Site-specific dances of synthesised weaving.
Delving in spatial enquiries, Lisbon based artist Maria Appleton weaves her way through chromatic and material investigations. Having studied textile design at the Chelsea College of Arts, her woven transparencies make up most of her practice, often unfolding as site-specific installations. Expansive and vibrant, her printed fabrics subtly interrogate the spaces they fill through open placements and translucent colours; as stated in her manifesto, “One change in the environment leads to hesitation, and hesitation leads to thought and doubt.” In her latest installation, “Not a city that was”, manufactured during a residency at EMMA – Kreativzentrum, in the southern German city of Pforzheim, emptiness was explored through an understanding of the city’s post war reconstruction. Rendering personal experiences into collective memories, her compositions become an archive of time that serve as direct windows to mental spaces, addressing the dualities suggested. Operating manually, her process involves equal amounts of craftsmanship, intuition and physicality, which she describes in relation to motherhood: “the construction of a body from only one thread, like a baby in the womb starts with a single cell.” Her whole production is traversed by a tension between the tangible and the nameless, encompassing not only artisanship but written essays, poems, and a profound love of dance.
Has growing up in Portugal, a country traditionally associated with textile production, affected your appeal to this medium? What spurred your first experimentations with it?
I wouldn’t say it was the country itself or its textile tradition, because, even though you are right and Portugal is rich in fabric production, this is somehow very hidden and remote. If I hadn’t studied in an artistic high school and discovered a room absolutely full of looms and threads, I don’t actually know how I would have come across it. Because one thing is to work with fabrics and another one is to manufacture them. They are totally different areas of knowledge.
Having moved from Lisbon to study at the Chelsea College of Arts in London, how has the multicultural environment encountered in college informed your practice? In what ways have these formative years strengthened your development?
It was very interesting to see how everybody understood or worked with colour. There were very different formal and conceptual approaches in other people’s work, but I remember always being attracted by everyone’s eye for tonalities. I would have comments directed to my use of them too. I think it was fascinating that everyone had a relationship with hues affected by their immediate surroundings. I remember Londoners were always working with bold and flashy neon palettes against grey ones, which to me felt so mimetic with the space we found ourselves in.
You are currently presenting your inaugural solo show ‘Gaze to See, Gauze to Perceive’ at Galeria Foco in Lisbon. What steps did you follow in order to conceive the pieces for a commercially oriented space?
I always take the space that I am working for into much consideration. After having done a massive installation in Pforzheim, Germany (“not a city that was”) it was very good to be offered to exhibit in a gallery like Foco. In this way, works can really be presented together, as if part of a family. This was also my first time seeing them so close to each other. Without just one, but allowing multiple answers to the same questions. Here they occupied different spaces and accommodated diverse perspectives in relation to one another. I also did two site-specific works; one falling down the elevator hole and another one in the round room where a video mapping and fabric installation was placed. More than thinking of it as a commercial space, I was interested in its architectural disposition: two floors, a hole in the ground, the text, and the fitting elements made of metal bars and rods. Maybe it is like a progression from the street outside the gallery where both blend together in synthesis.
You collaborated with artist and friend India José de Mello, who framed your prints within steel boxes, adding new potential readings to them. Could you describe any partnerships with other artists, focusing on how they gave rise to fresh functionalities and interpretations?
Collaborating with India was very special. Not only is she a long time friend of mine, but we also communicate in a very specific way. There was an idea, or a series of them. After that, there was some maturing of them, and then there were many inventions. I say this because we both had to think and assume new ways of functioning: the metal and the fabric . Two materials that have almost no resemblance, maybe only in texture or visually. Because they were becoming one, we needed to come up with a lot of tricks to make it turn out. So that is what happened between two people that know each other very well, who also comprehend the mediums in their fragilities and strengths. We worked together in the assembling of the boxes, as it was necessary to operate with as many hands as possible, and I needed to set it up with my own, and India to weld it with hers. There is only so much that I can explain because the roles were distinct, but we didn’t seem like two people working together, but rather like one. I have been involved in other joint efforts and I believe all of them have brought something new to my methods or ways of seeing, but this one was the most powerful one I would say, where there was no need to ‘translate’ anything.
In a dark room at Galeria Foco, I found a multi-coloured textile installation hanging from the ceiling, dividing the space and overlaying a projected wall with images from trips to places including Germany, India, Morocco and the United Kingdom. Can you guide me through the concept of archive and memory presented in those pieces?
The installation in the round room is also a postcard in itself. My work is a constant reflection on places and spaces, and this was another way of presenting that. I have always been gripped by video as a direct window to a mental space. I was interested in the spectator being an active participant in the installation. By showing iPhone videos of my own “on the move” experiences, relying on how they sometimes become subjective when cut out and put into a different context, I felt like I was talking about collective memories. Some that could be mine or anybody else’s. Especially in times when trips, with their displacements and perks, don’t happen like they used to. Our freedom has been limited for the past two years, and I was interested in bringing that feeling of letters, signs, streets and unknown situations to a room where, by including fabric in the form of a physical barrier as much as a filter, the audience could contemplate this duality; feel it in their skin. It was more than intentional not to project onto the fabrics, so that in this installation they composed a blurred effect that is also present in memory. I wanted to make things merge together and become subtle.
You have extended your work in texts such as your dissertation and manifesto “Mater and interiority on the home”. Is your written language as instinctual as your material craft? Have you ever considered combining these two approaches in a single piece?
I would say they are always one piece. They are the result of each other. Not only academic texts that come out during the process of researching and working, but also poems and narratives that make sense of the material work. I did a few of them about my project in Germany, and also wrote an article for Brotéria Magazine, around last year, that is a combination of poetics and theory. The themes are always interlinked, and I sometimes see writing as a rather fast way of answering my questions, something that would take years of practice to achieve with materials. When I am physically working in the studio, I sometimes stop to write things down, which are often the origins of a more structured text. Weaving is also in itself a type of writing. It is a combination of encoded and linked passages. I could go on about this, but that would make for a whole other text…
In recent times, the design, fashion and medical fields have cooperated towards the invention of technological advancements such as Al textile equipment, DNA clothing and intelligent fabrics. How do these methodologies compare to your handmade practice? Have you contemplated integrating hybrid procedures?
Of course! Bingo! Textile production is a vast, vast world. I am profoundly interested in it and I have done a couple of things related to material technology. Although to understand constructive elements of textiles and develop them further I need to hold them in my hands; I need to start from zero, from the thread. I am sure that I will not always be centred on the craftsmanship of textiles, but right now, building my body of work alone in a studio, I need to focus on learning practical matters.
During your latest residency at EMMA – Kreativzentrum, in the southern German city of Pforzheim, you developed an installation titled ‘Not a City that was’ that revolved around emptiness. How was this condition materialized? Did you undergo an understanding of urban architecture and war memory, as well as reconstruction?
It is probably impossible not to be influenced by this matter in a city like Pforzheim. It was my first time even considering urbanism after wars. Thinking about city reconstruction is hard having grown up in Lisbon, where I have always been surrounded by very old architecture and could learn about the past just by looking at the city. That project was a very emotional response to the city of Pforzheim and its history of loss and rebuilding. I was interested in the unfamiliarity of its reconstruction process, as the city had decided to rethink its architecture, structure and urbanism, unlike others in the Germany of the post-war era. “Not a city that was” comes from the need of raising something new out of the old, in its configuration and style, and how that affects the city, even today. It is about claiming that the city is a city, and, with that, trying to bring about a new vision of this context. These ideas were materialized as a structure coming out of a former empty public swimming pool, not following the line of the water, and defeating the gravitational point of it. Also, the game of perspectives became bigger and further apart (due to the size of the installation), creating an inhabitable space in itself, where the human body could circulate and merge into.
Most of your pieces propose a reading of space rooted in a comprehension of its architectural identity. How do you react to site-specificity? Are you concerned in both disrupting and enhancing the nature of the locations you intervene in?
Yes, there is a conflict between thoughts when working on a site. In my head, adequacy to the space is only pursued until a certain point, after which there is a process of enhancement, exaggeration, and adding an almost theatrical component that might draw more attention to space itself and its characteristics. There is something that attracts me to always “defeat” the space a little bit, almost like trying to create ideas of contrast and opposition through the use of color and placement. I try to not justify this too much, it comes intuitively, and to me is a question of: What does the space need, to be kind of alive?
Weaving has historically been a feminine trade associated with household environments. From your perspective, how has this method evolved in terms of gender equality? Does its inclusion outside of the home, where you have exhibited, parallel a progression in female empowerment?
I think it’s not only a question about the household history of textiles, but one about the history of art too. Art has a “mother medium”, let’s call it like that: Painting. Any other mediums that come to reclaim an idea or some sort of expression are harder to delimitate or to understand. Added to the fact that the history of textiles as a craft comes from bare necessity and expertise of the human mind. It goes along with design in a way, that which cannot be put on painting. And that makes it a craft, a hobby and later a feminine skill. Many female artists used textiles as a subversive matter. But many of them just really understood fabric in its infinite possibilities and ended up working with it. That happened with male artists as well. I think it depends on where your interest in using fabric actually lies on… If it is a material interest or a political one. Although the fact that it was a feminine craft for many centuries makes it political, feminine subjects also have a deep competence for it, as it involves being able to visualize a whole body, patience and a sense of projection or goal. There is a wholeness in textiles that women also have in their nature, I believe. A construction of a body from only one thread, like a baby in the womb starts with a single cell. Maybe that’s a coincidence, maybe it’s a cause and effect, or maybe not.
In your writings and interviews you mention an intense relation to motherhood which also encompasses moments of estrangement towards the works in development. Can you describe the process of creating these “thing-shapes”, as you entitle? Are these strong feelings provoked by the manual manipulation of materials?
It’s very funny that this question follows up the one before. I cannot describe it, I know it involves a lot of thinking, I would say it is almost scientific, but it has a hunch of the unknown in the end. Printing is a technique of determination, there is no going back from a print, it’s like a tattoo. It’s an impression that will stain the fabric forever. So the colour and shapes must be well considered beforehand. There are some free moments of experimentation with printing that arrive after a lot of thinking, and through which you develop trust. Trust in that the initial thorough thinking process will lead you along the way. It’s so funny. There is a point of relaxation that allows many things, and those things sometimes become an incomplete puzzle, as much as they make sense.
Recurring palettes of warm reds and yellows, soft blacks and browns and translucent lilacs and purples conjure a comforting yet tense psychological sensation. Is spirituality something you are interested in addressing?
Yes, I’m interested in mind escapes, perception and visual effects, so the subconscious plays a big role in it. Colour that becomes alive is in direct dialogue with the viewer. There is a displacement, a transportation, I think, from the action of experiencing something that changes or moves. That is to me very much connected to subconscious interpretations or perceptions.
Physically working with a loom requires methodical and rhythmic coordination, reminiscent of a choreography. Could you develop on your relation with dance and how it interacts with your practice?
I have danced since I was a teenager, and have always been discovering new ways of dancing. I did some rather classic or traditional dances like Contemporary or Flamenco, and then transitioned on to urban styles like Break. I see a very big importance in understanding my body and making it move in different and new ways in relation to itself. A lot of my work comes from my body movements, and it can be the motive of a big accomplishment or a tremendous failure. I love that clash. But most importantly, I love to dance.
During our conversation at your studio you mentioned wanting to move to the Netherlands. What attracts you about working in this country?
I don’t know! (laughs) I always think about moving to a lot of places. I could point out many reasons why I would be interested in the Netherlands, but most of all I like the size of the windows there. They are big and wide and you can see through them.
Travelling has been a great source of learning and stimulation, as well as a crucial opportunity to develop research techniques. What upcoming trips do you have in mind and what new procedures are you hoping to learn from them?
I am not sure how to answer that, I have many things in my mind. I am more spontaneous than that. I have wishes of course, but they take time.
Words by Francisca Portugal