Last December, we were invited by the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) to join participants in working on David Medalla’s artwork A Stitch in Time, at a block party organised by the Pek Kio Community Centre. Partygoers were invited to contribute their personal articles to be sewn onto a giant piece of cloth which had been sent to Singapore by Medalla. The completed Stitch in Time will be on display at the NGS from 19 January, as part of this year’s Light to Night Festival.
(You might be aware that Medalla is especially famous for his kinetic sculptures and bubble machines one of which, the Cloud Canyons, is presently on display in the NGS in its UOB Southeast Asia Galleries):
Before we go into the details of the block party, let’s talk a little about the new work itself.
A Stitch in Time was first conceived by David Medalla in 1967, based on gifts that he had created for his lovers. The said lovers were embarking on travels and Medalla gave each a handkerchief with a message of love embroidered on it. He then told his lovers to add to the embroidery on the handkerchieves and to sew onto them other articles of meaning and significance, perhaps as a way to kill time while waiting at airports.
The story goes that many years later, after he had lost touch with his lovers, Medalla chanced upon a young man at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. This fellow had with him “a long column of cloth.. like a long pillow,” with various bits and bobs sewn onto it. When asked, the man told Medalla that he’d been given the cloth by a person in Bali who told him to keep it and to continue to stitch things onto the piece.
Apparently, when Medalla scrutinised the young man’s piece of cloth further, he was shocked to see his own original handkerchief and message of embroidery which had been executed years and years before. The artist said nothing about his own involvement in the item, observing instead that “the column of cloth (had) started as (his) stitch in time.”
Thus, the inspiration for A Stitch in Time was born, and the artwork has since been re-made several times, having been displayed in Documenta 5 curated by Harald Szeemann in Kassel, Germany, and the Gallery House in London in the exhibition A Survey of the Avant-Garde in Britain, curated by Sigi Krauss and Rosetta Brooks (both in 1972). More details about the history of the work and Medalla’s practice in general can be found here.
The artist has commented that the work has been successfully translated in different contexts. On a broad level, it is both public and private. Medalla says:
“The thing I like best about this work is that whenever anyone is involved in the act of stitching, he or she is inside his or her own private space, even though the act of stitching might occur in a public place.”
Can a single piece of cloth successfully unite disparate and inharmonious personal articles? It seems that there would be very little aesthetic concord amongst the various physical objects and styles of embroidery- but what of conceptual coherence?
Let’s see how the artwork has evolved in a Singapore context:
We met Mr Razali and Mdm Mariam, a couple who attended the Pek Kio block party not so much to sew their own articles to the cloth, but to help other participants with the sewing.
“I just like sewing, I didn’t bring anything to add to the piece. I just brought myself and my husband to help with the sewing, ” said Mdm Mariam.
At which point Mr Razali quipped, “yes she is very good at sewing, she can make good baju kurung!”
Our conversation with the couple highlighted another aspect of this event, one which had initially gone unnoticed by us – the fact that the block party had been billed as a “Christmas event.”
Said Mdm Mariam:
“Although this is a Christmas event, and I am Muslim, I volunteered because it is (our) community, and an event like this helps us to get closer to one another.”
While there is much to be said about the state of racial integration in Singapore, we’d like to highlight the fact that Mdm Mariam’s comment came totally unsolicited. Make of that what you will, but her unfettered, sincere response certainly made us feel that true multiculturalism is perhaps not as distant a goal as it sometimes seems to be.
We also met the charming Soi Soi, a resident in the only block of rental flats in the area, who won us over with her naughty chuckles and funky bright gold fingernails. She told us:
“The Hello Kitty (piece) is my grandson’s, and I’m here because I wanted to just help with the sewing.”
Mdm Geraldine Ho, a volunteer from the Moulmein- Farrer Park Resident’s Committee contributed a photograph from the first open-air carpark movie screening organised in August 2017 for the community:
“We prayed that it wouldn’t rain and so this photograph is a symbol of a happy memory that we have. We screened Kung Fu Panda 3 and residents have been asking when we are going to do this event again because it all went so well.”
So what could we take away from Singapore’s attempt to create its own version of A Stitch In Time?
Given that the sewing was conducted at a community centre block party, the event took on a decidedly “official” flavour. A good number of articles tended to be objects relating to volunteers’ activities such as photos of constituency events, and artefacts related to government initiatives, such as the plastic flowers which had been made for SG50.
Perhaps this was just a natural extension of the environment in which Medalla’s cloth was placed? Rodney Lim, a volunteer with the Moulmein-Cairnhill Constituency who contributed a polaroid of his daughters to the artwork, had this to say:
“The block party is an effective tool to obtain community engagement with the artworks. The organisers know the residents well and all three Residents’ Committees in this area are involved i.e. Owen, Farrer Park and Tekka. (The turn out is also good because) it’s a year-end Christmas event.”
It would be tempting to conclude that the artwork was foisted upon residents who simply took part in the sewing because they were told to do so, and who lacked the originality to contribute anything truly personal. However, to do so would be to impose a level of artifice on the event which – in our view – was simply absent.
See for yourself:
It was abundantly clear to us that people were having heaps of fun, with a touch of humorously Singaporean pragmatism. (Case in point, Soi Soi and Mdm Mariam, who had attended with the specific purpose of helping others with their sewing, so that the whole system would simply be rendered more efficient).
Let’s also not forget the profusion of children’s paraphernalia, donations which were perhaps the closest of all to people’s hearts. Some folks also felt the need to write long explanations of why their chosen objects were significant to them. Personally, being big fans of museum wall text and clear writing, we appreciated these contributors’ earnest attempts to communicate the value of their respective prized possessions. It is also perhaps worth mentioning that residents were seemingly happy to pay a $5 fee to attend the block party.
A Stitch in Time appears to be a wonderful example of the transmutability of art, of its ability to appeal to and engage with different audiences across different places and times. The Pek Kio Community Centre couldn’t be further away from David Medalla’s 1967 avant-garde artistic sensibilities. Nonetheless, Singaporean participants were still able to engage with the artwork, on their own terms.
The piece we saw in Pek Kio was well- populated through a structured system for obtaining various personal objects and ensuring that they were properly sewn on, (such structure being itself endearingly Singaporean), but this certainly didn’t stop the event from being suffused with genuine warmth and authenticity.
Check out the finished blanket at the NGS, from 19 January.