meaning to do for a long time is to take a look at Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It has been the subject of many artworks and illustrations, but I’m hoping to approach it from the more systems-based angle that has developed in my own practice. It’ll be interesting to see the impact of my embroidery explorations on this aspect of my work.
“Thought Lines” will be on show until 28 January 2018 as part of the Singapore Art Week at Supernormal, located at 333 Kreta Ayer Road #03-20, Singapore 080333. The gallery is open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 8pm, and closed on Mondays and public holidays. For more information on the exhibition, visit their website at supernormal.sg. There will be an artist talk on 20 January 2018 at 3pm.
For more information about Berny Tan, visit her website at www.bernytan.com.