Contemplating imperfection

THE BEAUTY OF DECORATIVE OBJECTS IS OFTEN DOWNPLAYED IN THE DISCUSSION OF ART, writes  SEBASTIAN SMEE in the Australian.

First published in the Australian, September 1, 2007

ISLAMIC culture tends towards the lovely idea that we can extol the beauty of appearances so long as we recognise their impermanence and fragility, in contrast to baqa, the only permanent reality, which is eternal and invisible.

Textile art is often associated with this vision of ephemeral beauty, and you can see why. Unlike paintings in frames, textiles seem transient. Unfurled, they impart instant brightness and life to a room, but they can just as quickly be folded up or piled on top of one another, out of sight.

They represent a kind of beauty relieved of substance. But precisely by implying his absence, they also point to God's omnipotence.

In the West, as the inheritors of a century of modernism we have battled with the idea that decoration and ornament are things to be taken seriously. Despite the examples of Gauguin and Matisse and their many followers, we still have the words of Adolf Loos, who said that ornament was a crime, and Paul Klee, who called it a dead end, ringing in our ears.

But the modernists were an aberration. Western thinkers, in the same way as Muslims, have long taken decoration and ornament seriously. For Hegel, ornament enabled the mind to increase its self-awareness. For Ernst Bloch it functioned as an "allegory of reconciliation". For Alois Riegl it showed that the drive to create came before the drive to reproduce, and thus that abstraction was more fundamental than empathy.

Riegl believed that the most important thing about a work of art was neither the product of its technique nor its iconographic content but, rather, the way its form is experienced inwardly. In the case of Islamic design, this inward experience related to laws of infinite relationship and absolute surface. But of course all these theoretical ways of thinking tend to fall away as you look at the most beautiful Islamic art and especially, I find, rugs and textiles.

We know that oriental carpets and textiles have inspired great artists in the West, from Hans Holbein through to Henri Matisse, and that in the modern era, as Western artists became increasingly interested in abstraction, many of them worked in an idiom that had more affinities with Islamic art than with traditional European art.

But one of the barriers to a deep enjoyment of oriental carpets in recent decades has been the standardisation enforced by mass production across the Middle East and Central Asia. Increasingly, designs are boringly symmetrical and the dyes cheap and synthetic. Much of the work is done in urban factories, often in exploitative conditions.

Ross Langlands of Nomadic Rug Traders, an unusual dealer in Sydney's Pyrmont, is aware of these tendencies and avoids them (which in effect means avoiding contemporary rugs). Aesthetically, he admits to a preference for "the barbaric aspect rather than refinement". Hence his focus on carpets coming out of tribal traditions, as opposed to those made in urban or court workshops. Langlands and his wife, Irene, are probably as close as we get in this country to that rare thing, the scholar-dealer: merchants who not only find objects to sell but educate the public about them. Scholar-dealers are more than experts. They are men and women who carry out research, advise museum curators and even publish original scholarship.

The Langlands specialise in oriental tribal rugs and textiles from Southeast Asia. They have mounted regular themed shows in their gallery for several decades. But they have also helped to organise exhibitions at museums such as the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. They donate works to the Art Gallery of NSW. They helped establish societies such as the Oriental Rug Society. And they regularly host talks and seminars by experts and amateurs in the field.

Christine Sumner, a senior curator at the Powerhouse Museum, says the Langlands have helped museums in Australia understand that "you can't look at Asian art without looking closely at textiles. They are strong advocates, but they do things quietly. I can always ring Ross and Irene with any questions."

Jackie Menzies, head of Asian art at the AGNSW, says: "They love to share their knowledge, and they are generous donors."

Although he is well informed about everything from tribal politics in 19th-century Persia to the use of mordants for fixing colour dyes, Ross Langlands often stresses the importance of the visual effect of the pieces he sells.

Among enthusiasts today, he says, "rarity is the big catchword". But it has become a bit of a fetish. Similarly, "to be obsessive about condition is to miss the point".

In the end, he maintains, it's a field in which the distance between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge remains vast. "The more you think you know, the more you realise you don't know." Still, it's good to know a few basics, as they're part and parcel of the appeal of tribal rugs. The culture of pastoral nomadism that produced the kinds of carpets the Langlands sell dates back almost 3000 years.

"Carpet-making," wrote the Langlands in 1991, "was a woman's work and great store was placed in her skill as a weaver. The items she made were treasured and handed down from one generation to the next. The nomadic weavers of tribal rugs were self-sufficient in materials -- sheep's wool and goat's hair -- and the looms on which they wove their rugs and trappings were simple, horizontal and portable."

Most of these traditions were suppressed or exhausted by the beginning of the 20th century, as migration patterns were disrupted, nomadic tribes forcibly settled and villages swelled into towns and cities.

Tribal rugs were not made for a market but for the direct use -- either everyday or ceremonial -- of the weaver and her family. In the urban workshops that produced more sophisticated rugs, the labour was divided among workers who specialised in different functions: designing, dyeing, weaving. Among the makers of tribal rugs, by contrast, there was no division of labour, and no cartoons were used. The designs, charged with symbolism, were committed to memory by the weaver or simply based on earlier rugs. They tended to be geometric, in contrast to the workshop rugs, which developed intricate curvilinear patterns.

Of course, all these generalisations tend to be complicated by historical and geographical nuances, and now is not the time to delve into them. What is interesting, especially in the context of the Arts of Islam exhibition still showing at the AGNSW, is the link to Islam.

Here again there are many nuances. The notion that the aesthetic principles behind tribal rugs are purely Islamic, for instance, is quite wrong. Many of the designs and motifs in these rugs predate the arrival of Islam, and instead either relate to flowers, trees, livestock and birds or else follow a tradition of purely abstract pattern-making. Yet, over time, Muslim beliefs influenced and incorporated elements from the cultures converted to Islam. Increasingly, rugs were created for prayer and other religious purposes. Islamic aesthetic logic came to the fore. Nonetheless, the idea that single imperfections were deliberately included in otherwise perfectly symmetrical designs in deference to Allah, who alone is perfect, is a colourful misconception. The rugs sold by the Langlands are full of imperfections and asymmetries, and these very often enhance their visual appeal.

Consider the flat-woven sumak carpet from the Caucasus in their present show. The design consists of large, flattened octagons, one green and two blue, flanked by yellow ground octagons. Complicating the overall symmetry are many small motifs deployed more or less at random. As Langlands says, "You can look at it for years and keep finding new things."

Overwhelmingly, Australians who like art buy work by Australians. Our idea of art tends to be confined to the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and it rarely extends beyond the mediums of painting, sculpture and photography.

But is it necessary to define art so narrowly?

The idea that art might represent a wider inheritance -- that it might take in other cultures, other centuries, other forms, each with its own rich tradition -- is easy enough to grasp in the abstract. But if you are unexposed to objects representing the best of these other possibilities, it remains just an idea.

Places such as Nomadic Rug Traders do their best to convert the vaguely grasped notion into a tangible reality. They are dealers, like any commercial art gallery. But they also do the hard work of sourcing, researching and sometimes restoring objects that can be rare, fragile and of complex origin. They play an important role in educating people. But perhaps best of all -- and this goes for all serious dealers in beautiful objects -- there is an element of risk, of adventure and surprise in what they do, which keeps them on their toes and banishes illusions, all of which is terrifically stimulating.

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