By Isabella Woldt
Gold is one of the most valuable natural materials taken from the earth. From early childhood we learn to consider and recognize it as precious, a sign of economic wealth. But gold is more than just a material whose value is set to economic markets. Gold is a carrier of cultural values; even more, it is a particularly important carrier of cultural knowledge. Both aspects, its material and cultural value, are reasons for the use of gold in the production of art objects, for instance statues, decorative elements in architecture, in paintings, and not least in textile art, especially in the manufacturing of tapestries.
In the numerous mainly sacred works of early Christian Western and Byzantine art gold, fixed as gold leaf to the surface of the work, related to the celestial kingdom in illustrated sacred stories.
In contrast, the gold in a tapestry was woven as gold thread immediately into the work, connected intimately to the other threads used:
“The earliest metal threads were thin strips of gold, which were cut from a beaten metal foil and directly woven or embroided into textiles. Later these strips were wound around a fibrous core; this would introduce more flexibility to the thread and make its uses more versatile. The core fibres were usually silk, dyed according to the colour of the metal wrapping, e. g. yellow or red for gold threads, undyed white silk for silver threads.“[i]
In this form cultural knowledge is stored, preserved and, indeed, transported, in the tapestry. The textile structure of tapestry allows it to be relatively easy rolled up or folded, whereby it could be used on various occasions in cultural ceremonial life (courtly, religious and private/secular). Tapestries were therefore among the most mobile, elaborate and representative art objects in the early modern era in Europe.
Gold threads along with the other threads like silk, wool or silver condense cultural information through the intensive process of weaving, which creates a close relationship between maker, object and user. The story depicted is transposed into the interior of the work, because the metal threads are woven directly into the material, either, as above, as narrow strips or wrapped around a base core, namely silk. The gold threads are wound and create an immediate togetherness with the other natural products of the earth – wool and silk. And the tapestry itself creates a repository for the cultural content of its time.
In medieval works gold as a colour certainly presented a material value, but in the first instance it symbolized the sphere of the afterlife or divine as opposed to the physical world. In the early modern period the utilisation of gold in tapestry manufacturing developed in addition a strong aesthetic value. The gold in the tapestry was still a sign of wealth, but it was also used for aesthetic and artistic purposes, to give the composition presented a deep shine, for example, or to emphasise shadows. But in addition, through the unique resistance of gold as a material, which is directly linked in textile manufacturing, to other threads, a cultural memory track was directly constructed into the work, not only preserved in the materiality of the work, but also transported to different places because of the special characteristic mobility of tapestry as a medium.
The architect and artist Aram Mooradian examines and visualizes in his Atlas of Gold how the unique nature and cultural and material value of gold also acts in conjunction with other cultural artefacts as a knowledge repository. In his “Comprehensive Atlas of Gold Fictions and Other Stories” (2011) the author investigates the development of the importance of gold as a material for the formation of cultural memory. He based his work on the analysis of the Aboriginal cultural area against the background of gold mining in indigenous regions in Australia.
The Atlas can be conceived as a work constructed in the tradition of scientific and historical atlases, aesthetically shaped, like Aby M. Warburg’s Atlas “Mnemosyne”. Warburg called his Atlas an inventory. On numerous screens and picture series the Atlas collects and visualizes the function of the particular pictorial forms of expression already pre-shaped in ancient times, in order to investigate the function of the human cultural memory:
“Er <Die ,Mnemosyne’> will in seiner bildmaterialen Grundlage zunächst nur ein Inventar sein der antikisierenden Vorprägungen, die auf die Darstellung des bewegten Lebens im Zeitalter der Renaissance mitstilbildend einwirkten”[ii]
The identification and understanding of the constellation of those more than 70 screens in the “Mnemosyne” Atlas as well as the individual relation of particular objects to each other on the individual screens remains a challenge for the recipient. The interpretation of each panel will always be a subjective journey, as Warburg did not leave an exact description or explanation for “reading” the Atlas. Those landscapes are like maps of the collective memory, which were constituted by the works and their relations, as presented on the screens.
Mooradian’s Atlas is no less a conceptual solution. The author pursued the impact of the gold industry on the landscape and the culture of Australian Aboriginal groups. Destroying the landscape and surroundings in Aboriginal areas damaged an important part of the native culture of memory, namely the original song areas (called songlines or dreaming tracks) of the Aboriginal people. These songlines are a crucial point of aboriginal world orientation, because the lines are directly linked with the natural landscape, with marks on the earth. But on the other hand the extracted gold includes this information in itself and becomes a store of content linked to the aboriginal indigenous culture.
Mooradian concerns himself here with the topographical distension of the production process and its cultural input. But his goal is also to observe the transformation of the material. Leaving its place of origin as a gold bar, gold is then displaced to faraway places where it is transformed for other purposes. It receives in this transformed form content and information preserved within it, making itself a sharer of an essential cultural memory. While gold threads that have been woven into a tapestry became the repositories of cultural information, in the case of the Atlas of Gold and the cultural history of the Aborigines, the gold also becomes the custodian of a lost language, because the natural landscape marks have been changed by the gold industry:
“A suicide note is inscribed on a single gold bullet, the sound of a grandmother’s laughter is encoded into an heirloom necklace and the dying languages of Australia’s indigenous culture are recorded onto the gold bars dug out of the very ground of their homeland “.[iii]
Moreover, gold used as part of the manufacture of a SIM-card literally becomes an information store. And it is the gold part of an implant in person’s eye, or in other medical prosthesies, which carries information on the personal medical history of the patient, stores and preserves it. Gold in an early modern tapestry, as in these modern artefacts, acts as repository of knowledge, as a memory trace of a culture, a memory track.
The Mooradian Atlas is currently on display at Victoria & Albert Museum as a part of the exhibition “What is Luxury?” (25th April-27th September 2015)
[i] A. M. Hacke, C. M. Carr, A. Brown: Characterisation of Metal Threads in Renaissance Tapestries, in: R. Janaway, P. Wyeth (Eds): Scientific Analysis of Ancient and Historic Textiles: Informing Preservation, Display and Interpretation, Archetype Publications 2007, pp 71-78.
[ii] Aby M. Warburg, Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (Einleitung), in: Aby Warburg. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. II.1, ed. by Martin Warnke, Berlin, p. 3.