by Shane Lange:
Embroidery isn’t traditionally recognized as an art form of dissent and empowerment but under the deft fingers of artist Tracey Roberts, a dark narrative emerges to unravel the neat threads of history.
One may think of the craft as a quaint, innocent preoccupation given its idyllic image in popular culture, but Vestitches is an ongoing project of darkly themed, handcrafted embroidery that doesn’t pull any punches. Cutting to the heart of “civilized” culture Roberts interrogates authority’s dependency on coercion, through a series of meticulous hand-stitched reproductions of historic woodcuts and contemporary photos, which depict scenes of torture and challenge our assumptions about power. She acknowledges that this is difficult, thought-provoking work: “There have been a few people who are repulsed by the subject matter, I can understand why they wouldn’t be the type of thing everyone would be comfortable with hanging in their homes.” (Nevertheless, Roberts’ work has received significant recognition, most notably via a solo exhibition at Hollywood’s Museum of Death.)
Mass-produced embroidery has been a common decorative element of commercially available fabrics since the Industrial Revolution. Often depicting quaint floral patterns and geometric motifs, the contemporary commercial embroidery with which most people are familiar is generated by fabric-mapping software and precision machinery; the Vestitches works, by contrast, are the result of meticulous hand-stitching. “I think it humanizes them,” says Roberts, “which makes the torture tapestries all the more intense.”
The serious challenges her work poses to our assumptions about power and authority is offset by her day job at a special effects company in the film industry. “It runs the gamut from making movie monsters, super hero suits for movies like Iron Man, and this last week I was working on a full size ostrich one day and a lamb puppet the next. It does keep things interesting.”
She notes that her approach to art has always maintained a practical element. “As a child I was always very inquisitive. I remember opening up my dad’s broken drill which he was going to get repaired, it worked by the time I got through with it luckily. I was always hands-on and finding things to make out of scraps around the house. I had all kinds of projects on the go, from embroidery to model kits. I always seemed to gravitate back to stitching. Pretty typical subject matter back then though, portrait of the dog stuff like that. I’ve also worked a fair amount with photoshop both professionally and for fun and collaborated on almost all of the Lustmord albums up until now.” (Lustmord is the musical alter ego for Roberts’ husband, electronic musician and producer Brian Williams, whose dark ambient soundscapes have been unsettling listeners for over 30 years.) Not only has Roberts provided graphic work for Lustmord releases, one of her embroideries adorns the cover of his album Songs of Gods and Demons, a collection of various works from 1994-2007.)
“I hadn’t really picked up a needle and thread in years and I felt the urge again about nine or ten years ago,” says Roberts. “I’ve always had an interest in the matter of torture and our ability to inflict such grotesque misery upon each other. These two things seemed to throw themselves at each other and concocted a bizarre juxtaposition that really appealed to me. I have a significant collection of old books that deal with this as well as all kinds of other related subjects and I was able to mine these for inspiration.”
Although mainly drawing on historic woodcuts documenting Inquisition-era torture techniques, Roberts’ incorporation of contemporary torture images helps to bridge the gap between the Western world’s dark past and its ostensibly enlightened present. “It simply reveals that fundamentally, we haven’t changed. I created the “Abu Ghraib” image and the two water torture images, both modern and mediaeval to demonstrate exactly how little we have evolved.”
Historically the use of torture has always been sanctioned against those whom a society fears most. During the Middle Ages in Europe, the systematic persecution of women accused of witchcraft was implemented under the aegis of partriarchal authority. “Sadly, a large proportion (of women) found, and still find themselves, under the edict of men who feel so threatened that they need to empower themselves by intimidating the female population. They feel that women need to be kept in their place, and subservient. It’s a mystery to me why they live in fear of the so-called weaker sex. Many women’s lives are squashed by their rules and regulations, usually based on religious tracts. It’s all pretty self defeating.”
Although important advances concerning human rights and equality have been made in the modern era, Western society remains linked to its barbarous past through its continued dependence on torture as a means of control. Asked whether or not civilization can persist without it, Roberts has mixed feelings. “I’d like to think so but it’s pretty unlikely, don’t you think? We may have named the 1800′s as our age of enlightenment but unfortunately the philosophers failed to cast their influence very widely. I think we are still working on it. People en masse have traditionally been controlled by fear, it’s easy and convenient, that probably won’t go away too soon. Just look at the headlines.”
Roberts observes that, while power is not always exercised judiciously, maintaining order in any society is a complicated moral dilemma. “I don’t believe in torture and I wouldn’t be able to commit such an act on any other human or animal. Having said that, I’ll be honest enough to admit that under certain circumstances I would be able to justify forcing information out of someone by violent means. It’s an unpleasant admission but I think most of us would be willing to cause harm to another human to save what we would consider innocents. It’s a sticky subject and it is a slippery and very grey slope. Unfortunately powerful entities, political and religious, can easily find a means to provide a rationale for such actions.”
The tapestries are only one of Roberts’ projects, she says. “I have plenty of ideas for Vestitches, and a few concepts waiting to be developed as and when I get the time, including civil war surgery, memento mori and a “Here be Monsters” theme. Ideas are easy and they’re just waiting for me to execute them (pun intended). And, of course, there will always be more torture tapestries.”
Vestitches torture tapestries are currently on display at California’s Copro Gallery in Santa Monica, as part of the Conjoined III show. “Chet Zar, who is a fantastic artist, has been curating the group show Conjoined for the past 3 years and this was my second appearance. He gathers an amazing collection of very talented and twisted artists and I’m honored to be included amongst them.” The show runs until February 9.
This interview is part of DarkMedia’s official Women in Horror Recognition Month coverage! Stay tuned for more interviews, articles, and special features, right here on DarkMedia.com.