Textile Semantics

Manolo Millares
Textile semantics

Elena Sorokina, co-curator of the exhibition



“Imagination is not, as it is sometimes thought, the ability to invent; it is the capacity to disclose that which exists.”
John Berger

Manolo Millares died untimely, he was only 46 in 1972. Two years before his death, he created the video film “Millares 1970”, in collaboration with his wife Elvireta Escobio. This short video is a meditation on violence, on scars on the skin and on the Earth’s surface. Trenches were often described as scars running across the Earth, and in “Millares 1970”, the artist walks along the trenches left by the Spanish Civil War, near the Jarama River, not far from Madrid. Interspersed with this wounded landscape images are historical photographs from World War II —corpses of victims and disciplined “modern” bodies of perpetrators. Blended with these hard to watch war images, we see the artist’s own body walking through a landscape scarred by war. And there is also his body in action, his body at work. We see the artist in the intimacy of his studio, we glance at his artistic process: cutting and stabbing the burlap for his paintings, splashing and pouring paint over them, producing his canvases, “severely deformed but vigorously alive.”

However, there is something else in the film that caught my attention. For long minutes, Millares stitches up his canvases and the camera follows his hands. It comes as surprise. His work is often described by metaphors of wounds, holes, violent ruptures, ripping and tearing apart, while stitching up —also as part of the same process— is rarely mentioned or discussed. Thus, surprised and fascinated, we watch him perform classical gestures of sewing and stitching up: his hands hold pieces of burlap together and a big needle pierces them with precision. Millares carries out this ancient gesture located at the crossroads of art, philosophy and care; his needle is used to repair damage, and his “sewing” becomes part of his work, functioning almost like an idiomatic expression, like “dripping” or “action painting.”

Reparation is a modest operation often erased from the objects, and, in theory, made to remain invisible. Not so in Millares’s paintings. Mending is meant here to be visible, tangible or, even more, to be shown. Like trenches ploughing the Earth’s surface, scars and suture scar the skin of Millares’s canvases. These stitches suggest an uncomfortable proximity to the terrible; the same intimacy the artist himself had as he made them.

I would like to look at Millares’s work through this ongoing process of violence and repair, borrowing reflections on “reparation” or “repair” from the artist Kader Attia (b.1970). Attia’s research on the ontological status of repaired objects establishes “repair” as a universal principle, restorative and transformative at once, seen as an ethical and aesthetic act, “a site of a relational operation that mobilises the evolution of nature, culture, and being.” “We spent our social and intimate existence repairing, a word that heals is a tissue that repairs itself… Reparation becomes a collective endeavour when, after a defeat or a natural disaster we must urgently repair battered societies” . If we look closely at our own bodies, we find that we too become reproductions of ourselves over time. DNA provides the blueprint for the new cells, which replace the old cells, and, at an even smaller scale, molecules and atoms come and go from our bodies.

Visually, Kader Attia develops a comparison between the surgically reconstructed faces of war veterans of the World War I, (which introduced the massive trench warfare) and fractured African fetishes and masks. Shown at the dOCUMENTA13, “The Repair” was “an essay in comparative aesthetics written from the vantage point of the wretched on theWest.” Attia walked the spectator through a gallery of scars on objects and faces, disfigured soldiers of WW I, masks and objects preserved through visible stitches and sutures, relics of the horrific events they had silently witnessed.



In Millares’s gesture of “repair”, there is a ferocity at work. He stitches up like a surgeon with strong, raw sutures which convey conflict, pain and doubt. At the same time, the magic power of the needle and the gesture of sewing is intact. Millares is staging a dialectic of destruction and healing, both in the emotional and the historical sense. He is, perhaps, trying to “sew the world together”, not unlike the Italian artist Maria Lai (1919-2013), in whose work the technique and instruments of weaving are transformed into a formal language, becoming a poetic attempt to recreate a bond between an archaic past and the present. Historically, thread, fibre, cloth, fabric —at once commonplace and indispensable— attract a wide array of myth and metaphor: threads suggest the precariousness of human existence. “Life hangs not only by a thread but also makes connections through stitching disparate entities together, so in Hindu cosmology, a sutra or thread links the material and spiritual realms. The ancient Greeks believed that life took the form of a mystic thread, and that the three Moirai, or Fates, spun, measured, and cut it.” Millares’s world sewn together with threads, however, gets ripped apart again and again; in his canvases, violence and reparation become a never-ending process.


There is another thing we “see” through the eye of the camera, through the close-ups on the compositions tortured and repaired by Millares’s hands. It is the sackcloth, or burlap. Burlap builds the first layer of Millares’s palimpsests, it carries the splashes of colour, the wounds, and the stitches. Taken as a “cultural signifier,” the burlap is metaphorically charged and can go far beyond a mere “poor material”. For the artist, it might function as a bank of memory and experience that is personal and intimate, emotional and historical at the same time. Usually made of fibres of jute, flax or hemp, burlap was used to manufacture military uniforms, as well as all the packagings of the “first globalisation”, be it for coffee or sugar, and then repurposed as slave clothing. Millares, too, frequently obtained his burlap from sugar sacks. Roughly torn and pulled taut, the burlap of his paintings also recalls the vegetable fibres used by the pre-Hispanic culture of Guanches to enshroud their dead. Guanches mummies wrapped in burlap-like textiles are almost all we have left from their culture, the first to be completely erased by European colonisation, its people exterminated, its language wiped out. “…In a broken and colonised society we repair at every turn” – writes historian Serge Gruzinski in Kader Attia’s catalogue.

Textile metaphors abound today, they are often used to elaborate new meanings, offering a blueprint for thinking about interconnectivity or non-hierarchical structures – the tangle of textile metaphor complicates any easy opposition between theoretical positions. In his essay Textile Art – Who are You?, cultural theorist Sarat Maharaj elaborates on this through a key term from Derrida’s thinking: “An ‘undecidable’ —as Derrida puts it—, is something that seems to belong to one genre but overshoots its border and seems no less at home in another. Belongs to both, we might say, by not belonging to either.” Roland Barthes draws an analogy between text and textiles, declaring that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” , and, most importantly for us, sees history as a text. “Textile” metaphor undermines linear history, reinterpreting history as an ongoing open negotiation of multiple non-linear narratives. Postcolonial theory, for instance, has made it one of its goals to deconstruct and rewrite Western linearities and certitudes regarding ideas on subjectivity, progress, freedom and the meaning of history as such.

Millares’s work has long been locked in the art history of the 20th century and its linearities, currently in “repair”. Some of the recent exhibitions, such as “Postwar – Art between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965”, or “Art in Europe 1945-1968”, at the Centre for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe (ZKM), attempt to shift from a Western/European vantage point to redirect attention to a multifocal and polyphonic history of art since 1945. Both trace the history of art in the whole of Europe retrospectively, “Postwar” with a global ambition “to understand the complex legacies of artistic practice and art historical discourses that emerged globally in the aftermath of World War II’s devastation” . The “Art in Europe 1945-1968” exhibition, which includes work by Millares, bypasses the abstraction/figuration dichotomies of the Cold War, highlighting “artistic and political perspectives, which were forward-looking in contradictory ways.”

Millares had a deep and acute sense of history, including art history, and his double belonging to the Western and non-Western worlds connects him to today’s inquiries into history as a network of limitless interrelations, in which uncertainty plays an important role, while openness and indeterminacy are seen as true possibilities for the production of history. It seems as though Millares had always been aware of what Walter Benjamin wrote, that “the present is composed of manifold irreconcilable states, that every actual thing is a concrete unity of opposed determinations.” And what he certainly embraced and communicated through his paintings, is what Yaiza Hernández Velázquez observed: that artists seemed to be better equipped than historians to tell us NOT how things really were, but the way they really felt.