Mai Chi on Embroidery Exhibition by Lionel Descostes

Posted: 24 Feb 2011. Filed under: Opinion, Art.
Mai ChiLionel Descostes at L'Espace
Mai Chi is a Hanoi-based arts commentator and contributes to various online media. This is his first contribution to Hanoi Grapevine.

The Soul of Repetition: The Embroidery of Lionel Descostes

In the past we have seen a number of contemporary artists who have taken on the Vietnamese lacquer technique and reinvented it for their artistic practice. French artist Lionel Descostes is the first one who does the same with Vietnamese embroidery, moving it out of the realm of traditional craft and semi-artistic production catering to tourism, onto the stage of contemporary art. The show Du trait au fil, which opened on 15 Feb at the French cultural center L’Espace, exhibits the results of his engagement and preoccupation with the medium.

Lionel Descostes
Lionel Descostes

The body of work in the exhibition loosely falls into two groups. One is more austere and takes the shape of the square, one of the most basic shapes, as point of departure. In “Les carres et les cousins”/“The squares and their family” (2008), rows of squares, in slight variations and looking imperfect by the nature of hand-made work, fill the canvas in anonymity, refusing to stand out. The green and yellow on black background give a humble, unagitated feel similar to stitched decorations of some mountainous minorities. Most captivating is “Humeur du jour 6” (2006), a series of five large formats, showing straight, finely tuned pastel lines forming dense grids which, in their 3D quality, almost hover above the white background. Standing up close, eyes following the criss-cross of the lines for a while, one starts to feel an hypnotic pull exerted by the pictures.

The other group of works are more playful, most are of smaller size and very different to the squares inspired works. Some, like the series “Famille heureuse” / “Happy family” (2008) (again, the theme of family!) look like simple, conventional drawings, half ornaments, half morphed jelly-fish. Others, like “Rencontres” / “Reunion” (2008) or “Mode d’emploi” / “Instruction manual” (2008), are loose collections of curvy lines, arranged into a careful mess and placed right in the center, against patches of bright colors. The way these works deploy fully colored surfaces defies expectations of sketchy pictures one often has with traditional embroidery.

"humeur du jour", Single-thread Hand-embroidery on fabric, 2006

“humeur du jour” (2006)

"mode d'emploi", Single-thread Hand-embroidery on taffetas, 2008

"télévision", Single-thread Hand-embroidery on taffetas, 2008
The L’Espace show is the second one of the artist in Hanoi, and compared to the exhibition in Bui Gallery last November, Descostes seems to make a different choice of what to present; most notably the pop art oriented works of last year are absent, which makes the current show more cohesive. On the opening night, Descostes came in a white shirt and jeans. He is a middle-aged man who has a calm and thoughtful look, exactly like someone who has spent years in a solitary studio, devoting himself to the lonely, laborious and repetitive work of hand stitching. For him, the process is important. His statements are full of terse numbers which a matter-of-fact document the latest period of his life: 10 years in Hanoi, 8 years in a secluded studio, 9 speech- and hearing-impaired assistants. But Descostes does not see repetitive labor as a necessary evil he has to endure; for him repetition has an emotional significance. A simple line on a drawing would take just a quick hand movement. The same line, embroidered, would take thousands of stitches. An embroidery work is made up of a sheer enormity of simple, unspectacular gestures, exactly like the way we live our lives.

Internationally, stitching techniques have established a firm place in the practices of contemporary artists. According to David McFadden from Museum of Arts and Design, New York, embroidery began to surface in the contemporary art world in the last decades of the 20th century. While at first it was used mostly by female artists who came from the association it has with women’s work, this distinction is gone and nowadays men and women alike are exploring stitching techniques to express their artistic ideas. In 2007, the museum organized a terrific international show called “Pricked: Extreme Embroidery” showing a stunningly wide range of embroidery works of 48 artists from 17 countries. In Vietnam’s art scene, the work of Lionel Descostes is refreshing: you don’t need to do video or performance to be contemporary; you can tear down barriers between genres and bring up innovative perspectives by going back to techniques and materials dating from ancient times.

Lionel Descostes’ show “Du trait au fil” runs from 15 Feb to 4 Mar 2011, at L’Espace – 24 Tràng Tiền, Hà Nội.

Also read KVT’s review of Lionel Descostes’ earlier show at the Bui Gallery.

Photos by Boris Zuliani (‘Television (detail)’ and portrait of Lionel), Larissa Gehrke (exhibition view at top of post) and Dominic Blewett (all others).

Television (detail)
"télévision" (detail)

Mai Chi is a Hanoi-based arts commentator and has been contributing to various online media. 

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