To us westerners, carpets are soft floor furnishings that don’t tend to conjure up much thought. Whilst they make for a more comfortable foundation than tiles or wooden floorboards, most of us wouldn’t even think to stop and admire the ground beneath our feet. Historically, carpets have carried a more artistic status when they have been produced in the Middle East. The White Cube gallery at Mason’s Yard is currently boasting a display of carpets from all over the world, which challenge our preconceptions about the often-unassuming carpet.
The exhibition, which has been titled ‘Losing the Compass’ and has been co-curated by Scott Cameron Weaver and Mathieu Paris, consists of a group of artists of American, Austrian, British, Danish, Italian, Palestinian and Vietnamese origins. Cameron Weaver and Paris question the aesthetic, political and social symbolism of carpets by draping and displaying them throughout the gallery in an un-obvious display. Inside the ground floor gallery, a series of carpets have been collaged on top of one another over a set of purpose built stairs. Opposite them hang three large carpets in the same way that one might hang up a coat or a bathroom towel, not in any way like the display of an oriental carpet in a historical museum. Despite being displayed in a contemporary gallery space, these textiles, vibrant in colour and pattern were made by both the Amish and the African-American Gee’s Bend communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is almost as if the curators have tricked their audience into believing that these carpets were intended to be valued as works of art, where in fact, they were created out of necessity to keep warm. While the carpets by the Gee’s Bend group are bright and vibrant, the Amish quilts adhere to more strict restrictions set by their community, resulting in muted colour palettes and patterns.
Downstairs is another world in itself. Mason’s Yard is my favourite White Cube gallery because when you enter you are not immediately provided with the impression that you will be overly impressed. This is because the ground level’s gallery is rather small and the existence of the downstairs gallery appears to be concealed at a first glance. However, once underground at Mason’s Yard, White Cube has never failed to blow me away with its display, and the incumbent exhibition is no exception. Here not only have the curators provided us with startling carpets but also wallpaper to subvert and compare the two forms of home furnishing. On one wall is a vibrant carpet by Alighiero e Boetti that depicts the world map, with each of the globe’s nations decorated with its national flag. The artist has also left his mark on the gallery walls with carpet posters with the phrases ‘silence is golden’, ‘arms folded’ and ‘losing the compass’ scrawled across them in the artist’s native Italian. This is where the title for the exhibition has come from. Perhaps this could be because Boetti’s carpets have been embroidered by communities from across the world, or maybe it is because the display of carpets is across walls and not floors where one would typically expect to see them.
One of the most memorable pieces for me was by Mona Hatoum who has displayed four rugs made in Cairo which each depict the image of a skeleton. Perhaps I remembered this because I saw the exhibition on Halloween. However, the skeletons illustrated on the carpets that were made in 1998 actually relate to the bodies of the massacre of 62 tourists in Egypt the previous year, with the brown coloured carpets almost acting as the soil around the bodies in their burial site. Another important work is the one specially created for the exhibition by Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo. Vo’s offering to the show is an installation consisting of a red woollen carpet made in Oaxaca that has had a gold coloured box with the word ‘Victoria’ scrawled across it. The cochineal coloured rug has been created to highlight the history of Christian colonialism and Vo’s work has often been concerned with power relations and issues of cultural identity.
Also on display at White Cube, are carpets as a ground for paintings. This can be seen in the work of Mike Kelley, Rudolf Stingel and Sterling Ruby. Kelley has recreated and enlarged damask wallpapers in golds and rich colours, giving the carpets an overtly luxurious feel. This display of wallpaper is carried through to the lift lobby where the alcove has been covered floor to ceiling in William Morris wallpaper and fitted out with a seat upholstered by Franz West. I found a gallery invigilator lying here reading a book, however, I am almost certain that the chair is intended to be a part of the exhibition. Here West seems to echo a sentiment that Morris is famous for, that objects of use can also have an aesthetic value. Like at the start of the exhibition with the 19th and 20th century pieces from the Amish and Gee’s Bend communities, the curators have been clever in including Morris, to highlight that the political and social comment that the carpets and wallpapers can have is not just a contemporary message. This particular part of the exhibition is also particularly memorable because of its striking difference in appearance to the rest of the show, with its garish appearance being in striking contrast to the majority of the display.
This exhibition, which at first seems to just be a display of carpets has many different layers for the viewer to discover. Not only is it visually powerful, but also politically and socially.
Losing the Compass is on display at White Cube Mason’s Yard until 9 January 2016