Ruth Scheuing: Silkroads

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      At the Surrey Art Gallery TechLab until April 4

      Hanging just inside the front window of the Surrey Art Gallery’s TechLab are three rich and complex weavings. Designed by Vancouver artist Ruth Scheuing, these works imagine vastly enlarged historical textiles—a Kyrgyz man’s vest, a Sogdian child’s coat, a Chinese dragon robe—superimposed on Google Earth images of the lands through which the fabled silk routes passed. Such routes are depicted here as golden ribbons winding their way over high mountain passes, between snowy peaks, around dark lakes, and across wide deserts.

      The superimposed textile designs fit snugly over the digital landscapes—cultural traditions moulded onto ancient lands, shifting geographical boundaries, and contemporary technologies. In Scheuing’s small exhibition, East meets West, myth meets fact, and the hand-woven past meets the digital present.

      At the back of the TechLab, Scheuing works at a computerized Jacquard loom, the quiet clacking of her wooden shuttles playing against the hissing of the compressor that moves the heddles up and down. In addition to displaying her recent work, Scheuing is an artist-in-residence here, and is on-hand to meet the public on Thursdays and Saturdays until early April.

      Also on view are three small weavings she has completed while here. One of them, Flaming Mountains, depicts a curious script written across a Chinese landscape. It relates to a story about an “antique” book forged by in the late 19th century and embraced as authentic by early 20th-century western scholars and travellers. The image and the story are a neat metaphor for the West’s fascination with—and misunderstanding of—the “Orient”.

      During a recent interview with the Straight, Scheuing talked about the research that led her to this new body of work, especially about her interest in the network of trade routes (there was no one “Silk Road”, but many) over which not only textiles but also spices, religions, and technologies were transported. This subject is not incidental, but has evolved naturally from Scheuing’s long-standing interest in the intersection of early computer technology with weaving in the form of the Jacquard loom. She has also been intrigued with the structural similarities between woven images and images composed of pixels.

      The Jacquard loom, invented in France in 1801, allowed the mass production of the kinds of floral-patterned fabrics that had been introduced to Europe through trade with Asia, and that had become esteemed commodities in the West. With its use of punch cards to control intricate weaving patterns, the Jacquard loom was also the model for a mechanical forerunner of the modern computer, Charles Babbage’s “analytical engine” of 1837.

      In an upgrade of technologies, the present age has produced Jacquard looms, such as the Thread Controller TC-1 on which Scheuing works, that can be driven by microchip technology rather than by a string of big, clunky punch cards. Not that this has diminished the artist’s workload significantly: she still has to design the programs needed to realize her images and intellectual pursuits. Still has to pass those shuttles back and forth across the loom by hand, too. As with Scheuing’s earlier art, the research and analysis behind her Silkroads weavings are well met in their rich visual appeal.