The Stuff that Matters: Textiles collected by Seth Siegelaub for the Centre for Social Research on Old Textiles (1st March – 6th May 2012)
Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, London
It is in this unusual use of a contemporary art space to display Seth Siegelaub’s collection of textiles, that Raven Row makes its mark on the East London art scene. We are given an intimacy that we are not given anywhere else with these strangely ephemeral materials in quite surprising ways. In the first room, twelve silk chasubles from as early as the sixteenth century hang on a rack and we are almost able to rifle through them as though we are in vintage boutique across the road in Spitalfields.
This is an exhibition unafraid of the fragment, as too it is unafraid of the clash of textures and colours, and forms a diverse collection as a result. One room is dedicated to a variety of taffetas; the rich reds, the faded, the worn, the velvety, the long, short and curved cuts are arranged together on tables to be looked over. Interspersed between these cuts are definitions and excerpts that act more as thought pieces than descriptions. It shows us that this is not just a collection about classification, rather each room is an installation.
In the wandering rows of hats all displayed at head height, an imaginary space is given to experience the wearing of these artefacts. The visual and tactile contrasts of material are fully exploited in such a display, which is free of a glass enclosure, demonstrating the range of material. A royal ceremonial headdress from Cameroon is a splay of maroon feathers, interspersed with greens. Further on, a prestige ceremonial headdress is made from the quills of feathers giving it a contrasting spiky appearance.
The exhibition can both begin and end with an intriguing timeline of textiles. Above displayed rows of Georgian brocades is a series of dates tracing the legal changes on import duties. Above one richly brocaded material we read that in 1766 there was “An act for the more effectual preventing importation and wear of foreign embroidery and brocade.” Under this act the Spitalfields silk industry thrived, represented by the rich collection of materials displayed beneath. Then the material stops and the last date on the timeline is 1824, when the import bans were repealed causing the Spitalfields textile industry to collapse.
It is a display that gets us to think about the presence of a textile industry within the very surroundings of Spitalfields. The very nature of the repeal of the import ban on foreign textiles means that the textiles on display today have a historicised relationship to this building (once a former silk retailer) rather than a continuous one. The fragmented relationship of these textiles to the building’s history acts as an excellent introduction to how all of the pieces on display have different relationships to time, place and form. Raven Row’s exhibition stands out as it makes these concerns central to how they have been curated and displayed.