I have always wanted to walk barefoot over one of Carl Andre’s floor pieces. The opportunity has never presented itself and you can’t walk over the lead ones anymore in any case, but just once I’d like to properly feel one, take in its unyielding hardness and to think, for a moment, on my feet. By taking the upright stuff of walls and lying it flat, Andre stripped materials of the anonymity of function, forcing them to speak on their own terms. In her first solo show at Ramiken Crucible, Margaret Weber attempted a similar trick with the most downtrodden of fabrics.
The stark and striking exhibition consisted of three large rectangles of factory-made carpet which had been plucked to varying degrees of their grey, nylon-sleek coats to reveal the translucent mesh of their base layers. This carpet was, in a very literal way, shorn of purpose, no longer able to offer comfort or protection to either foot or floor.
Carpet has always occupied an ambiguous position with regards to function: the elaborate patterning of the world’s oldest surviving example (the Pazyryk carpet, thought to date from around 400 BCE, dug out from a burial mound deep beneath the Siberian ice in the 1940s) is an indication that, from the outset, functionality has been inseparable from an ornamental or aesthetic concern. Historically, carpet has been at home both on the wall and on the floor.
Carpets are knotty things, interwoven histories of silk roads and idealized Orients; cottage industries and female entrepreneurship; global industrialization and, with the invention of the Jacquard loom, one of the earliest precursors to modern computing. Carpets have been telling our stories for nearly 2,500 years – it can’t be a coincidence that we speak of storytelling as ‘spinning a yarn’ – so the decision to use a type that aims at the silence of perfect anonymity is a very particular statement. Synthetic and mass-produced, in a non-committal grey well suited to concealing the residues of human usage, these are threadbare shrouds, tracing the contours of in-between spaces, like hallways and waiting areas, the dead spaces of corporate no-man’s-lands. Weber’s interventions, the gradual thinning of hardwearing density into something slight, just continue the material’s intrinsic attempt at self-effacement.
These works have a pathetic kind of beauty. There is a minor day-to-day tragedy in the fact that infinitely more attention has been paid to these carpets’ unpicking than to their manufacture. Deconstruction has been acted out as a careful and attentive laying to rest, a swansong in cygnet grey, which comments, perhaps, on a society that is constantly eager to consume and quick to throw away. As we were reminded by the smooth polished concrete of the gallery floor beneath, you don’t see carpet so much these days, having fallen foul of the whims of fashion. In its passage from luxury to standard to passé and back again, carpet wavers between efficiency and surplus, redundancy and desire.
Weber does not glance longingly back to the handcrafted or homespun, though neither is any of this new. She seems to delight in the rough sensuality of the synthetic, working it over to soften and loosen, to make it warmer to the touch, and in this she owes much to Eva Hesse, who stretched and probed industrial materials, imperfecting them through the laborious repetition of manual gestures. Though, of course, Andre et al. also knew that hard edges cry for soft hands (or feet). And if Weber’s inversion of Andre’s terms – horizontal for vertical; hard for soft – seems almost too straightforward a game, what better case than his own work for the beauty of simplicity.