24 June 2017

Water into wool, or vice versa

Chris Ofili's tapestry, commissioned for the Clothworkers Company and woven at Dovecote Studios in Edinburgh, was submitted as watercolour drawings. The qualities of the watercolour - especially when it represents water - is captured in wool, many colours of wool, thanks to the skills of the weavers, blending up to three nearly similar colours to get many variations. 

The tapestry will grace the guild's dining hall, but first it's being shown in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery (till 28 August), and makes an impressive display. 
The background, designed by Ofili for the installation, shows gods or perhaps merely demigods (one of his fascinations, both classical and contemporary) - they look like frescoes and are said to have been made with "a traditional fresco technique" (by the scene painters of the Royal Opera House).

The tapestry was woven in three panels on an 18-foot loom and took 6,500 hours of work over 2-1/2 years. The main lines of the drawing were traced onto acetate, then blown up to 877-times the size, and placed behind the loom for weavers to keep referring to. The main lines were transferred to the warp - each one inked all the way around each thread - and then the work started, finishing three years later. 

It's a collaboration - and both Ofili and the weavers speak of what's involved in the film that's shown in the exhibition. There are also some of the preliminary drawings - and there's a book.
The film explained the imagery - Ofili his been fascinated by a black italian footballer, Mario Balotelli - one of those demigods! - and he became the source of the unseen cocktail waiter who is filling the glass in the centre that the tipsy woman is holding, serenaded by the man with the guitar. The figures at the side are pulling back the curtains for us to see this scene, as if it was a stage; the caged birds are held by the figure on the right, and the figure on the left holds the  food that is given to them to make them sing. There are three kinds of water: the rock pool, the waterfall, the calm ocean behind. As well as the tropicality and luxuriance, there's a sense of threat - trouble in paradise....

When Ofili was doing the final art work, he says in the film, the turquoise in the jar held by the figure on the right ran a bit much, and he thought "oh no, I've ruined it" (but hadn't) - and the weavers, with their long slow process, captured that instant in the making of the work.

The tiny video clip on the gallery website (https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/chris-ofili-weaving-magic) talks about "the quality of human time embeded in the tapestry".

There's an excellent 10-minute video on the Art Channel - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3mDWHAIr6I - with closeups of the weaving and lots of information about the background of the work - and without arty jargon.

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