vivonne thwaites



irmina van niele



Irmina van Niele
Crude Comfort, 2010-2011
found worn cotton household linen, silk and cotton thread, plant dyes
effects achieved by: soaking, scouring, bleaching, boiling, tearing,
shrinking, folding, binding, clamping, mordanting, dyeing, drawn thread work, piecing and stitching
Dyes include madder roots, prunus leaves, geranium, nasturtium and calendula flowers,
onion skins, eucalyptus leaves and bark, acacia blossoms and leaves, wormwood, parsley and
silverbeet leaves. All dyes made by the artist.
180 x 115 cm
Photo: Michal Kluvanek

irmina van niele

Irmina van Niele (PhD First Class, Uni SA, 2006)

Irmina was born and grew up in Amsterdam. She spent her adolescence in Paris and London and in 1973 came to Australia. In 2006 she completed her Doctoral Thesis Ambivalent Belonging.

My work, Crude Comfort, has been made as a tribute to human tenacity in the face of futility and loss. It is a work of emotional response to a small collection of faded and patched undergarments, simply sewn in rudimentary fashion. The patches are artless, they appear haphazardly chosen and it is tempting to suggest even deliberately chosen for their random brightness. Hidden below and within these layers are the remnants of original garments, decayed to mere shreds.

Far from artless are the beautifully knitted, traditionally patterned mittens. Made for warm protection, these mittens are pathetic in their uselessness; they have hardly been worn. Their potential value has been impossible to realise. As familiar signs of comfort, their meaning has shifted from objects of nurture to objects of loss. Their existence has stagnated. They will never be worn out and darned.

There are immediate surface associations with migrant survival in the face of adversity. Who made this effort, for whom? What lives were lived, inside these garments? Was the wearer also the mender? Were bits of cloth salvaged, and this or that little scrap chosen each time further mending was required? These imagined acts of protection are of great importance; they serve in their simple way towards keeping destitution and suffering at bay by ensuring the survival of an undershirt, the continuation of its function of protection and even before that, of basic human dignity: one must be clothed.

Questions follow questions and I imagine story after story, but there is always a paradox of decay and distress versus sheer determination to survive, achieving a kind of durability, while always only one small patch of cloth away from complete loss. Here it seems that useful and useless have been pushed to extremes. How do I approach such intensity? I find cloths: worn and faded, yellowed, threadbare household linen left for years on the shelves of little charity shops in my own neighbourhood. I want these cloths to reflect, beyond words, something about this ambiguity, of memory, hardship, tenacity, necessity, survival, scarcity, decay, fragility, frivolity, hope. What I hope to generate in the work is a capacity to reflect these qualities.

There is in the making process a peculiar reversal, a moving backwards and forwards simultaneously – the old cloths found and treated in Adelaide, scoured and soaked and coloured with dyes from my own garden and street, coaxing the plants to release their soft colours into the cloth. The stitching of the cloths however was done in northern Europe, working on the floor of a small room in poor light where I built up the work piece by piece, trusting its rightness, its being-itself within the whole complexity of its situation. There is not only a reversal of the process of salvage and decay but also a sense of re-experiencing the migration process. In this cold European location the need for protection in bitter conditions is clear. A process of patient persistence ensues, and a dream-like quality emerges between these layered fragments.

I sense a strong analogy between this work and the process of dream interpretation described by Carl Jung. The dream material gives clues, but is very incomplete, has obvious associations, but beyond these are other hidden meanings, of which traces are present somehow, but these meanings are resistant to being uncovered, able to slip away when 'held up to the light', amongst myriad other possible interpretations – all tentative. Questions remain, leaving gaps, surrounded by incomplete and threadbare memory traces.

Between the relentless force of decay and the refusal to give up, the stubborn persistence of hope is in the cloths themselves: they exist, in this state. They are in the world, a crude comfort.

Reference: Carl Jung Dreams, Routledge (London 2002)


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