Deborah Margo's Topographies weave matter with memory

Saturday, March 16, 2013




Topographies: Matter and Memory


Exhibition essay by Randy Innes  /  Images by Tom Evans courtesy the artist




On show at Ottawa's Patrick Mikhail Gallery until March 23, Topographies is a series of six knitted works that consider the experience of place, the work of memory and remembrance, and the sensory potential of texture, colour and the hand-crafted object. These works are visual records of Margo’s recent travels through Europe.


Knitting occupies the hands; the material qualities of wool evoke the sense of touch and suggest the personal connection and care associated with the hand-made scarf or sweater. Margo turned to knitting during her travels both as a way of passing time and as a way of weaving time and experience together into a visual, material form. Time and touch are deposited into each stitch, establishing a connection between the viewer’s apprehension of the works, Margo’s experience of knitting, and the impressions and experiences that inspired this project. The desire to establish connections between materials, work and visual experience that we find in Topographies is central to Margo’s practice more broadly.


If the time and touch of the artist are deposited in these objects, so too are the places they reference. The name the artist has given to each piece is a place-holder, a toponym (i.e., a place name) that designates her presence and experience there. Topographies is, in this way, a visual journaling exercise, a graphic inscription and visual narration of Margo’s experience of place through knitting, a practice that, like writing and weaving, follows a linear unfolding in time and space.

Detail of Climbing Montjuic


The word text shares a connection with the word weave, and just as the written word invites us to negotiate text, reading and imagination, Topographies invites us into the play that occurs between the patterns of individual stitches, the impression of the finished object, and the work of reading and interpretation.


The works in Topographies are episodic impressions rather than precise records. At the Alhambra, Walking Prague’s Sidewalks, and Climbing Montjuic, for example, name specific locations and evoke specific events. Margo’s knitted works offer fragmentary impressions of place—impressions that arose first in the artist and that are transmitted now to the viewer through the colours and textures of wool and the patterns of stitches.


Each impression has the effect of a snapshot, establishing a connection with experience and place. Material is central to this snapshot: the wool used in Topographies was selected and purchased at the places named in the works. The geometrical patterns in At the Alhambra are made with wool bought in the Andalusian capital. The colours of Moorish tilework guide Margo’s choice of wool colour here, just as the aquamarines of Venice’s canals and the earth tones of Siena direct her selection in Italian Diamonds. And Walking Prague’s Sidewalks is a warm and inviting exploration of the colours and textures of old cobblestone walkways along which the artist collected these very materials.

At the Alhambra (left) and The Colour of Beginnings


Margo’s response to the material quality of these works extends beyond texture and colour to include a concern for how knitted wool might occupy space and produce an effect for the viewer. Knitted wools have their own properties, and different wools behave differently. In Topographies each piece hangs and unfolds according to the disposition of each stitch and in response to the wool Margo used. Curling, binding, and bunching contribute to the sense that these works are exploring the properties of wool. Yet Topographies also refers to the qualities of specific experiences and impressions. Margo’s use of materials is never relegated to the cold arguments of minimalism but remains tied to the intimacy of experience and the work of memory.


The Colour of Waiting marks a shift from works that initiate a dynamic evocation of place, to an experience of place as static or dull. Travel is often punctuated with a suspended or expanded sense of time. In this piece Margo gives life to the experience of a grey, drab international airport whose efficiency had been further encumbered by labour strikes. Warm grey wools mitigate the paralyzing experience of waiting on cold, hard airport chairs.

The Colour of Waiting


Like a loose end with a special significance, a gesture trails off from the end of The Colour of Waiting, a thread of memory or experience that remains tied to a stone that Margo collected on a Spanish beach. The memorial distinctness of this touchstone—the intervention of the specific in the general—along with the inviting textures of The Colour of Waiting remind us of the dependence that travel has on the dehumanizing experience of transportation. Similarly, in Climbing Montjuic the figurative evocation of this Catalonian landmark trails off into the indifferent potential of a rolled up ball of wool.


Topographies points to recent travels and personal experiences—and to an only slightly more distant European past that the artist remains concerned with and connected to. Yet the series also points forward, like an album of family photographs or a travel narrative, to the promise of a future time of recollection and legibility. Topographies weaves together the time of presence in place, the work of memory and remembrance, and the immediacy of experience, into an affective and evocative installation. It will take some work for us to get from here to there, and the experience of this journey is central to Margo’s Topographies.



Deborah Margo will deliver an artist talk at the gallery on Sunday, March 17 at 2 p.m.