HD Video Still, 2018
Edition of 4+3AP
Vatanajyankur, against an eggshell-blue background, is herself an implement, a vehicle for the Medusa-like sprawl of threads attached to her head. Her ankles are bound and she is suspended headfirst over the large bowl of dye for a full 7 minutes and 42 seconds. For much of the time, Vatanajyankur holds her breath underwater in an attempt to dye the white wool attached to her head red. In addition to her bound ankles, Vatanajyankur wears her trademark pale apricot leotard, and a pair of hands clasp either side of her hips to guide her in this intentionally absurd and repetitive procedure. Vatanajyankur grips her handler’s wrists.
Arguably, Dye is the work in the exhibition that most explicitly addresses the gendered, frequently sexualized nature of labor. Many of the generative tensions in Vatanajyankur’s work are evident in Dye: submission and strength, abjection and hyper-color, absurdity and performative intention. The artist is at once subjugated and resilient, and the female laborer vulnerable and powerful within the larger warp of hyper-capitalism. (Pickens R, Performing Textiles, Art Asia Pacific)
Dye is in the collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery (NZ), Maiiam Contemporary Art Museum (TH) and Dib Contemporary Art Museum (TH)
Plunging viewers into a dreamlike world of candy-bright hues and mind-bending physical performance, Kawita Vatanajyankur explores the binaries of Western culture, juxtaposed against the mechanised versus traditional body.
By accessing elements of Thai femininity, she invokes a powerful sense of physicality, uncovering a world of often-invisible domestic labour by painfully testing the limits of her own body. Her dynamic video art is a springboard to explore the value and understanding of the performative body, and the role of gesture within that very performance.
Vatanajyankur’s work is caught in this moment of stasis—time-consuming and physically exhausting.
The tonality of happy day-glow colours juxtaposed against dark humour and undercurrents of violence brings violent gravity to her work—drawing attention to mechanisation, and highlighting the historical trajectory of feminist art.
Performing Textiles is a 2018 body of work, capturing the physical manifestation of manual labour processes undertaken by women in Thailand. Her suite of videos offers a vignette into the physicality and vulnerability of the feminine body.
As a collection, Performing Textiles provokes questions surrounding the place of cultural identity, feminism, labour, consumption and lived experiences—classified through a lens of hyper-coloured realism and the intensity of physical versus material composition.
However, textiles undeniably have a place firmly embedded in history, and it is this history of textile production—recognised as women’s labour—that has ingrained itself in our culture. Basketry, loom weaving, knitting, crochet and lacemaking are all feminine material skills that rendered men unnecessary. As such, Vatanajyankur’s practice “focuses on valuing women’s everyday work and labour, while offering a powerful examination of social and cultural ways of viewing women’s work”. Labour exploitation is a major issue within consumeristic society, blocking access to female empowerment and gender equality. Performing Textiles brings this issue into the public sphere.
Textiles are linked symbolically to birth, fertility and reproduction. The practice of working with materials connects women’s bodies to the earth. It is a symbol of life and power. There is a poetic parallel which exists between the creation of new thread and new life. In Greek mythology, The Three Fates were destined to control the ‘mother thread’ of life of every mortal from birth to death, and Athena was considered the goddess of wisdom and weaving.
Vatanajyankur’s Dye both explores and subverts this feminine mythology and history. Her body is pushed to the brink of pain and exhaustion—her hair a mop of woollen thread. It is here that the words of Luise Guest resonate. She states: “A woman’s hair is imbued with contradictory meanings—a ‘crowning glory’ that is also abject, a sexual fetish that is also terrifying, a source of power that also signifies vulnerability and subservience”.
The historical relationship between textiles and war are clearly explored in Vatanajyankur’s work. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women used textiles as political commentary to protest violence. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, women wove rugs to cope with the violence surrounding their everyday lives. This provided a source of income for families devastated by warfare—and brought women into a male sphere—giving back power through tools of domesticity. Vatanajyankur’s experience visiting Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin, and the exhibition Women’s War, also influenced her practice. Here, thousands of women sewed and knitted necessities for soldiers during the first world war. As such, textile mediums themselves cannot help but carry a deep tension of conflict. It is a violent history, soaked into the very threads of female life.
Over the last century, women have taken this feminine craft from a private to public space. Textiles have been reinterpreted, and their power reclaimed by women exploited through the associated practice. No longer confined to a domestic space, the value of textiles has been subverted. Its place within performance art can be seen in the pioneering works of Janine Antoni, Yayoi Kusama and Shigeko Kubota. The very essence of Performing Textiles pays homage to this history of performative identity, and continues to grow in the contemporary practice of other female endurance artists.
A savagely beautiful collision between domestic labour and the feminine body, the Performing Textiles exhibition offers a platform for Vatanajyankur to undertake physical experiments that playfully, and often painfully, test her body’s limits. The lurid, cotton-candy colour palette is merely a guise—a spectre that exists at the place where the physical and invisible meet. The videos are a challenge to the viewer, both unavoidably compelling and uncomfortable to watch. Vatanajyankur transforms her body into various textile process tools. Her physical form becomes the embodiment of a spinning wheel or weaving shuttle. As the works progress, her body struggles to compete as the material tool, and thus her form undergoes both psychological and physical metamorphosis. The draining repetition of movement is symbolic of labour’s endless totality and the materialism behind human consumption.
As a video artist first and foremost, Kawita Vatanajyankur’s work presents her body, not alongside, but as the machines and processes used within the manufacturing of textiles. Subsequently, this presents a striking incongruence that lives at the intersection between physicality and performativity. Poetic and savage, Performing Textiles explores the cultural significance of the female form—successfully bringing universality and contemporaneity to the value of women and their historical trajectory in feminist art.