The Fallen and the Drowned
WHATIFTHEWORLD/GALLERY, Cape Town
04.02.2015 – 11.04.2015
At the height of its popularity, Pierre Fouché tells me, lace was so in demand that it led to a spate of artisan kidnappings across Europe. When Louis XIV couldn’t unearth the trade secrets of Venetian lacecraft, he simply had the most skilled Italian lacemakers taken by force. They lived out the rest of their lives in his court, whiling away the time making the best of ostentatious French fashion. Ruffs and cuffs were particularly in vogue but producing these was no small task. It would take three skilled lacemakers, (working 15 hours a day for six days a week) approximately ten months to complete a full formal ruff.
Latter day lacemakers didn’t have it much better. The technique found favour again under the reign of Queen Victoria, she of the outrageously elaborate lace wedding dress. Since quality lace had to be immaculate, commercial lacemakers – almost always young girls – worked in the equivalent of contemporary sweat shops made all the more horrifying by a lack of light and heat. Candles and stoves would produce smoke and that lead to discolouration in the linen thread. Many girls went blind. By age thirty, many more had deformed backs and hands, rendering them incapable of further industry work. Lace was a brutal business.
But fashion is notoriously fickle, and today lace has been confined, at least for the most part, to the dusty halls of dead couture in our collective cultural imaginary. I’d imagine it sits somewhere between the memorial to ostrich feathers and the monument to chintz. In Pierre Fouché’s seventh solo show ‘The Fallen and the Drowned’, however, the artist’s enduring interest in lace sets out to wholeheartedly reclaim the medium from the annals of history. And it’s a history of which Fouché is fully and conscientiously aware: “It’s impossible to divorce the history from the technique”, he reminds me. “If you’re using a technique that has a past, that past is automatically implied. Luckily this particular story is so interesting.”
Of particular interest to Fouché is the historical alliance between needlework and a female labour force, and hence the strongly gendered implications of the medium. “It’s always been, and still is, considered a craft”, the artist points out, primarily because of an ongoing association with women’s work. On the one hand this affords Fouché the power to recontextualize thread-based practice; to affirm its status as an art in its own right. On the other, his identity – “I work from the position of a white South African man”- informs his social, historical and political location in the landscape of contemporary lacework. Sometimes, reminders of this context emerge insidiously. Expectations around the gender of lace practitioners mean that Fouché cannot find a thimble to fit his hands. “The assumption is that only delicate and small fingers are doing this, and they alone need to be protected.”
He is also conscious of the interpersonal ramifications of his ‘token man’ status. The Cape Lace Guild, the community of predominantly hobbyist lacemakers in which Fouché continues to expand and refine his needleworking repertoire, remains a female dominated environment. At the beginning of his involvement with the Guild, who would soon become the artist’s mentors and most stringent critics, Fouché was very conscious of his intrusion into a wholly unfamiliar space. The Guild is “run by women, for women.” “[Although] I was so excited to have discovered this other world, I was very involved at an organisational level with the Guild itself and at some point became conscious of a subtle resistance from the lacemakers. It made me realise that I am imposing the art world into an arena that doesn’t operate in that way, that doesn’t have the same aims”. As a man and an academy-trained artist, Fouché was doubly an outsider amongst the lacemakers, but he recognises the cultural currency those identities afford him in other environments. “It’s so often the case that the man who knits garners more attention than women who knit, or have knitted historically. His oddity singles him out. And his reception becomes an assertion of male power and male dominance again; [a way of] co-opting the subversive into the patriarchy. There have been quite a few exhibitions of men who engage in feminine crafts, and they don’t often engage in feminism in a nuanced enough way.” Sensitive to his presence as potentially intrusive and always trying to do better, Fouché has a motto: “tread carefully and be respectful.”
He has earned the respect of the Guild in turn, perhaps as a consequence of his determination in acquire needleworking expertise. Straddling the divide between two worlds, Fouché is determined to meet the rigorous demands of both. “It’s art, but in craft circles, it is important to me that my work is seen as lace”, Fouché notes. Would he ever enter a lace-making competition, or privilege his Guild life over his art practice? “I know that the work I do is very different from the craft. Internationally there are lacemakers who are innovative and making truly new things, and yes, they are slowly starting to become recognised as artists. That is good enough for me.”
I doubt either lacemakers or artists could find fault with Fouché’s commitment to his craft. All told, ‘The Fallen and the Drowned’ represents two years of intensive labour. The work His Foam White Arms alone clocked in at 470 hours of graft, with Fouché frequently working 12-15 hour days in the style of the lacemakers of old. Lace is delicate work and requires enormous patience, but the arduous technique appeals to the artist. “I like endurance tests”, he admits. “They suit my personality.”
The triptych of lace panels that form the focal point of the show, Duncan, James and Stefan, showcase Fouché’s dexterity in point ground lace but also use the visual fragility of the medium to compelling effect. Even on closer inspection, these oblique portraits evade the eye. Each male form seems caught in a shifting elliptical web of honeycomb tulle, but the silk floss appears less solid even than the flickering shadow it casts upon the wall. “These are really intense, even sculptural constructions,” as Fouché observes, but they retain a sense of surprising lightness.
A Mixture of Frailties, a pulled-and-drawn thread embroidery of pulled-and-drawn thread, similarly takes as its point of departure the interplay between images, intimacy and vision. Here, however, the central figures are the beautiful boys of internet porn. Fouché calls them his ‘fallen men’, they who have fallen from social grace to become “so fucked up, so drugged up they can’t even get a hard on” and to whom the title is a discreet nod. “These are the most explicit works that I’ve ever done, and they are quite scary in that sense,” he says. “That’s the thing about nudity. It places me as the artist in a very vulnerable state. I feel quite exposed by showing these works.”
He is exposing others too, albeit vicariously. The source images were obtained from the social media website tumblr, a seemingly inexhaustible repository of all things personal and pornographic (and cat gifs). “I discovered that a tumblr blog is not just a collection of random images. It is a portrait of the person who collected and curated those images. The more you engage with a person’s curation of images, the more they reveal. It is a place for… specialised collections”. That said, the object of study here is less the anonymous connoisseur of queer porn and more the nature of his or her act of curation: what happens to identity when it is reduced to image, what conversations can be engineered with other images, and what does the impulse to consume those images say about intimacy in a digital age?
“Each time they are reproduced, [these pictures] are also changed. They cannot be the same anymore. They are based on a code of data that has been translated and in so doing destroys the original while also paying homage to it.” In their metamorphosis into thread, these fallen men are made precious and reborn in new skins, but they are not glamourised. “The cruising in the woods, the peeping Tom behind the bushes, the whole seedy world of male sexuality” is invoked in Fouché’s careful, precise portraits. In the handling of the thread and in the title, though, there is an overwhelming empathy. A Mixture of Frailties comes from Robertson Davies’ book of the same name. In context, the extract reads:
“Nothing softeneth the Arrogance of our Nature
Like a mixture of some frailties
It is by them that we are best told
that we must not strike too hard upon others
Because we ourselves do so deserve blows…
The sentiment, calling to mind a shared sin that forms the foundation of our shared humanity, emerges once more in His Foam White Arms. This 6.4 meter cotton-braid lace scroll takes a different poetic fragment as a point of departure, this time Crosbie Garstin’s hypermasculine epic poem ‘The Ballad of the Royal Ann’. Fouché has a long history with that particular piece of verse. As a thirteen year old he performed it in a school Eisteddford and was awarded a ‘C’. He was disappointed. “Years later, this is my attempt to get an A, on my terms.”
His Foam White Arms encodes a queered portion of Garstin’s text into the lace in morse, to convey what Fouché calls a sense of “all-encompassing desire… that feeling of resigning to forces far bigger than you”. The chosen snippet details the seduction of a sailor by an unnamed creature from the deep – female for Garstin, male for Fouche – who lulls him to sleep and drowns him. The repeating pattern of Fouché’s final work echoes the distinctive serrated teeth of a frill shark, formalising this link to the ocean but as it does so, “ironically, [also becoming] a fairly traditional piece of lace”. To Fouché, there are enough deviations from conventional lace designs to subvert the traditional floral association: like a refrain played just out of key, the end result is “jagged, more ominous in mood…threatening, perhaps.”
In its experimentational mode, His Foam White Arms embodies an evolution, or perhaps rather a shift in impetus, in Fouché’s larger practice. There is more freeform work on this show than any of his previous solo efforts, more intuitive and improvisational making, more play. The undercurrent of sexuality, too, is more palpable here, and it unifies an otherwise varied of thematic interests. Bearing that in mind, Fouché does not see himself moving away from lace any time soon: “I am a thread-junkie,” he says
Pierre Fouché has fashioned a world characterized by all that is systematic and measurable, by order, by the repetitive motion of winding thread around a bobbin pin. Even his dalliance with pinhole in To the Bay is sequenced as a tenderly composed narrative, tracking a first-person journey to the notorious gay cruising ground at Sandy Bay. And yet, beneath his coherent surfaces there lies an immaterial space; a world oriented less toward order and more toward something stranger that lurks in the depths.