grant thompson

surfacing
Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin
16 March - 29 April 2001

When attending recent ANZAC day services, I was taken by the sameness of the rows of 'official' headstones in the local cemetery. At the end of each row was a stone with no name engraved upon it. The stone stood for all the men who could not be named; possibly missing in action, it will never be known how or when they died. The ANZAC commemorations seemed to be an attempt to personify the sheer blankness of the memorial stone, and somehow remind us that these rows of stone represent individual men. Grant Thompson's installation surfacing renders a similar surface to the white shirt. He reminds us that beneath a starched white simplicity there are multiple stories, and decades of individual men wearing white shirts and making selections within what appear to be narrow ranges of style and possibility.

Thompson's exhibition is presented on two adjoining walls of a square white room. One wall holds a nine and a half metre field of tightly packed plaited rounds, and the other, regimented ranks of collars. Thompson has taken a relatively simple material-the working man's white shirt and created a story of change found within repetition. Salvaged from thrift shops, each shirt has carefully been unstitched. Its collar then hung on the wall as an archival record of wear, stains, traces of previous wearers, and labels of manufacture. The remaining shirt has finally been transformed into a round by a methodical process of cutting followed by plaiting and restitching. Thompson writes in the accompanying catalogue, cutting collars the shirt, grasping it just below the band. Scissor blades glide the reinforced seam tearing through fabric and separating collar from shirt. Without its collar, the shirt loosens, its centre lost. This is not an unpicking but an unmaking. Shirtness is collapsing. Cutting continues, withdrawing garment lines, making edges of seams, and returning clothing to fabric.

As shirtness collapses, we become aware that such an unmaking is directly informed by making. Thompson himself is a skilled shirtmaker, often seen wearing his own starched white creations. In this context, unmaking is not the destruction of the shirt, but the becoming-other of the shirt. When reduced to a collar the shirt becomes the wearer, not just a symbol for the absent individual, but like the gravestones, actually occupying their place. The rounds on the other hand become something else, a new form that does not occupy space but creates it anew.

The rounds. Thompson is very clear that these are not circles-fixed and closed-but rounds, defined by a continuous making and shifting that is only limited by the extent of the original shirt. The scale of each shirt has determined the size of the round. Once the shirt elements- sleeve, front, back-have been sliced across their diagonal {bias) lines, they become raw material for the rounds. The rounds are then hand plaited and carefully stitched, like ragrugs in the miniature. Although they are cut on the bias and not torn like a ragrug, the rounds are not as uniform as one might expect. Their process has been the creation of a new original from a discard, a remaking of the readymade. Occasional buttons and seams mark previous histories, the entanglement of thread. Through reduction, Thompson has not found a generic shirt. The rounds spread and grow across their wall, generating smooth space with a few ripples in its surfaces created by the pins securing their placement on the wall.

The collars. The collar is the part of a shirt that is most likely to retain traces of its wearer. Behaving in their ordered lines, these collars are headstones, or pinned butterflies. Collected and remembered. They are not allowed movement. The collars become the markers of identity in this installation. Here is found striated space, measured and fixed by its well-stitched labels. Each piece sits discrete, its difference immediately noticeable. Histories of confinement are alluded to. Foucault wrote about the manner in which the soldier is created from the boy through the use of clothing. A process that could be termed 'fabric as architecture'. Thompson presents the collar, and through it we can imagine the boy and the man.

Men and shirts. The white shirt appears the least tactile of clothing. Functional, formal, starched, exacting, it does not invite sensuous or drifting gazes. Thompson challenges this reading. He creates lingering surfaces, spaces where viewers can contemplate missing histories and stories whilst also being mesmerised by the infinite difference found in white. Sudden hues of cream or mauve can appear shocking. Shirts that previously would have gone unnoticed are now carefully studied and measured, set up against their neighbour and given new lives. I expected that viewing white shirts such as these, in quantity such as this, would result in normalising effects; that each shirt would appear much like its neighbours. But this was not so. lt is important to remember that these rounds and collars are no longer shirts. They are consciously nonshirts. Each becomes one among many, difference found within repetition.