A Perfect Phantom of Fear. Or, Embroidering the New Normal
The text has been published in Przerkój August 2020
Nigh is the time when not only the pandemic, but also post-pandemic art projects will be our torment. They are superabundant, and will keep abounding; nevertheless, good exhibitions on the subject remain needed, even necessary. Such a show has been mounted or, to be more exact, embroidered by Monika Drożyńska.
Drożyńska, an artist specialising in embroidery, has more than once demonstrated that this apparently 'soft', 'quiet' and 'passive' technique, identified with women's handicraft, can be transformed into a 'sharp' tool of feminism, a subversive political instrument and an apparatus for a resounding articulation of convictions.
Now, the potentials of embroidery repeatedly unleashed by Drożyńska are being supplemented with yet another: the painstaking, attention-intensive, manual activity of stitching transpires to be a practice ideally cut out for working through experiences of the current epidemiological crisis. It is a perfect technique for times when a rethink of the present, the future, hidden in the shadows of the plague, but also the past, cast in a new light by the coronavirus, is due.
The exhibition opens with a small embroidery depicting a palm extending two fingers in a gesture of victory. In Poland, the symbol is tightly intertwined with the myth of Solidarity. In Drożyńska's version, an arrow and a caption spelling “2 m” are inserted between fingers forming the V sign. Two metres is a measure of prescribed social distance during the epidemic. We are in crisis, therefore social solidarity has never been more vital. How should we practice it, however, if we are meant to simultaneously distance from each other, while every one of us is a potential threat? The sign Drożyńska designed is a great candidate for an emblem of the coronavirus era, replete with uncertainty and paradoxes. One consists in that the ultimate victory over the virus, announced by the V demonstrating palm, can only by Pyrrhic: we will win the struggle with the epidemic only at the cost of social failure, a severing of human ties.
The ironic sign of Covid victory returns in Two / By Half , a piece crucial to the exhibition, part an embroidered banner of the pandemic, part a 'a diary of the plague year'. A plethora of various kinds of pandemic journals and confessions have been produced of late, particularly throughout the spring lock-down. The more rigorous the isolation, the stronger seemed the need for recording experiences and sharing those records; the anxiety and uncertainty borne by the virus demanded to be worked through. Drożyńska was embroidering. Embroidery, she says, allows her to work through things in a literal sense: not merely intellectually, but also physically.
The epidemic 'banner' is brimming with icons of the plague: the embroidered sign of Covid victory, embroidered faces in masks, the symbol of the hammer and sickle divided in two, a halved logo of a popular credit card brand – politics, economy, everyday life, all shattered by sanitary distance. At the centre of the composition are two twos referring to the two metres determining the epidemic topography of social relations. A margin of the 'banner' has been covered by the artist with a compulsively reiterated phrase: "I do'nt know". The erroneously spelled sentence becomes a Covid mantra, an echo of days upon days filled with questions that, for the time being, have no answers. What will becomes of us? Of society? The economy? Civic liberties? Democracy? Of art?
In a further section of the exhibition, a piece of white fabric with the date '2021' embroidered is hanging on an empty wall. An empty page from a calendar of a future unknown, in which 'the new normal' will surely prevail. Still, was 'the old normal', in fact, completely normal?
Money, it's a crime
Drożyńska's story about the experience of the plague is fascinating not only due its description of the anxiety-laden present and an uncertain future. Not all the pieces in this exhibition have been made during lock-down and not all of them bear a straightforward reference to the 'plague year'. Quite the opposite, the 'Covid' embroideries are merely an introduction and a kind of symbolic framework for her selected works of recent years. The show's contrariness resides in the fact that, at present, everything harks back to Covid, creating a logical whole in the style of conspiracy theories.
The question is: are we succumbing to the crisis- and fear-induced paranoia, or is the meaning of these events deeper and the reality we are living in had been sick long before the breaking news of a novel virus reached us from the Chinese city of Wuhan?
Let us take a look at the piece closing the exhibition. Again, an embroidered banner, its colours all too familiar to Poles: white and red. The upper part is an empty surface of a white fabric. The lower half of the flag is covered with a thickly applied text in red thread. "Money get away. Money is a gas. Money it is crime. New car. Caviar. Four star day dream. Money get back," so it starts.
Drożyńska embroidered and embedded the quotation from the Pink Floyd classic into the pattern of the Polish flag a few years ago, together with her parents, who had become migrants to the UK. The post-national banner could be waved over a contemporary community, the homeland of which, will-nilly, has become the migration-provoking global economy. Now, our viewing of the flag is filtered through the pandemic. Not so much is the experience altering the capitalist regime as bringing its rules into sharper focus, making them more rigorous. Drożyńska calls the pandemic a 'perfect crisis', in the sense of it being a universal crisis, 'a phantom of fear' shrouding everyone without exception in a 'fur coat of anxiety'. The critical perfection consists as well in its stripping us of whatever has remained of our illusions. Where inequalities reigned over the pre-pandemic world, they are becoming even larger in the post-pandemic, the rich are getting richer, the fate of the precariat is now even more uncertain, and the hegemonic power of money is on the rise.
What of everyday life? In her embroidery Poetry or Prose, Drożyńska stitches a stream of consciousness. "Waking. Demanding. Breakfasting. Departing. Off a child. Dropping. Frazzling. Picking. Expiring. Leaving. Suffering. Tax forms. Submitting. Dying. Out the washing. Putting.” The thread of the embroidered diary-litany goes on, until there is no room left on the fabric. The piece was created before the pandemic, but of course everyday life does never end. What is everyday life in the times of the plague, when, confined to our homes, we experienced regular days more intensely than ever? Poetry? Drama? Or prose, which merely took on an even greater gravity?
Drożyńska embroiders text more often than images, playing language games, picking up overheard phrases. She explores what happens to words when they are multiply repeated, when they are painstakingly threaded through the fabric, when an image of words is filtered through the experiences of recent months. "Chleb, hlep, help [bread, misspelled 'bread', its metathesis 'help']," the artist embroiders in one of her works. Embroidered words not so much change as broaden their meaning, revealing their new potentials. Everything that happens at present has already happened; the virus does not change the world, but cuts off lines of flight from the world into fantasies and illusions.
A History of Helplessness
The artist's embroideries are interwoven with videos. In one of those four films, people with their back to the camera are gazing out to sea. While the sea, as it is wont to do, is restlessly undulating. Yet another piece from before the pandemic. Drożyńska produced it at the Baltic Gallery of Contemporary Art in Ustka, Poland, where she was invited to create a new work. Its production budget totalled 200 zlotys. Drożyńska invested the resources into wine and asked three employees of the gallery to sit with her on the seashore, consume their drinks and stare together into the horizon. Faced with the piece, we are reminded of Tadeusz Kantor's classic 1967 action, Panoramic Sea Happening, during which a tail-coated artist, Edward Krasiński, conducted the humming of waves with a baton to the delight of the viewing public. That happening was a demonstration of the creative power of conceptual art purporting to govern the elements. Drożyńska tells a different story: a tale of art's helplessness in the face of economic limitations and institutional conditions.
The experience of helplessness is one of the great discoveries advanced by the pandemic. We are helpless in relation to the progress of capitalism and helpless when faced with its crisis brought about by the plage. We ask scholars how long the epidemic will last, how to battle it, what the unavoidable number of deaths is and what number can be avoided at the cost of communal effort. But science throws its hands up helplessly, since it does not know the answer to every question. We feel helpless in the face of everyday life and of language, commanding our discourse. Also our existence cannot be helped – it has to be led. Helplessness is the coronavirus' discovery, but, obviously, not its invention. We used to experience it beforehand, except we masked it under guises of agency. We were so terribly busy, after all. Several weeks of mandatory idleness during lock-down have made us aware that much less depends on the feverish hustle and bustle filling up our time than we talked ourselves into.
What does it mean that nothing depends on humankind, that we are fools of fortune, which dons the mask of coronavirus today and, tomorrow, will make itself known in another cloak – while all resistance is futile? On the contrary, resistance as well as persistence are everything. Drożyńska offers her account of helplessness, but does so in such a subversive fashion that she overcomes vulnerability in the very fact of telling. When I ask her if the practice of embroidery has helped her in tackling experiences of recent months, she replies: "Embroidery is the healthiest of my compulsive behaviours. It isn't smoking, or drinking, or drug taking. I stitch, because I haven't in a long while. I stitch, because I feel bad. I do it, because I feel great. I embroider, because I work. I embroider, because I rest. I never outsource anything, I make embroideries myself. This is crucial, because mere concepts will not do, you've got to work them through, physically live through them in the course of stitching."
Amongst other discoveries of the pandemic period, there is this one that art, against fears growing in recent decades, remains something more than just a sophisticated ornament of the turbo-capitalist system. When all the other discourses fail and reveal their helplessness when confronted with the experiences that has become our share, nothing but art endures. We share the need to narrate the experiences to each other, to visualise them and display, sometimes to studiously thread and weave them into the embroidery of our being. This helps to overcome the two metres of social distance decreed in the year of the plague. This, in general, is very helpful; but for the continued existence of the human herd, it is practically indispensable.