Hannah Gartside uses fabric as a vehicle to transport us to another place and time. Closely engaging with the smell, texture, sound and movement of a particular material, Gartside imagines those who have come into contact with it, the places it has been, its function, and how it has been cared for. Often working with vintage clothing, deadstock fabrics and found materials, through sculpture and installation the Melbourne artist brings memory and history into the physical realm, reinventing fabric by giving it a new life far beyond its original purpose.
Following a childhood filled with sewing projects and doll making, Gartside began her professional career working as a costumier with the Queensland Ballet. It was a pivotal experience that deeply informs her current practice. “I spent a lot of time watching from the stage wings looking at how different materials would move and interact with a dancer,” Gartside says. “It helped me really understand how fabric can communicate.” After four years with the Queensland Ballet, Gartside made the move to Melbourne to study sculpture at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). “In costuming, you are telling the director or choreographer’s story and that comes together as a beautiful thing. But in art, I have control over the story and what I am realising.”
In her second year at the VCA, fabric began making its way into Gartside’s sculpture. After being gifted a 1970s nightie, Gartside cut into the garment and started experimenting with its form as a sculptural object. “I’m really interested in the potential of fabric,” she explains. “With old, synthetic sleepwear, the fabric tends to hold its shape, it stretches and doesn’t fray. I’m always looking at the physicality of a material and the way it works with gravity.” It is an intimately tactile relationship, and Gartside often refers to sensory experiences when she speaks about the varied textures of her materials. Touching velvet is “like dipping your hand in melted chocolate”, and the small, balled up knot of a beloved pet’s fur is not detritus but a “suburban pearl.”
Recently curated into Primavera 2021: Young Australian Artists, Gartside has started experimenting with kinetic sculpture by attaching fabric onto moving armatures. Activating swathes and strips of fabric into large sculptures that spin and twirl, each of Gartside’s five works in Primavera are modelled after a powerful woman in history. Theatre maven Sarah Bernhardt, illustrator Pamela (Pixie) Colman Smith, dancer Loïe Fuller, painter Artemisia Gentileschi and biblical figure Lilith are each referenced in Gartside’s formidable lineup.
Represented through carefully chosen materials sourced from varied historical periods, each spinning sculpture unashamedly claims its physicality through form, movement and shadow. “I want to treat the fabric as though it has its own agency,” she says. “It’s the same way you would respect a person, you give the materials their own reverence and let them take up space.”
To represent Bernhardt, Gartside combined 100-year-old silk tassels from a Liberty of London shawl with 1920s beading, and shaped the materials into a curvaceous, black form to reference Bernhardt’s successful career in theatre. For Artemisia Gentileschi, Gartside took inspiration from the Italian artist’s painting, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1612-13. “The sculpture is formed from over 100 metres of bias-cut red velvet strips, sewn into tubes and filled out with thick cord. They become these gorgeous dense strands that evoke the way blood spurts out of Holofernes’s neck. There’s a real righteousness to the painting.” The piece representing British artist Pamela Colman Smith, the original illustrator of the Waite-Smith tarot card deck, has an additional element—a mechanised wire hand clad in a green satin glove that slowly traces a curved line back and forth across the floor, a sensual yet insidiously unyielding sequence of movements.
By making fabric an independently moveable force, Gartside also challenges the role clothing is said to play in acts of physical and sexual violence against women. In Gartside’s Primavera works, fabric takes its power back. “I was thinking of that question ‘What was she wearing?’, and how it is used as a way of victim blaming and excusing sexually predatory behaviour. In these sculptures, the clothes are sick of being framed as complicit and fight back.” As they spin, Gartside’s fabric forms draw the viewer in with their beguiling rhythmic movements. Reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about the cursed red shoes that never let their wearer stop dancing, over time the constant spinning of the sculptures becomes vertiginous and increasingly uncomfortable to view.
Influenced by the work of Claire Lambe, Jemima Wyman, Sarah Lucas and Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui, Gartside hopes to continue pushing the potential of fabric further. “I really want to keep working with moving fabric and experimenting with different ways of cutting materials,” she says. Leaning into the idea that wearing another’s clothes is the closest one can get to being inside their skin, Gartside reads the histories of materials from both a personal and universal point of view. “Using pre-worn clothing, you are dealing with the absent body—you are either speaking to the body or using clothing as a stand in for the body. The way we use garments to signify particular things is really important to me.”
This article was originally published in the November/December 2021 print edition of Art Guide Australia.