How the udder half lives

Forget knitting by the fireside: textiles are tackling big issues.
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The Independent Culture
It looked like a feminist plot. And a thinly veiled one at that. This was the Barbican's textile exhibition, Revelation, described by freelance curator Lesley Millar as "issue based". The issues: "The Body, Gender, Identity and the Environment".

As every man knows, textiles is women's work. Except that, these days, women "textile artists" with a sense of irony, and sometimes humour, are turning the medium against men. Instead of knitting by the fireside, they are making woolly things such as Tass Mavrogordato's tapestry It's Thicker Than Water, which contains images of the warring Simpsons and a disturbed- looking male in a vest sitting below a broken heart. "It deals with the issues of gender stereotyping," she said, rather unnecessarily, at the exhibition opening: "Tapestry is traditionally narrative and political - an old technique that has lost its voice."

Men can play at that, too, you might think. How about a really macho tapestry made of really macho materials, such as slate and old felt, that weighs a ton and takes six men to hang? Such as Clyde Olliver's Construction. Mr Olliver, one of two male artists in the show, is a tough-looking 47- year-old unemployed rent collector, who wears a moustache and silver earrings. His father was a builder. He got the chunks of slate from a Cumbrian spoil heap, made holes in them with a Black and Decker power drill, and sewed them on to felt with linen thread.

"I wanted to put men's materials back into women's work," he said. "I don't have any argument with the feminists, but I do worry about where the men are in all this. After all, male soldiers and sailors were great embroiderers and soldiers were great quilters. I'd like to see that put back into embroidery history."

The "issues" seemed to be gathering thick and fast. Jenny Ford, 38, who makes hangings of nylon tulle and latex sheeting that look almost wearable, admitted she would never be able to pursue her art were she not at home, married to a hi-tech car lighting salesman. He was not an artist, she said, "unless you call sport art". However, he was "fully involved and supportive".

But how fully involved and supportive can a husband be expected to be when his wife makes a person-sized single-cup brassiere called Cow Tit and commissions studio photographs of naked breasts, titled 36-24-36, showing them being prodded and measured for symmetry, as if by a male obsessed by page three?

The artist, Liz Nilsson, a Goldsmiths graduate, met her husband, Brian O'Cathain, in Aberdeen, when he was working on an oil rig as a geologist and she was an exchange student from Sweden. The callipers, shown being crudely used to measure bosom cleavage, in the second of the four photographs, belong to his tool kit. He used them to measure the inside diameter of pipes on the rig.

As her husband walked their four-year-old daughter, Molly, round the exhibition, Ms Nilsson explained that the breasts belonged not to her, but to a friend. "I am showing male society's eyes looking at a female body," she said. "The breasts are being assessed for weight, cleavage, alignment of the nipples and globe shape. I chose these tools, which are out of context and mostly used by men, to show how women are told to present themselves by images in newspapers and magazines."

And the Cow Tit? "I am questioning whether the breast is to do just with sex. The imitation cow hide brings us close to thinking of milk. Think how a young mother feels when she discovers that part of her body has adopted a different purpose - feeding a baby. I remember having to breast feed in a pub: you've no reason to feel shy about showing your breast, because it's in a different context: but you do."

Why only one breast? "It's a symbol: one makes a statement just as well as two."

What did her husband think of her art? At home, she said, her artworks were usually kept in the loft.

"If we had the space," said Mr O'Cathain, returning with Molly, "I could live with a giant bra, but the photographs are disturbing."

What did he make of them?

"It's about the absurdity of male gaze on female breasts," he ventured: "These are almost mechanical measurements that are being made. It is objectification carried to new lengths. The tools become like torture instruments."

"He passed," said Ms Nilsson.

'Revelation: Textile Artists Addressing Issues' to 13 April, entry free (0171-382 7105). Monday-Saturday (10am-7.30pm), Sunday and Bank Holidays (12 noon-7.30pm)