The New Industrial Revolution: Nelson Leirner’s tapestries.
From 1760 to 1840 the world picked up speed!
In an ever-accelerating process, existing manufactures were modified to fit an industrial and increasingly mechanised mould. The movement began in England, but soon reached other countries – France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, Germany and the United States – which entered into what was considered an “age of inventions”.
The two sectors most affected were production and transport, as it was discovered how important an energy source coal could be to fuel steam-driven machinery and to speed up the transportation of products and people.
The effects were enormous. Instead of manual production by craftsmen, the new steam-driven technology yielded unprecedented productivity, more dynamic than anything ever seen before. So much so that there then ensued a period of successive inventions, each designed to outdo the others.
The goal was also to save time, to make more time, but the overall result was the opposite: the invention of more gadgets opened up more space for work, for industry, but not for leisure. As production boomed, so time became even scarcer – and on an industrial scale.
That first revolution was followed by another, now in the late nineteenth century, and is considered to have drawn to a close with the end of World War II. This stage involved another series of inventions, now in fields relating to the chemicals, electric power, oil and steel industries. The whole world was inundated by “western progress”, from which it has never liberated itself.
The logic of these two revolutions proceeded at its own brisk pace though, more like a system of cogwheels meshing. The overall philosophy entailed envisaging endless evolution, the mirage of an interminable succession of technique – to the point where, in the late twentieth century, a virtual revolution entered our lives, invading everything and everyone. We were suddenly flooded with (particularly electronic) products – domestic appliances, computers, through to smartphones – that we did not even know would be indispensable to our daily lives. The world “got connected” by way of mechanisms that no longer permitted solitude and isolation – or rather, that led to another kind of solitude and isolation.
One of the most visible effects of this process is increasing speed. In a far cry from the progress of a letter sent, a path covered on foot, the headway of a sailboat or even a speeding car, information delivery is now instant, immediate, disrupting and scrambling the ways we understand and control time.
As a result, existing temporalities were annulled and others naturalised. The world no longer recognised time as it is to the craftsman, in days spent doping things manually or just in contemplation. Ever more sophisticated mechanical, electronic and virtual resources spawned the blessings and the curses of this age doomed to progress.
Every context has characteristics of its own. What this dizzying succession of revolutions had in common, however, was manual labour being consigned to obsolescence, with the attendant certainty that it should be replaced by machinery. The prescription of the time was that craftsmanship should be considered an earlier stage, now totally surpassed by industrial inventions.
What is more, all craftwork became the subject of marked prejudice, as if the term itself determined its subordination to the “worthier and higher” concept of art. Art was held to be individual, with its own time, space and authorship, while craftwork would always be collective and ownerless. Art had canon and history. Crafts belonged to the logic of the grassroots and, as such, were relegated to the realm of the spontaneous, naïve and ingenuous.
There is nothing ingenuous about terms and expressions, however: they come imbued with the assumptions and values of their time. Accordingly, the opposition between arts and crafts denotes interplays of hierarchy and forms of subordination.
In order to revisit this – certainly misconceived – dichotomy, Nelson Leirner began to devote himself to a new kind of artistic production: craftwork. To do so, he steered clear of electronic and media resources and has opted, in this new exhibition, to present handmade tapestries. These are manufactured, from his designs, by men and women needleworkers and apprentices, who, working individually, evoke a New Industrial Revolution. This should be considered a dystopia, which now contemplates non-mechanised production, in a creative return to a situation he regards as having been left (mistakenly) stationary in the past.
It is no coincidence that tapestries, which were once fashionable in Brazil and around the world, today have become synonymous with kitsch and vulgar. They were too bulky, manufactured in excess and, with time, taken down from the walls of homes and museums.
In this exhibition, however, they leave their dislodged status to hold the foreground; they are made of art and with art. The colours, the designs, the shapes all allude to works that were popular in antiquity, such as the famous Gobelin tapestries, but also the 1970s artworks that were given pride of place in the entrances to elegant residences or prime locations in art institutions.
However, as all is derision in Nelson Leirner’s visual world, so in The New Industrial Revolution, the artworks are brimming with critical, ironic and creative allusions. The popular canvases, which showed vast, dramatic forest fires, appear here expressed in a single piece. While the fire is embroidered on the upper part of the tapestry, lower down are objects that suggest charcoal and, on the right, the work is completed by fire extinguishers. Musical scores in black and white, no longer paper-thin, gain the density of embroidery. A still life made of tapestry alludes to the classical academic genre that bestowed immortality on fruit, objects and sometimes (always dead) animals. Black and yellow measuring tapes, drawn in thick wool, compose a surprising design and an aesthetic in harmonious dialogue with the embroidery. This exhibition pays highest tribute, however, to Alighiero Boetti and his Maps of the World.
It is not uncommon to see Nelson Leirner’s artworks citing other works. Here, citation becomes almost a kind of homage, a sort of conversation with other artists. Leirner has always claimed to have “a family of intimates in the history of art” and Boetti forms part of this select circle.
Let’s get to the maps, though. Maps are graphic, visual representations usually defined as precise, objective documents. After all, they give the basis for delimiting the boundaries that separate continents, countries, states, oceans and seas. Not infrequently, however, they reproduce grey areas that form part of our very forms of knowledge. On sixteenth-century maps, Brazil appears depicted on the basis of its extensive coastline, but there was no idea of what the interior held. Accordingly, the solution was to invent and to project: to show barbarian indigenous peoples fighting and eating their enemies, to invent beautiful mermaids in the seas or terrible dragons ready to devour any vessel crewed by the unwary. The margins of fourteenth-century maps included representations of various peoples around the world. While Europe always appeared in “civilized” form, the East was portrayed through its customs, which were regarded as exotic, and Africa was reduced to “barbarism”.
That is, rather than being documents above suspicion, maps are permeated by ideological dimensions. Suffice it to say that, if the world is round, there is no reason why, on world maps, Europe and the United States should always be at the top, while Brazil and Africa are down below. These are visual conventions that embody all manner of preconception.
Motivated by this kind of criticism, Boetti commissioned craftsmen of Afghan origin to make large embroidered maps. Everything on these maps looks natural and nothing is. In the first place, this is because the maps are drawn using embroidery and not paper. From the outset then, the material causes a certain defamiliarisation. Secondly, there are suppressions and inclusions in these artworks: countries appear and disappear, national flags decide the colouring of the maps and the state of Israel is deliberately omitted on one of the pieces, because the government of Afghanistan does not acknowledge its existence. With all this noise, Boetti’s maps draw an uncertain portrait of the Earth.
In all, Boetti made 150 maps, with different forms and colours (one ocean, for instance, he painted pink, because that was the colour of wool that he had most left over). Ultimately, his oeuvre represents not just the whole hemisphere, but a hard-hitting profile of international political interplays. Boetti’s maps also embody a criticism of economic and social inequalities, of the global set-up and the mass production that resulted from the Industrial Revolutions and capitalism’s consequent advance.
Nelson Leirner, meanwhile, who has been addressing these same issues in his own way, and for a long time, has made his maps a tribute to his Italian counterpart. Leirner’s maps, however, hone the criticisms and irony present in Boetti’s work. At times, they deliberately give the impression of being unfinished, as with their strands of wool exposed at one end. Sometimes, Nelson sharpens the comparison by making the map a jigsaw puzzle and sometimes highlighting the situation of Brazil.
Moreover, in this exhibition – of nine tapestries created especially for the occasion and concluded between late 2017 and early 2018 – embroidery and tapestry not only invade other techniques and genres, but they combine languages: maps, scores, paintings, musical notations. There is a look and an air of mimesis and doubling to everything.
Criticism is embedded in the artworks’ support itself. It is as if Nelson Leirner – who in his long career has experimented with various materials from which to build his artworks – were now denying the industrial product manufactured to be multiplied and turning to unique pieces unified by the dialect of craftsmanship. Thus the vivid colours, the strong themes and the supports produced with embroidery.
In order to give an account of the argument that organises the exhibition, an expositor has been arranged displaying photographs of the craftsmen working, the skeins of wool used, the stitching and the needles. The idea is to show how art is process, a process of craftsmanship.
The New Industrial Revolution thus does not mean a nostalgic retreat. Rather it is an advance, advice, and act of revolt against the naturalisation we live in and the ever faster pace of work that is robbing us of our free space, until now devoted to “not doing” and to leisure.
To stop and look at Nelson Leirner’s tapestries is to imagine and share in another time (well) spent, to think about the symbolic meaning of manual work and accept the invitation to reflect critically on our temporalities. To waste time, in this case, is to save it.
Lilia Moritz Schwarcz
March 17, 2018
March 17, 2018 a
April 21, 2018,
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