This essay was written as part of the SEVENTH Emerging Writers Program, 2016.
The passage of time is experienced by all, marked and delineated by objects and subjects that chart its progress. We observe and measure time not only through its effects in the external world (clocks, seasonal changes, materials) but also through its effects on our own bodies and consciousness. We are physical embodiments of change, from which we experience and also represent the progress of time through natural growth and decay. To consider time is to think of the most universal experience of all, an experience grounded in our physical existence and the enigma of our own limited time—mortality.
Freÿa Black’s practice is informed by these ideas of time keeping and consciousness. Her works observe and consider the place of the self within the surrounding physical environment, using durational markers to mediate her felt experience. Self-reflection, endurance and meditative practice are all central to her artistic process.
In her latest work, Umbilicus in Flux, Black continues her recent series of loom installations. The inspiration for these works is the so-called ‘Knitting Nancy’, a type of hand-held loom where users thread yarn through pegs to form a fabric. Using similar principles of weaving and winding, Black has engineered a loom-like structure that spans the gallery wall and translates the mechanics of the Knitting Nancy to large-scale production. Using recycled and found materials and cloth, Black has created an installation that is visually arresting and compelling.
When I visited the artist at home two weeks before the exhibition, the work in progress already measured seven metres. Surrounding the artist in her studio, the fabric was stretched across three walls, creating a cocoon-like nest with Black at work in the centre. While her previous weavings consisted of a denser fabric, Umbilicus in Flux sees her work for the first time on a larger scale, to create a more net-like and open structure.
The different materials and textures of the recycled cloths clearly delineate where one fabric ends and another begins. I am reminded of geographical strata, layers of soil that can be excavated to tell the history of the earth from the top down. Similarly, Black’s work can be ‘read’ as a personal narrative that charts the artist’s own time and history, as told by the strips of cloths—from most recently woven to oldest. Amongst the layers of fabrics are clothes from friends and family; fabrics acquired and recycled; cloths both priceless and valueless similarly cut up and woven into one. A closer examination can reveal some clues to the origins of the materials—such as clothing labels and flannel textures like those found on collared shirts—but these are only possibilities.
Although Black is careful to refrain from overt comparisons of her work to the body, the use of cloth and its social delineations (as ‘second skin’, as social fabric, as cultural signifier) imbue her work with a physical presence and sense of intimacy. The materiality of cloth—its very softness, flexibility, and its close connection to the body—can generate a strongly ‘felt’ response. As our day-to-day lives are surrounded by all manner of fabrics, not only in our clothing but also in our homes and furnishings, there is an immediacy and familiarity in their use.
Now installed at SEVENTH, Umbilicus in Flux lives up to its name, continuing to grow and change. For Black, the work is not ‘completed’ for the exhibition, and the final installation is not the end result. Rather, the process of weaving and its continuity is a central focus, and something that will continue throughout the duration of the work’s showing in the gallery. In this regard, the performative aspect of the work—of Black manually working the structure—is just as significant as the physical output.
It is this endurance and ongoing process that forms the central tenet of Black’s practice. One can ponder what the significance of spent time is, when our time is only valuable because of its very finite nature. To thereby focus on repetition and the slow process of weaving is to focus on a self-awareness of the self within the world, a self that is guided and shaped by external forces of time and change. Umbilicus in Flux is a work that invites us to join the artist in this self-realisation.