Seth Siegelaub cuts a rare and anachronistic figure – a modern-day polymath who has, over the course of 50 years, been a gallerist-impresario, publisher, bibliographer and collector. Textiles, and specifically their written history, have been an enduring interest of his since the 1960s, and – under the moniker of the Centre for Social Research on Old Textiles (CSROT) – he has been amassing a library of objects and books in earnest for close to 30 years. ‘The Stuff That Matters: Textiles Collected by Seth Siegelaub for the CSROT’ comprised 200 artefacts from this collection of 650 antique textiles and 7,000 books on the subject, themselves catalogued in a vast bibliography he published in 1997 as the Bibliographica Textilia Historiae.
Siegelaub and the exhibition’s curators – Sara Martinetti, Alice Motard and Raven Row director Alex Sainsbury – grouped the textiles with bibliographic fastidiousness by period or function. The overall design of the exhibition was the work of 6a Architects, who created expansive white cases and other elegant parerga, yet there was a vivid sense of Siegelaub’s personal engagement with his subject, both through the yellowed pages bearing his handwritten notes and sketches, and the printed annotations throughout. The woven artefacts were interspersed with excerpts from books that cast light on their manifold commercial contexts, methods of facture and cultural statuses – background became foreground. Eighteenth-century floral silks were, for example, laid alongside tracts like John W. Parker’s The Useful Arts Employed in the Production of Clothing (1851), whose diagram showing ‘the hats of our ancestors’ found a parallel in a nearby gallery of tribal headdresses from Africa, Asia and Oceania.
The exhibition focused on the role of the fragmentary textiles and texts as evocative metonyms, standing for irretrievable places and times. A host of specialist terms peppered the labels, for which a glossary was provided: chasubles (i.e. liturgical vestments) ‘in silk damasks and passementerie’ were hung in a row, suggestive of the wardrobe of chivalric knights. The abundance of fabrics began to resemble a dandified cornucopia, similar to the fineries imagined by Oscar Wilde as belonging to Dorian Gray – indeed, Wilde more or less lifted these descriptions from books like those Siegelaub has collected. If Dorian’s love for objects was that of the aesthete, Siegelaub’s project is determinedly one of setting textiles in historical context (the collection itself sprung from the wider project of the bibliography). In the catalogue, he tartly observes that textile collecting for its own sake is as ‘bourgeois and “apolitical” as you can imagine’.
The staging of this show in Raven Row reflects Siegelaub’s intellectual eclecticism: his own short-lived gallery in 1960s New York dealt in oriental rugs alongside conceptual art and, as Clare Browne (textiles curator at the V&A) relates in her catalogue essay, the exhibition invokes the history of Spitalfields. The gallery building, which is located in this area, once housed silk merchants’ shops, and the surrounding neighbourhood was the heart of Britain’s silk trade. Moreover, Siegelaub’s meticulous archiving demonstrates a serial attitude akin to the methodology of the conceptual artists he championed in the late 1960s. It further recalls his use of the printed page as an exhibition site in now-legendary projects such as the Xerox Book (1968), for which seven artists (including Carl Andre, Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner) were invited to contribute a work in the form of 25 consecutive pages reproduced by photocopier; an equivalent ‘catalogue-exhibition’ comprising writing by six critics was published in a 1970 edition of Studio International. Despite Siegelaub’s departure from the art world in 1972, which has become a biographical cliché akin to Marcel Duchamp’s abandonment of art for chess, his subsequent enterprises (which include a database of literature on Marxist and socalist writing) remain philosophically affiliated with Conceptualism.
Just as in conceptual art, objects themselves are rarely the whole story, referring to actions beyond themselves, the textiles and books in ‘The Stuff That Matters’ succeed in presenting indexical slices – poignantly abbreviated glimpses – of other societies. These mass together into a collective cultural record or what the classicist Charles Segal, with regard to myth, memorably describes as a cumulative ‘megatext’.