TOM ESTES – “Sewing Performance” at Tate Modern

by Tom Estes

The work of artist Tom Estes has been described as “darkly disturbing & hauntingly beautiful”. Photographer, videographer, curator and creator of multi-media performance & installation, artist Tom Estes has been hung, played and performed in a few of the world’s right places and a couple of deliciously wrong ones. Often site specific, interactive or suggestive of a latent performative quality, Estes’ interventions, stealth art and strange attractions seem to infer a surreal wit drawn from early sci-fi and horror films.

In May 2010, Tom Estes staged ‘Sewing Performance’ as a participant in The Really, Really Free Market (RRFM), a 3-day market organized as Post-Museum’s contribution to No Soul for Sale: A Festival of Independents, held in Tate Modern:

“This ‘Sewing Performance’ was intended as a viral extension of a performance created as the culmination of a residency at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The work was conceived in relation to the site of Trinity Buoy Wharf- a place of both extreme poverty and extreme wealth; of crumbling and overgrown Docks, which in recent years have been changed beyond recognition through corporate buildings and private luxury housing developments. In this work I gently embroider images of leaves and vines onto a bespoke or tailor- made suit, causing a dimpling of the material. This sewing has the effect of slowly shriveling the arms and legs of the suit. So in a way the work is really about being powerless in the face of exploitation and is intended to accentuate a core of wordless confusion and emotional dissatisfaction.

There is little recognition that ordinary people are often engaged in practices that are critical and transformative. The problem is that these moments of liberation rarely break out of the confines of obscurity to become an event. So I started to look at activities and routine behaviors that are perceived as socially acceptable and ways of attaching it to a form of performance. In my work I try to give the spectator and the authorities a central role in the process of deconstructing the genealogical discourses and assuming subject positions by examining the cultural artifacts, the ideological character of the surrounding environment, historical events and narratives, as well as a myriad of different perspectives. For example, sewing has a very long tradition as a feminine, typically domestic, even personalized activity but also as a form of community folk art. Sewing also has more recent associations with Feminist Conceptual Art as well as projects such as the AIDS Memorial Quilt. So the idea of a man who sews immediately raises issues of gender, sexuality and identity. While a suit is a complex indicator of social barriers tied to employment status and income, a hand sewn suit is a traditional emblem of masculine authority. To sew images of leaves and vines onto a bespoke suit could be seen as an environmentalist’s symbolic reversal of corporate encroachment but also as the desire for a ‘Return to Nature’ or as a vehicle for demonstrating a movement toward self-knowledge.

I am one of those people who like making jokes or creating gag scenarios to keep myself amused. Humor is an extremely important part of our society and it enjoys a high profile in popular culture. So while there is a tendency to pathologize the unhappiness of life, there is also a tendency to poke fun at it. What fascinates me about comedy or gag structure is the duality of our nature or that two or more opposing natures can exist in a strange kind of balance. I suppose that these divisions are not natural ones and so reflect a limited capacity to comprehend the whole. Along with laughter, the notion of the comic figure particularly interests me. While the identity of successive avant-gardes revolved around the concept of the artist as heroic or Promethean revealer, in ‘Sewing Performance’ I take on the role of the artist turned tragic-comic; a hopelessly romantic figure, who confuses the anonymous urban space with his own private space. As an extension of the loud and luminous system, the performer (me) is blind to his participation in the grand symphony. He is someone who hasn’t yet heard that Modern society doesn’t rest on a little bit of goodwill and a helping hand, but on the ever more complex division of labor.

I know I feel rather proud when I can ‘reverse engineer’ something and discover how it works, how it was put together, or how I could improve it. And I suppose most people are looking for a cosy community, a comfortable practical environment that is not hyper competitive but clever and creative. People turning their backs on work, money, the demands placed on them from the cradle to the grave, and working towards a more Earth-friendly, human-centered co-existence. But living in London, it all seems so implausible- a kind of wistful dream- and it is within these tensions that the gag structures lies. The divisions of society have created a need to escape an unjust and traumatizing social structure that pits people against each other. While some protest, others feel powerless in the face of their problems and endure them by disassociating. So instead of staging a situationist disruption, my work affirms the ideological character of the urban space but in the sweetest possible way. “

Tom Estes

Born outside of Boston in The U.S.A, artist Tom Estes moved to Paris and lived there for a couple of years before settling for London as his base of operations. Tom Estes has a degree in Fine Art from the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design as well as a professional qualification in Video Production from the leading awarding body in The United Kingdom, City & Guilds.

Estes has been an active member of the artists collective The Red Velvet Curtain Cult and his works have been regularly displayed in public art galleries such as The Whitechapel Gallery and also some of the more cutting edge and experimental curation projects found in public institutions such as The New Gallery Walsall, The Centre for Recent Drawing, as well as projects organized by Tate Modern. Estes’ work can be found in private as well as permanent collections such as at Matt Roberts Arts and The Lethaby Gallery.

“The Really, Really Free Market (RRFM) movement is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy. The RRFM movement aims to counteract capitalism in a non-reactionary way. It holds as a major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for one another and improving the collective lives of all.

Post-Museum is an independent cultural and social space in Singapore, run as an open platform for examining contemporary life, promoting the arts and connecting people. Opened September 2007, Post-Museum is a ground-up project initiated by a Singaporean curatorial team

You can see more work by Tom Estes here:

During July 2010, the video performance ‘Archive Fever’ by Tom Estes, can be seen online as part of [self] imaging @ NewMediaFest 2010, Cologne. You can view this work online heret:

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