*Featured photo:“After The Market”, 2009, installation, unravelled knitted wool clothes / knitted image after the painting The Gleaners (1857) Jean-Francois Millet. Photo M.Tomaszewicz. Courtesy The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo, copyright Kari Steihaug
Kari Steihaug (Oslo, 1962) holds an MA from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. She currently lives and works in her hometown in a studio on the island of Hovedøya, a few minutes from the Norwegian capital.
Steihaug’s works speak of memory, vulnerability, impermanence and renewal.
The artist reclaims old everyday textile materials, forgotten and abandoned knitting, unfinished works. Then, overcoming the object’s simple function, she listens to its history its message before meticulously unravelling it and recreating something new from the old. This process gives life to evocative installations that hold a link with the value of time, work and memory, but at the same time establish a dialogue with the future in a cyclical process in which nothing is really destroyed. Instead, everything can start again with a new form and content.
The work is thus linked to the materials’ past, but at the same time, it is detached, original, evoking a melancholic and mysterious atmosphere.
How did you approach art and what was the path that contributed to your artistic formation? How did you get into textiles and knitting?
I was working with graphics and drawing for some years, and it took some time before I saw the artistic potential in techniques and materials that had been so close and strongly present in my childhood in the 1960’s: knitting, weaving, crocheting etc.
To find this soft material was like finding a place to stand where it resonated on a deeper level in me, in a material with the flexibility I was looking for. Besides I found that the thread actually has the character of a line, like in a drawing.
I began to deconstruct clothes, such as labels and knitted garments, with the idea to bring out what they contain of traces and memories in a new context. And I have ended up working from his fundament with repetition and reconstruction in my larger room installations.
In a handmade garment there is a quiet knowledge and experience, about use and wear, about vulnerability, time, and transitoriness. So unraveled yarn and hand-knitted clothes became my starting point, where I see the unraveling as a reverse process, giving the opportunity to turn around and look back into the past. I like the transformation when a sweater, for instance, dissolves into yarn. At the same time I got interested in Arte Povera which I found a natural extension of these ideas.
A characteristic of your work is the use of discarded textile materials, abandoned, unfinished, imperfect and decadent-looking objects. Your works allow these objects to be rescued and redeemed, enhancing their role as bearers of a meaning linked to memory and emotions. Can you tell us about this aspect of your artistic research?
Yes I like to use what already exists, which is around me and thrown away by others. I like the feeling of continuing in the threads of those who went before me, like a cycle, something arises and something ends. Clothes are filled with memories and intimacy, used clothes become both personal and general. I think that when clothes are thrown away, man is absent, but still the presence of the human remains. The unfinished knittings that I collected in Archive: The unfinished ones carry stories of everything that turned out differently than planned. An unfinished knitting is not something you want to display; it is often placed in a bag at the back of the closet. At the same time it is invested with personal involvement and is often kept from generation to generation, and filled with time and thoughts, sorrows and joys, hope and dreams. In the other end, worn and repaired materials tell about lived life.
The stories are rooted in the materials and in the threads. For me using textiles already existing, mainly hand-knitted garments, is to bring them into a new context, where this can be visual and other existential aspects of life can take place. I work with handmade readymades, mostly made from unknown hands and other people, and I connect to a tradition of women’s craftsmanship, reuse, care and frugality. I grew up with that, and now this is more precarious than ever, in a world of abundance and a textile industry with enormous damage to people, the environment and the climate. So I also try to highlight the political and poetic aspects of textiles in the past and present. This is also linked to my interest in Arte Povera.
After the Market, an installation from 2009, interprets Millet’s “Des glaneuses” (The Gleaners) in a textile key. How did the idea for this work come about and what is the conceptual link between the garments on the floor and the female figures of the gleaners reproduced in the knitted painting?
The first time I saw “Les glaneuses” (The Gleaners 1857) by Jean-François Millet was while studying textile art in Manchester UK in 1997. I found it in a book, and I was very touched by the painting. I recognized myself in the women walking in the field picking small grains left after the harvest. I was thinking; we are doing the same, the three women and I, we are all trying to take care of something left behind, something abandoned, leftover. This attitude is important to me. They collected grain, I collect other people’s discarded clothes and crafts from recycling points and fleemarkets. Millets grains has become a metaphor to me: my grains are textile materials. The picture summarizes in a way what I am doing. My title «After the market» points to the remnants of a fleamarket, but also an economic market, and to the gleaners of our time. A conversation between past, present and future.
The connection between the garments on the floor and the female figures are both concrete and methaphorical. The knitted, used garments in varying degrees of dissolution, create the ground in the installation, and the threads are stretching out and lead from each individual object into the knitted image of the collectors in the picture above. I have knitted Millet´s painting in half size. So my idea is to recreate Millet’s painting by knitting my own similar picture with threads from all the worn out, discarded and dissolved garments. Besides the knitting itself is a slow technique and the time it takes becomes part of the expression in the work.
Is there a project to which you are particularly attached or which has played an important role in your artistic and professional development?
In 1997 I had an exchange stay at Manchester Metropolitan University UK which became very important to me. The textile industry in Manchester was on its way down, other activity was on the rise, but the textile factories still characterized the cityscape. But the changes were visible everywhere. I was fascinated by the abandoned textile factories and entered the empty buildings at night, completely illegal, but enormously inspiring to me;
Huge dark halls, with traces of work, remnants of materials, patterns and equipment. Like ruins over a period of time, an industry and a large amount of knowledge.
I also visited Wastesaver, major areas of clothing recycling. There I saw garments sorted and stacked, according to colours and qualities. Some for shipments to other parts of the world, some for sale, and some for recycling into new yarn, for making new clothes, with bits and pieces from someting else.
Can you talk about Legacies?
Legacies is a installation concisting of seventy pieces of knitted garments. I have unraveled the garments, and wound the yarn back onto old bobbins, from which I knitted a new sweater from every one of the different threads. I think that worn out knitted garments are like layers of time, the time it takes to make them, use them, repair them and use again. My aspiration is to give concrete visual form to the relation between destruction and new creation, and the transition from one form to another. Legacies will always appear unfinished, it changes every time installing it, making new drawings on the floor with all the threads and bobbins
What does it mean to be a textile artist today? In your opinion, are those preconceptions still present that want to bring fibre art back into the sphere of applied arts or, worse, into the sphere of handicrafts with a specifically female matrix?
Textile art has a strong position in the field of art, like much other material-based art today. I experience the art field more open and inclusive than before, the same work can be read in several contexts.
For me, textile is my basic fundament, is a place to stand, with methods and ways of working that I can transfer to other areas. When I have made public art; for a library, home for elderly people, and schools, it has also been with other materials and media; like glass, metal and photography. As an artist, I want to be able to move freely in different projects, new challenges provide new knowledge.
When it comes to the future standing of textile art and textile domestic handicraft, I am not at all pessimistic: It seems to be a new wave among Scandinavian youth to resume the old craft techniques. My mending workshops are attended by both girls and boys, women and men. Young men come to learn how to repair and take care of their favorite sweater that they have inherited or bought in a second hand shop. Repair cafes have also become a worldwide phenomenon. All this together create a new general interest in textile as material, also within art.
How has the pandemic affected the way you work?
As always I have taken the ferry every day to the island where my studio is located outside central Oslo, so personally the pandemic has not changed much, neither in work nor in life. Some exhibitions, lectures and workshops were canceled, but this actually gave me more time, peace and room for concentration. And it has become clearer to me what is of real importance, how everything is connected and how fragile existence is. But in the long run I hope this all together can point out new paths into the future.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am making a book about my art and I work with new textiles for a solo exhibition in Trondheim in the autumn of 2022.
Lately I have been concentrating on wall textiles in tufting, a technique that is often used to make rugs for domestic use. I reuse wool threads from previous installations with knitted clothes which I unravel. A new installation is on the way, and time will tell where it ends.