Under Penalty of Law
by Henry Martin
Now seven years later, this initial curiosity has proved to be the motor of a vast and surprising undertaking. How many labels the artist has collected is something she finds it hard to guess. She’s not even sure, despite the invention of several systems for counting them, of the number of labels she has actually drawn into her work, sewing them (mainly by hand) into panels on cloth backings. And she remains surprised by the depth and breadth of participation that her labels project inspired in others. Labels have arrived from friends and friends of friends, as well as from their children, who have also rounded them up from schoolmates. They’ve been sent by mail and sometimes garnered in chocolate boxes for delivery as a Christmas or birthday present. Total strangers have been stopped in restaurants and opera houses and asked to surrender conspicuous labels (labels are often more conspicuous than one might at first suspect) to impromptu, self-appointed label hunters who duly passed them along. Labels have been collected at poetry readings, rock concerts and the openings of exhibitions, and in at least one case at an ad hoc rave (as a kind of party game when refreshments had sufficiently flowed) and have arrived from as far away as Islamabad, Moscow and Mexico City (the rave was in Zurich) not to mention all points of Italy, France, the United States and Germany. Bankers have removed their shirts at business lunches. Women from farming communities have proved particularly helpful, unstitching labels from clothes that they and their neighbors have collected for donation to relief operations on the part of international charities. Small-time artisans who counterfeit labels were discovered in the souk in Marrakech. The artist and her flock of faithful helpers have also pioneered a certain degree of sociological insight: they’ve learned, for example, that men are often less willing than women to allow their labels to be removed, and that children, though generous, often feel that giving up a label is something they have to be paid for.
What Berty Skuber has done with these labels makes various kinds of sense. Simply looking at labels and collecting them was inspired by the feeling of having discovered a vast, unexpected and often ironic world of invention and creativity, and of everything else that goes along with them: aesthetic assumptions and personal tastes; the love of the modern and the longing for tradition; naïve fun and vain snobbery. It can only be sobering–a kind of caveat–for an artist to discover such a parallel world of images–such a wealth of imagination–with such subsidiary social functions, and yet with so few doubts about itself. It’s important too that the artist decided early on that she’d only work with embroidered labels, and not with printed ones: they embody a whole different level of care and attention, with bright and subtle colors, clear design, meticulous facture and a lavish outlay of technological expertise. As she collected them she also sorted them, as though with a speculative, scientific eye, at first arbitrarily dividing them up into the red ones, the blue ones, the green ones, the ones in black and white (by far the great majority) and the various other colors. Then, as the collection grew, the possible terms grew wider: the ones with animals, the ones with flowers, the ones with figures of human beings, the ones that make use of the words "blue" or "green." The ones with boats, or landscapes, or centered on curious expressions ("Mikado," "protesta," "fata morgana"), the ones which are only a first name, the ones that make use of place names, the ones that seemed most bizarre. And the various groups, treated like free-form jigsaw puzzles, were finally composed and sewn into solid fields of interlocking squares and rectangles.
On first beginning these panels of labels, Berty Skuber thought to make four of them. But as time went by, they grew to seven, and she decided on a total of nine: a square of three by three. But nine became sixteen, sixteen then twenty-five, and now, finally, thirty-six. Potentially a square about ten feet tall and ten feet wide, a hundred square feet of labels which as individuals show an average size of hardly two square inches. Or all in row, a series of panels that develops to the length of something like sixty feet: a vast, joyous, but finally detached and impersonal frieze–potentially endless–of words and images that originally intended to insist on themselves as proofs and agents of singularity.
Berty Skuber’s recent New York exhibition took place at the Emily Harvey gallery. The show is now scheduled to travel to Germany in January/February, and to Venice in April/May. Some of the work will also be included at an exhibition at Stony Brook in March.
Henry Martin is an art critic, writer based in Bolzano, Italy. He has written a dozen books about art including Why Duchamp with Gianfranco Baruchello (McPhereson & Company) and major works on Adami, George Brecht, and Arman. Email: email@example.com