Takahashi Mizuki (Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile) on Dayanita Singh's Time Measures
Situated in the residential district of Tsuen Wan in Hong Kong is the newly refurbished arts complex, The Mills. The buildings were formerly used as cotton spinning mills, and evoke a bygone era in Hong Kong — where the textile industry was a significant contributor to the city’s vibrant economic success. The complex now hosts the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT), which pays homage to this history with a firm eye on the present day context. CHAT opened with much fanfare earlier this year, and organises programmes, tours and exhibitions. The current exhibition, Unfolding: Fabric of Our Life, features 17 artists and collectives from the Asia Pacific region.
Takahashi Mizuki is the current Co-Director of Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT). She completed MA History of Art from both Waseda University, Tokyo and The School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. After serving as a founding curatorial member at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo from 1999-2003, Takahashi worked as senior curator at Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito and realised numerous trans-disciplinary exhibitions addressing various artistic forms including manga, film, fashion, architecture, performance and contemporary art.
Photographs of Textiles
Takahashi Mizuki (TM): This is a photographic work, so textiles are not its primary material. Dayanita Singh is a contemporary artist, who began making conceptual art by way of photojournalism. Some of her better known works include her Museum series and her photographs of marginalised people within Indian society. I’ve known about her works for quite awhile now, and first saw them at an exhibition at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum. This work, Time Measures, was a huge source of inspiration for me when putting together this exhibition.
The textile industry was a major player in India’s economic growth, and this included cotton farming and industrial textile production. The textile culture in India is rich and diverse, and in this series of photographs, Singh explores this through these bundles of red cloth. These bundles contain documents from the National Archives of India, but we don’t actually get to see the bundles unwrapped. Singh herself did not open the bundles up as well, so she’s also clueless as to what these bundles contain as well. The red colour of the fabric is natural, and you can see some parts of the textiles fading due to exposure to direct sunlight. Every single bundle is a time capsule, and can be seen as being similar to a human portrait as well. When you first encounter them, they all look the same. Yet it is only upon closer looking that you realise differences in draping and knotting. In terms of materiality, photographs are also vulnerable to sunlight. It reflects, in a poetic way, the naturally-dyed textiles it captures. This is a rather quiet work of art, and unless you spend time unwrapping it, it might not speak to you as much.
It was important for me to start off the exhibition with this photographic work instead of a fabric work, and I chose this work because I think it symbolises the nature and attitude of CHAT. CHAT is not a conventional textile museum, and so starting our first exhibition in this space with Time Measures forwards our curatorial agenda, almost like a curatorial manifesto.
Historicising Hong KOng’s Labour-Intensive Textile Industry
TM: The textile history in Hong Kong is a history of industry. Much of what was produced by these textile factories were ordinary items. Although these products could be considered mundane, they actually permeate various aspects of one’s everyday life. Everyone has a relationship to the textile industry. Even in art, a painter uses a cotton canvas for his works.
Alongside our changing exhibitions, we have the D.H. Chen Foundation Gallery. This gallery provides an outline of this industrial memory in the context of Hong Kong, and introduces the process of transforming raw cotton into yarn. Not many of us have knowledge about these production processes. Through our galleries and programmes here at CHAT, I want to highlight the importance of labour in the textile industry. The bulk of the work within these factories are carried out by lay workers, yet their contributions are rarely studied or discussed. These workers would have been skilled in matters relating to science and engineering, and would have been very attentive to detail. Discovering this was fascinating to me, but the challenge is now in relaying this information to contemporary audiences. I was able to approach this aspect of history from a different angle because I’m not an industrial historian or a textile historian. Having this sort of curatorial perspective, in turn, also freed the artists up towards considering these possibilities.
When we purchase garments and fabrics, they are always delivered to us in a perfected final form. Normally, consumers want their clothes to be beautiful and of impeccable quality. Yet when we think about what happens behind the scenes, things can get really ugly. There are many cruel and harsh stories surrounding how materials are sourced or how workers in clothing factories are treated. Asian Pacific textile cultures go back centuries, yet the region is not immune to challenges brought on by industrialisation. This is an interesting paradox that is inherent to producing and consuming textile products. Through my work here at CHAT, I try to highlight these questions surrounding the textile and garment industry.
A Pioneering and Interdisciplinary Arts Space
TM: Despite working as a contemporary art curator for almost two decades now, I did not come from a background of curating textiles. Working on this project was a new challenge for me. We see contemporary art move increasingly towards an interdisciplinary approach, though it is important to note that this is not a novel development. I did my first Masters degree on the Italian Renaissance. During that period of time, you would find artists working with sculpture, architecture, mathematics and astronomy. In short, they did a little bit of everything. It was only in more recent times that these categories were developed and separated from one another. Many contemporary art curators have been trying to blur the lines between these labels, but these notions are deeply embedded into our consciousness so such work will take time.
When I first started talking to artists about CHAT and our work, many of them were apprehensive about getting involved because they didn’t think of themselves as textile artists. There was this resistance amongst them towards being categorised into a single material or art form, and I totally understand that. In my own experience, I’ve found researching topics such as fashion and popular culture incredibly interesting. It provides me with a fresh lens with which to consider what contemporary art and fine art is.
We aim to organise creative experiences for all here at CHAT. When it comes to textiles, there is a strong sense of materiality and texture, and we’re hoping to provide more opportunities for audiences to get in touch with that. Having converted a factory compound into an arts centre, we should also provide visitors with the ability to create something new and something inspired. We’re also hoping to address issues surrounding wasteful production, which is very relevant today. We’re all responsible for environmental and ethical concerns in an industry that touches all of our lives, and we hope to play a part in growing that consciousness. We’re trying to pioneer a new model for running an arts centre. It’s no longer about merely showcasing the work of great contemporary artists. We also have to think about how we can connect the past to the present in order to deliver a strong message to the general public. That’s how we can provide a critical perspective of where we are today.
Unfolding: Fabric of Our Life is now open.
The exhibition will run at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile (CHAT) until 30 June 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.