If you haven’t heard about it yet… well, you’re about to. The Glenbow just opened a hand full of brand new exhibits (and I mean a handful! Everyone around here has been so busy, building walls, tearing down walls, painting walls… we do a lot with walls here).
One of the most talked about has been the Black Gold Tapestry. A recent Museum School student described it as “basically the history of the whole world but through the idea of oil.” The piece is 67 metres in length – a scale equivalent to two city blocks or the height of a 20-story building. The artist, Sandra Sawatzky, spent an average of eight to ten hours a day – every day – on the project, researching, drawing, planning and embroidering… for nine years! NINE YEARS.
If you’ve ever done any hand embroidery, you know just how much work an undertaking of this size is. I’m currently embroidering my Halloween costume, and frankly I’m even starting to bet against myself that I’ll have it done in time.
This is one of those pieces where the craft really reveals itself in the viewer’s experience. Often on the first day of museum school students will say things like “that’s art?! I could make that” (by the end of the week, that sentiment is long gone, and replaced with a much more reverent “I understand how much work went into that.”) Sometimes the mark of great art is to remove the technical, and allow the viewer to interact directly with the subject – in other words, to make the labor invisible. This definitely isn’t the case with the Black Gold Tapestry. When you view it, you cannot escape the time that the artist spend with her material, and so in addition to the story the work tells, you can also get a direct sense of the story of the person who made it.
Maybe this is why, when Sawatzky popped into museum school last week, the students nearly died. (Not literally, I mean that they nearly died like I did that time I met Fred Penner). It felt to them like meeting a celebrity – not to say that she isn’t, I don’t decide such things – and they were beside themselves with awe.
Personally I’m curious about the decisions she made, because this is a piece that purports to tell a story about ourselves, but it’s very clearly from Sandra’s own point of view. So at the same time, the Tapestry shows us who Sandra is (through the medium she is ever present) but it attempts to obscure her perspective, by placing the story she tells in historic terms. Some of her decisions around color are particularly revealing, and I could see how some visitors may be shocked by the ways she’s used it. (Shocked may be too polite a word…) I think this is a piece that will certainly ignite debate!
Come check it out and see what you think.