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Tokens of Memory – Textile transcendence

C-print's editor-in-chief pens a catalogue essay relating to Nadine Byrne's retrospective exhibition 'Minnesmaterial - Textil transcendens' at Konstakademien in Stockholm.


Nadine Byrne. Photo: Jenny Källman

Seated as a navigating compass throughout Nadine Byrne’s entire body of work is the untimely passing of her mother at a point in time when the artist was coming-of-age into adulthood, having recently just embarked on a path as artist. In the aftermath, Nadine Byrne’s artistic practice has largely been informed by processing the grief which arises on the account of the overpowering loss and longing felt after losing a person most close to you; a loss that explicit language considering its inherent limitations may not properly even begin to address. An integral part in perceiving grief is the memory which can act like the loveliest, the most bittersweet and the most deceptive thing at the same time. Memory fades, conforms and adjusts to whatever we think we know, writes Joan Didion whose authorship in recent years reflects upon the grief of suddenly losing her husband and only daughter. It’s pivotal to remember that remembering does not equalize seeing an actual episode again, bit-by-bit, or reconstructing a fact or an instance about the person who has passed. Our memory is what allows us to keep telling ourselves our stories and telling other people a different version of our stories, notes Alice Munro about the selective and negotiating nature of memory.


The exhibition Minnesmaterial – Textil transcendens at Konstakademien surveys eleven years of working with textile compositions which make for a particularly distinctive part of Nadine Byrne’s interdisciplinary work as an artist which extends as well to video, music, performance and text and sculpture/installation departing from other materials. The pull towards textiles appears nevertheless to have been instinctual for her and there was an emotional need to begin working with fabrics which had been left to her by her mother. To stress that those fabrics bear her mother’s traces is a reminder of the metaphysical notion about the lives of the things around us; a life vested into them by the physical ownership and personal use of them. Nadine Byrne describes how there was a feeling that her relationship with her mother would now only be able to go on through the physical objects she left behind, and that only with them could she carry and nurture the rapport into the present and future. “She existed and still exists in these objects. The past isn’t static or precluded, on the contrary. It continues in all of us”, she says.


Hi Mom (Tent), 2014, fabric, hand dyed fabric, string, ceramics, wood


The perception of textiles as intimate bearers of memory naturally is due the private physical and domestic sphere with which they are often associated. Working through grief, where memories are key, is neither effortless nor without purpose, and often comes down to searching for specific answers. These answers may relate to who the person lost was, who they will now be once gone and who the people left behind are without them. These questions are a focal point when grief and loss has come to be expressed materially through Nadine Byrne’s works. Memories rarely lead to the sought answers and rather pave way subsequently for more questions. If answers are the objective of the search, the outcome more often is a chain of events involving action that rather than leading towards the end, prompts a certain drive forward in life post-loss. It could be said that Nadine Byrne’s practice represents her personal search relating to her mother and that the material executions, in series of abstract works represented in the exhibition, correspond to the physical actions and gestures of said search. However, while works derive from memories of episodes from her own life, it’s evident that there is no interest of forging a gratuitously self-disclosing rapport with her viewer as an exhibitionist in relation to her. The personal, hence is largely allowed to remain personal. Aside from her mother, other members of her family also appear in her work, but it’s not the specific relations with so and so member or the actual people in her family she believes to be interesting to a viewer but rather what their fates more universally may tell a viewer about ephemeral life.


Her conceptual textile-based works do not rest on dramaturgical or concrete narratives but instead brush at most on something that is never explicitly said openly. How something that exists, but isn’t visible or tangible, can be expressed through the challenge of physical and sensuous expression, rather than verbal, is a fascination that seemingly occupies her mind. The reductive realities of language include the expressed word all too easily being held as truth and fact and since both evades her, language proves often feeble and unresourceful to her. “I prefer to move around the spectrum where ambiguous messages and inconclusive logics are found, and where poetry is rendered by abstraction", Nadine Byrne notes.


G-Force II, 2016, hand dyed fabric, photocollage print on fabric, rope, stone, steele, wood


In her drive to render the abstract; religious rituals have come to be another distinctive fixture in Nadine Byrne’s body of work, aside from the objects. Perhaps this is best understood by recalling the way rituals relate to spirituality and their capacity to unite and create bonds between people and places and serve as physical manifestations of an inner life. Ritual affinity can be traced back already to Nadine Byrne’s early sculptural series Wearable Sculptures (2008–2010) where the bodily gesture is to carry and to be borne. For the viewer they may appear like textile costumes but for her they represent sculptures where the human body is secondary to the textile compositions and serve a supporting function for the erection of the sculptures. Visually the sculptures bring mythologies and occultism to mind. Titles like Shaman Suit (2008) and Evocation of My Demon Sister (2010) connote to the peripheral realm of thought to where a diligent search sometimes leads, and where alternative truths and interpretations can be sought for answers to the otherwise inexplicable conditions of life. These sculptural works make part of a mythology of Nadine Byrne’s own which speaks of female experiences and that she constructs departing from her own background, and where she herself, her sister and their late mother, all take center stage in the chief positions.


To depict conditions which transcend time, room, reality and dream is something which in Nadine Byrne's practice at times leaves the mere visual realm for the sonic ream, or in the interlace of senses rather presents audiovisually. As a musician and composer her works are marked by the same thematic angle as her material practice, but the feeling and notion of transcendence is increasingly heavy-hitting and well-calibrated. In her latest release Dreaming Remembering (2018), the tracks sound ethereal and clench the listener not only as music but reach through as a more intense and sensuous experience. The feeling is that of an either ecstatic or fine-tuned harmonious condition of the mind which is usually not experienced in an entirely conscious or fully awake state. You are almost at once struck by the hunch that something elusive is being dramatized and is attempted to be converted into sense; a certain "something" which both edges the senses but that is neither so exhaustible nor satisfied that it can begin to stress completion or an actual end.


Sites of Memory (Surbrunnsgatan 43) 2019, embroidery on linen. Photo: Niklas Hansson

Point, Breaking (Minds Look Alike 2), 2015, ceramics, fabric, string. Photo: Carl Henrik Tillberg


Nadine Byrne's exhibition 'Minnesmaterial - Textil transcendens' opens October 12 and runs through November 17 at Konstakademien (Galleri Väst and Ateljén) in Stockholm.







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