* Featured photo: Illusion Quilt, 2016-17, (detail), found wool crepe and plain-weave wool fabrics (gift of the Ridolfi family), wool wadding, thread, 115 x 95 x 13cm, photo Chris Bowes
Hannah Gartside (London, 1987) graduated with honours in Fine Art (Fashion Design) from the Queensland University of Technology. She then worked as a costume designer for the Queensland Ballet for several years before moving to Melbourne to study sculpture at the Victorian College of the Arts.
Her education and professional experiences have led her to research the use of the textile medium, favouring used fabrics and clothes in which she finds the memory and poetry of lived stories. Her works – sculptures, videos, installations – have been shown in exhibitions and institutional venues, including the Institute of Modern Art and the QUT Art Museum in Brisbane. Her work is currently on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in the annual exhibition dedicated to young Australian artists. Textiles are the material of choice in your research. Materials you experiment with applying different techniques resulting in works ranging from the BUNNIES IN LOVE series small-sized glove sculptures to large installations such as THE SLEEPOVER.
In your art practice, how important is experimentation?
I spend a lot of time in the studio experimenting or ‘testing’ the potentials and capabilities of my materials. I think of this as a process of listening to them. The reality of it involves cutting, sewing, stretching, knotting, gathering, patching, joining, threading-through, wrapping, zig-zag stitching on milliner’s wire. After last year you could add ‘spinning’ to this list too.
Many months of 2021 were spent watching the way various fabrics moved when they were spun clockwise or anti-clockwise on a prototype armature (my fabricator rigged me up a base which a steel rod attaches into, that is powered by a drill). I worked with different fabrics, cut in different ways and hanging from different types of armatures to achieve particular effects. Working on them was wild and unknown, like how I imagine it would feel to be in a big, empty, dark space, navigating through with my hands out by listening for changes in sounds of my footfall or the direction of a gust of wind.
Fabric is material that belongs to everyone’s life: we come into contact with it continuously and throughout our entire existence, often in physical and intimate contact with the body of which it retains traces and for this reason, we usually attribute a sort of ‘memory’ to it. What are the reasons behind the choice of this medium for your artistic practice?
I feel like the reasons are innumerable! My grandma taught me to sew when I was 7, and I have devoted my life thus far to working with fabric. I adore textiles for the reasons mentioned in your question: their intimacy and everyday prosaic, tender connection to human bodies. I think that it was after my father died when I was 21, (and I did Honours a couple years after, using amongst other things, his shirts and ties for the artwork) that I truly clocked 1) what is stored in cloth and 2) how affecting and transformative working with this material was for me, personally and if so, that perhaps it would be this way for other people as well.
In the poetry that permeates all your works, what role do the conceptual characteristics of the textile medium play?
They underpin everything that I do. But I don’t really need that to be evident to the viewer… To spin this question in a different direction: I think that the works can be read intuitively, formally through their visual characteristics or through someone’s lived knowledge of the base materials (a glove, a nightie). You don’t need to understand what’s happening ‘conceptually’ to feel it. That is my aim, anyway, for the work to be felt. I want my work to be for everyone who is interested, not just for people with contemporary art training. A period stain on a worn nightie, the lingering smell of 4711 perfume, an elbow crease, a fluttering bias-cut pink silk hem, those things can be felt.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Music, books, art, lived experience and everyday things. Years ago I was hanging up the washing and I noticed if I pegged up the shoulders as well it changed the way a particular 1970s three-frilled dress hung on the line, it made it look like there was a body in it, raising its backside to me. It was funny and disconcerting. Five years later, I translated that experience into an artwork O (2020).
*At my ex-partner’s place sitting down by the creek one day I noticed the way a leaf fell when it dropped off a tree: it flutters and spirals towards the ground in expanding loops, turning over and over on the way down.
*Walking along the streets where I live I enjoy catching the patterns and shapes in bricks or old tile floors: I love patterns and repetition, it’s the quilter in me, it makes me feel calm and also held/engaged.
*I also find musicians really inspiring– women who are feral and wild onstage. I feel released by their dynamism and relentlessness.
*Sometimes a particular novel or piece of non-fiction will really hold me too. People writing about epic life experiences, particularly in relation to dressing/clothing/dolls/fabricated objects, or magical realism stories which gives objects sentience beyond what we generally do is very interesting to me because I like to treat my materials with their own agency, power, and aliveness.
What is the process that transforms the idea into a work of art?
Often, I will draw out an installation or sculptural idea multiple times in pencil, sometimes over many years, triggered by a material, pattern, sensation or experience. I will sometimes lay down a tape measure or use masking tape on the floor to work out the scale, then I work out what techniques I need to realise it. Occasionally I start with garden wire, most often I start with a fabric or garment on the cutting table. I make patterns out of thick card if needed (as you would for making a sewing pattern for a garment). Then I pin, cut and sew, and pin, cut and sew. If I’m using an old garment that is rare and precious to me, I will work with another fabric first of similar weight, to get a feel for the processes before moving onto the ‘real’ material.
I like my hand to be invisible in the work. For the works to look like they always existed in the shapes they are in, even though the materials list and their worn-ness makes it obvious that they have had previous lived-experience.
Movement is an aspect that you investigate through your work. What role and what significance does it have in your research and in your artworks?
Before I moved properly into art-making, I studied fashion design, worked as a costume designer/maker for contemporary dance and then a costume-maker and dresser for classical ballet. Through these experiences, I understand moving fabric as a way of conveying emotion and mood, explaining character and in effect, telling stories. I have long been curious about what I could do with moving cloth in an exhibition context (how I could make it speak, what it could say, its potential for enchanting viewers).
Can you tell us about the installation you made for Primavera 2021: Young Australian Artists, which is on until June at the Museum of Contemporary Art?
My most recent suite of sculptures, for Primavera, animate antique and vintage dresses and gowns into abstract kinetic sculptures which pay homage to five historical women who lived variously independent, wilful, queer, spiritual lives.
Last year, I was deeply shaken by hearing about the sexual assault allegations made by a member of staff in a federal ministers office in Canberra. For friends and me it was a moment of reckoning with our pasts, and feeling that unsafeness for women went to the highest level in the country. In the past two years, I have read of multiple cases of sexual midsconduct or assault where a victim’s clothing was mentioned and used as an excuse. I wanted to make works where the clothes fight back: they are sick of being blamed, of being given more agency than a flesh and blood perpetrator. My sculptures are big, pulsing and sensual, they are relentless prayers for change.
Another of your artworks, FALL-WINTER 1986, is currently on display at the Perc Tucker Regional Gallery. Can you tell me about the genesis and evolution of this work?
I am very interested in what clothing can do. How clothes can make someone feel in themself (and how this affects the way that they operate in the world), or affects how they are perceived. I got particularly interested in glamour as a form of social power or a type of enchantment. This thinking started because I began to notice how many sheer leopard print blouses and scarves were in my local op-shop. I bought dozens of them over a period of about 6 months. Then, I wanted a way to animate the blouses, to imagine the bodies or energies of past bodies still held inside them. I was thinking of those weird tube bodies that are outside car showrooms, how they flail about all over the place. I wanted my blouses to both call you in and warn you off.
How is your research evolving?
I tend to work on lots of different strands of research at once. Either as physical experiments through to sculptural outcomes or as ideas drawn into my notebook. I think I tend to push one aspect of my practice forward that maybe I’ve sat on for a few years (eg. moving cloth), and then circle back and see where the next most unresolved idea is, or, see what I’ve started already that has the most unrealised potential, and then I pick that up and move forward with it. For example, this year I am going to continue working with factory scraps of 1-3mm leather. I began this in early 2021 and it became a patchwork floor for the installation ‘O’ at Sawtooth ARI in Tasmania, I cut the leather into small shapes and then used a zig-zag stitch on the machine to join the shapes together. Now I want to see what I can do with the leather sculpturally, (and kinetically) and also see if I can apply the strip-piecing quilting techniques that I was using with woollen fabrics back in 2016, with this leather. I guess it’s all overlapping spirals of connections, materials and techniques and emotions.
What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the near future?
I have just started working on a collaboration with a studio colleague and friend, Anthea Kemp, a painter. I noticed last year that she had these fabulous, very loose, gestural tests in her studio that she would make on small squares of canvas, before she began a big painting. I was invited to be in an exhibition as part of Melbourne Design week, curated by Josephine Briginshaw and Eliza Teirnan, and they were interested in one of my quilts, so I said how about me and Anthea work together to make a quilt from her scraps and see what happens? I wanted something generative, playful and light to work on after Primavera.
After that, I will move onto making an installation using the leather scraps that I mentioned above, for the inaugural Ellen Jose award exhibition at Bayside Gallery, which opens in early July 2022.