A Scottish vision

A Scottish vision

cross-art foray

A Scottish vision

It does make for an interesting narrative — the coming together of fiction, fabric, filmmaking, music and movement.

Well, this happens in ‘Between the Web and the Loom’, an intriguing cross-disciplinary art foray that took shape in Scotland, which has since then gone on to stir the imagination of artists and laymen alike.

‘Between the...’ is a collaboration between tapestry artist Joan Baxter, moving image artist John McGeoch, choreographer Claire Pençak, dancer Shamita Ray, and composer James Wyness. These artistes came together under the banner of Tabula Rasa, an artiste-led project company based in Scotland, known for its cross-art forays. Claire, Joan and John had brought this collection of works to Chennai recently. This collaborative work explores an array of themes around the dying craft of hand-weaving.

The concept grew organically as the project progressed, but the starting point was fixed — the architecture of the loom, the land and seascape of Orkney, an archipelago of islands off the Scottish coast, and The Weaver, a short story by the eccentric Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown. While this seaside setting became the location-specific context for the collaboration, the actual sounds of the few remaining textile mills in the vicinity became its audio context.

Being influenced
“Having lived for so long in Scotland, I consider myself a Scot. I wanted to do something that connected dance and textiles and I hit upon The Weaver,” says Claire, who trained at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance, London. In recent years, she has been living and working in rural Scotland, exploring environmental themes through her art. Claire mentions, “We started to play with the weaving and the dance phrases; sometimes we unravelled the moves and the material, and then John filmed the phrases.” That is how it all began.

When John started filming, he playfully split the screen into horizontal grids, with the dance phrases happening simultaneously on each grid. “This movement alluded so well with the mechanical movement of the shuttle, and we decided to project multiple horizontal frames on the tapestry,” says John, a video artiste known for his mapped building projections. John is also the artistic director of Arts in Motion, a multi-arts company based in the Highlands of Scotland.

Picture this. Choreographed dance moves — in hypnotic multiple progressions that move repeatedly from left to right across the tapestry — as might the shuttle have moved across the loom when the tapestry actually got woven, with appropriately synchronised music in the background. The images are of course projected on to the tapestry, but thanks to the innate textural nature of tapestries, these images seem to move within a subterranean layer of the tapestry. These three tapestries with the projected images form a triad of sorts, representing the three main elements of the narrative; the sea, the land and the shroud. Actually, variations of 12 choreographic phrases are projected onto the three textile pieces, one of which happens to be an antiquarian textile. “The 12 dance phrases are one for each section of the story,” says Claire.

Although there is nothing specifically Indian about the dance phrases, the dancer is Indian-origin, Glasgow-born Shamita Ray, who trained in both ballet and contemporary dance as well as Bharatanatyam. Hence, an unintended element of ‘Indian’ness does creep into her interpreted movements.

There is music to go with the movement of course, and we hear the recorded sounds of hand looms, spinning wheels and yarn winders recorded in the mills of southern Estonia. James Wyness has filtered and stretched the original sound recordings to discover new layers or strands of sound. A composer, sound artiste, performer and researcher, James likes to work with both field and studio recordings, and experiment on this sound digitally.

While moving-image tapestries are one part of this project, the rest of it is framed in a series of 24 small tapestries, each resonating to seasonal variations through the year. “This correlates to the 12 ‘verses’ of the weaver’s view of the cycle of the seasons, as it reflects on both his loom and the other aspects of his rural life,” informs Joan, who has been weaving tapestries for over four decades now, and lives in the far north of Scotland.

The tapestries which find place between the ‘verses’ are apparently the short ‘choruses’ of nostalgia and longing. Incidentally, Joan is known for her tapestries that are evocative of not just landscapes, but also its history and legends.

Weaving visuals
The series of 24 small tapestries are in subtle shades of blues, greens and whites that bring to the mind the memory of seas and the skies over it, in all their grandeur and moods through the year. In some of them, the warp has been intentionally left out, creating a textural effect of depth. Some of these tapestries have a straight edge while others are intentionally jagged. “I work with a simple loom. For the kind of weaving I do, all I need is a frame. It is simple and complicated,” muses Joan, and adds, “There are still quite a lot of tapestry weavers in Scotland, though some people think it is a crazy occupation, because it takes ages to learn to weave images, and after all that, there isn’t a lot of money in it”.

So, how did these artistes manage to collaborate across disciplines and yet keep a common course? “I love collaborating. When you work with other art forms or even with a scientist, it is a completely new world that emerges. You never know what you are going to discover,” says Claire. She adds, “In a sense, dance has always been a collaborative art, as it keeps pace with music, lyrics and acting — not to mention the story or the context. In that sense, collaboration was never a new realm for me.” Meanwhile, Joan says, “This project offered me both the chance and the challenge to simultaneously explore defined elements like ecology and nature and formless facets like nostalgia and the passage of time.”

John’s experience has been quite similar. His work had earlier involved moving film projections on castles and other buildings. He says, “It will be quite lovely to film movement in India. People here have a different way of moving, an uncontrived grace. Some of the movements I have noticed in India are quite unique to this country.” Such as? “The way women move balancing baskets on their head; people on horse rides on the beach; women wading into the sea in their saris; the sweeping of floors with a long broom in graceful arcs... Elsewhere in the world, off stage, we see only mechanical and broken movements, like those of the vacuum cleaner.”