Soft Machine: An Interview with Textile Artist, Klaas Rommelaere
This month launched as we released our Fall 2020 issue featuring textile artist Bisa Butler on the cover and continued the appreciation of her work as an “old but new” medium in the latest episode of Radio Juxtapoz. Even more hooked on the subject of textile art, we’re excited to shine a light on the work of Belgian artist Klaas Rommelaere, who will open a major solo exhibition at The Texture museum in Kortrijk, Belgium next month.
As a fashion student at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in Ghent and after internships with Henrik Vibskov and Raf Simons, Rommelaere realized that he could not bring his ideas to fruition in the fashion world, so began to translate his drawings with hsi true first language – needle, thread, wool, and yarn. As the production of drawings, concepts, and works became more complex and time-consuming, he decided to collaborate with a group of older women from his hometown (the famed seamstresses known as “madames”), whose expertise enabled the rendering of absurdly bizarre scenes of handcraft-pop to appear in his cross-stitch, crochet, and knitwear. After a series of successful gallery presentations in which embroidery, crochet, tapestry, and rugs were introduced as a logical format to translate his drawings, he recently started building elaborate installations and entering the world of sculpture.
The exhibition that opens on October 3rd, entitled Dark Uncles, presents an impressive landscape of sixteen enormous embroidered puppets and two dogs, all moving in procession through an avenue with totem poles and a series of embroidered works and tapestries. Designed and built as representations of his ten closest family members— the two family dogs—the entire display chronicles his personal life, portrayed in an array of experiences. Organized in collaboration with the Be Part platform for contemporary art, this major showcase is accompanied by a release of a paperback publication that marks the big event. So impressed were we by the concept, the works, presentation, we recently got in touch with Rommelaere for a conversation about his unique practice, including the Dark Uncles.
Sasha Bogojev: When did you fall in love with textiles and why did you choose it as your preferred medium for creating art?
Klaas Rommelaere: As a kid I studied fashion, and even in the first year, I started doing as much with handcraft as possible. This had to do with the fact I had no budget so it was cheap to buy yarn and start making stuff. It was a direct and democratic way to make graphics and patterns in fabric and clothes without having to use machines. Every school year after that I studied specified techniques like embroidery, knotting carpets, crochet, and knit. But for me, it felt a bit restricting to use these crafts for fashion. While I was doing crochet for shoes where I interned, I thought hw this technique would be so nice to make sculptures with. It is much more freeing than when you are restricted to just making a sweater. You also can take as much time as you want to make something because you are not in a system that is defined by seasons. So, I just started to make installations, masks, and flags.
How do you feel about the complexity of the technical aspect, as I can imagine it's much more time-consuming?
It also calms me down, as it is a bit like meditation because you do the same movement over and over. You just concentrate on one simple stitch and immediately have a small result. If I do not work for a few days, I really get a bit nervous.I also love watching series and movies and I can do that while working, so that is also a plus.
Can you describe your creative process in terms of designing, materials, patterns, drawings, and all?
The visual is in my head, and then I make a quick sketch as a starting point. I just begin with it because it takes so much time to finish. Especially with a big project like Dark Uncles, I am getting in a mood or trip and I add inspiration. I see stuff in movies, series, and pictures that can add to the project and what I want to say. It grows organically. With this project, there were people helping me build the puppets so I talked about materials with them. First, they built it in wood with some foam added. Then there was someone who made the patterns for the shape of the embroidery so everything fit well together and it was like the skin for the puppet. Then I sketched it on a grid so the drawing was ready to be embroidered. When all the pieces were done, everything had to be handsewn on the puppet.
Because it takes so long to finish a piece I can already think about the next one while I work on the previous.
How true to your original idea does the final work get and how do you feel about that variation?
The overall idea is in my head, but to communicate with the people helping me I have to make a sketch. There is no color in the sketch so I let myself be surprised with how things go. I make lots of small decisions with my gut, without really overthinking the piece somehow. This is a bit contradictory. I work on it and think about it until I’m satisfied, so there is no end result set in the beginning. The work is always in my head. Also, since creating work takes about six months, this slowness is an essential part of the end result. My work is quite simple: usually, it's based on one idea and because I have worked on it for so long, it is also fully substantiated.
What are some of the benefits of working with your madames other than the obvious time-saving factor?
I am really helpless without my ladies; without them, I would make only 2 or 3 works in a year, but they have also become an essential part of my process and work.
They are from a different generation, so their experience in life and tastes are totally different from mine. That is what makes it so interesting, to see how they interpret my drawings. I am always surprised by how a drawing comes back. We meet every week for a whole afternoon or evening so we also talk about the works, what the inspiration is, and where it goes. I have been working with them for over seven years now so they know how I work and I know them also very well. I really owe a lot to them, there is a mutual trust because they also spent a lot of time on it. Even when one thing seems ugly, I find that interesting because it is something I would never do. When there is an opening of a show, they are there with their friends and family and they make the best tour guides.
How did the idea of puppets come together and what were some of the challenges working on them?
When I first started to make flags, my grandmother did my finishings, stitching everything together. To make a good photo of the work, we went outside, a few houses further up the street because they had a nice white wall. To carry the flag I called upon my grandfather and the neighbor. When they carried it with the bar, and I took pictures as they held the flag like they were in a procession. For me, this is still a very strong image and was the biggest inspiration in this project. I also started to get obsessed with Hayao Miyazaki after a trip to Tokyo. I read his books and watched documentaries and in one of them, he said: A man without a history or a people that forgot its past will have no choice but to disappear. So I started to dig into my own history.
How different was it to work on something this elaborate compared to your regular routine?
With this project, there were a lot of creative and logistical challenges. With someone else making the puppets, and my sketches being pretty primitive and hard to communicate, the translation from sketch to real-life sculpture was tricky in the beginning. Should it be cartoony or really realistic? Then there was the case that if you embroider the whole puppet it can become very childlike or crazy. So I adjusted that by putting in blank canvases and choosing the two colors per puppet that represent that person. There was also a question on whether they should wear clothes or not. After we did one, I trusted that it was going to be okay and after that, it went fine.
Was your regular team sufficient for such an undertaking, or did you have to look elsewhere for help?
Another challenge was the amount of embroidery, I think there were more than 500 pieces to embroider. The museum, Texture, sent out a call asking if people wanted to help me out, since it was at the beginning of the lockdown. There were lots of responses because everybody suddenly had lots of time because they were stuck at home. Thanks to that, more than 70 people, from all over Flanders, helped out with the project. There was a lot of WhatsApp, posting of packages, messages, emails, and calls but it worked out perfectly in the end. It is funny to see the ladies now in real life.
Then there was the challenge to hand sew everything on to the puppet. It takes a minimum of six days per puppet to sew everything together. That was accomplished with people who helped me out last minute, so I am so thankful for them!
What type of scenes are featured on the puppets and the accompanying tapestries?
There are three categories for the tapestries and embroidery pieces. And there are four portraits: one of Anita, a lady who helps me out, one of my grandfather, then one of the main characters in the movie Hereditary, and then also one of myself. These portraits each represent a part of my work and who I am.
Aside from that particular moment you've experienced, were there other influences that made this show come about?
For Dark Uncles, I was also inspired by the movie, Midsommar. In that movie, four Americans go to a Swedish ritual/festival. They stay in a house fully drawn with scenes and there are also pictures from the previous rituals. That is why there are works with previous processions on it. The other ones are mixes of memories I had as a young kid, old pictures, and new pictures.
How did you technically apply these influences into your work?
I first colored the flax fabric with silk paint. That was inspired by the Miyazaki movies who often have an aquarelle background and sharp images in the front. On the puppets, the embroidery consists of memories I have with that person combined with their personalities.
For example, my grandfather was an artist who made abstract works in metal. On his legs and chest, I recreated his works in embroidery. On the back, there is a drawing from a picture I have with him and his works together in a train station. Mostly it was done during the lockdown, which was a bit strange since I have not seen these persons for a few months.
How did the show come about in the first place?
This all started when Michael Zink, my gallerist, asked me to do my first solo expo in Gallery Zink's new space in Waldkirchen, Germany for the upcoming season. I started drawing stuff and doing research and quickly the idea started to grow to make a ‘procession’. Then I got a visit from BePart and Texture with a request for an exhibition in Kortrijk at Texture. So we combined the two in a bigger project. I also liked the idea to first show at Zink and to keep working on it for the next venue, so that it grows bigger and bigger instead of starting from zero.
So how long have you been working on it in total?
The ladies started embroidering in May 2019, so they worked on for 18 months, but it went into high speed from January 2020, and definitely, in the lockdown period lots of people worked on it.
Do you have any particular plans for the show or this type of body of work?
It would be great if the show travels to other spaces and grows even more. I would add more puppets, so it is a big procession and every person in my life is in it. For me, this is only the beginning. Also, I loved working in a more sculptural way. I really want to push it further now, pushing what is possible, making more extreme forms: the possibilities are endless.
Photo credit: Courtesy Erich Spahn / Galerie Zink Waldkirchen / To get Klaas' new book, visit https://artpapereditions.org/product/book/36385/