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Catalina Swinburn Meticulously Excavates the History and Ceremony of Textiles in Her Woven Paper ‘Investitures’
June 6, 2023
“The cloak is a talisman from harm, keeping one safe and secure throughout transitions,” says Chilean artist Catalina Swinburn, whose elaborate sculptures use thousands of pieces of folded paper to explore world history. Living and working between Buenos Aires and London, she is drawn to ideas around migration and displacement, turning material derived from books, documents, and maps into large-scale wall pieces and intricate, robe-like compositions.
Swinburn is interested in liminality, the process of transitioning across borders or boundaries in space or time that often requires formal procedures. She focuses on investitures, a term that applies to both an honorary ceremony and a type of garment that covers, protects, or adorns the wearer. “My works are what I called Ritual Investitures that extend power and resistance by the way they are constructed,” she says, “also in the fictional idea of how this can be used as an armour to protect, or wings to fly, or become something you wish.”
From meticulously folded pieces of paper comes a draping fabric, often mounted onto a panel or photographed as it wraps around a figure’s shoulders. The historically fraught practices of collecting and exhibiting cultural artifacts, ceremonial materials, and human remains is also a touchpoint for Swinburn, as she considers the nature of ownership, power, bias, and representation. She often uses archaeological volumes for her sculptures, culling pages cataloging ancient Roman floor mosaics or antiquities. “Athánatoi,” for example, is woven from vintage sheets containing documentation of displaced glazed bricks from the Palace of Darius, Susa, an ancient city in modern-day Iran.
In archaeology, textiles rarely survive, adding another layer of mystique to craft and garment traditions around the world. “Textiles are among the most visible signs of sacred spaces and sacred roles,” Swinburn says. Using a technique she calls “inset” or embedding, the artist creates a durable fabric with a robust geometric structure that references built environments and patterns employed by Indigenous groups. “The weaving is designed with a stepped pattern inspired from the sacred ruins and old scaffold textiles used in the Andean cultures,” she says. “Referring to the suyu whipala structure, each module is cut and joined together manually.”
Books have fascinated Swinburn since childhood, when her father amassed stacks of volumes about architecture and prehistoric civilizations. She finds her source material in charity shops, markets, fairs, and during her travels, often inspired by a unique title or vintage illustrations. “Books for me are like pilgrims: they are also constantly travelling and moving,” she says. “They have passed from different hands, so it holds its narrative, but for me, also the narrative of it’s own journey.” The portability of Swinburn’s materials is a significant aspect of her practice, since she travels frequently. Her technique involves slicing out the leaves, then carefully cutting and folding into precise squares that can be bundled up and taken anywhere.
Textiles have been long been associated with domestic activities and often disparaged as “women’s work.” Swinburn turns the tables on this narrative, exploring the representation of women throughout time or highlighting their absence from the record altogether. She says, “I mostly named all of my pieces out of names for emblematic women: Penelope, Arachne, Inanna, Astarte, Isis, Phoenix, Cocha, Quilla, Copacati, Dido, Aida… I always think, what about if history would have been told from a feminine perspective? I want to bring back these narratives and empower them, for us all to think on how powerful they have been.”
Swinburn will open a solo exhibition in a London chapel with Selma Feriani Gallery this October. You an find more of her work on her website and Instagram.
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