Mitzi Cunliffe’s sculpture Man-Made Fibres, unveiled in 1956, was created to celebrate the textile industry that is integral both to the wealth of the UK city of Leeds and to the origins of the University of Leeds, where the work adorns the Clothworkers’ South Building. At first glance, the sculpture’s title suggests a Promethean celebration of technological power, the power of ‘man’ to order and ‘make’ a world. However, the relationship between the hands and the fibres—the hands gently encircling the woven textile yet, conspicuously, made of the same stuff; both hands and handiwork exposed to the elements—suggests, rather, a conscious recognition of the partiality, provisionality, and penultimacy both of the makers and of what they make.
We see in Man-Made Fibres a tribute to the hard work of weaving together institutions, frameworks of meaning, artistic projects—and the joyful willingness to be devoted to the task of making one particular, temporary, contextual thing as good as it can be. Cunliffe famously said that she intended her sculptures to be ‘used, rained on, leaned against and taken for granted’ (Forster 2016)—to be useful, and used, in sustaining a common life beyond the maker’s control.
Prosper the work of our hands for us, says the psalmist in the first part of the double prayer that ends Psalm 90. The work our hands do does not stop being our work; we remain tangled up with it and it with us, we are invested and implicated in it, we take some of the credit and some of the responsibility. The work—the work of art, the text, the institution—remains ‘man-made’, sourced from a particular time and place, resonant of its cultural context.
The prayer continues, however: ‘prosper the work of our hands’. In Man-Made Fibres, the work is a cat’s cradle, held out for someone else to take over, offered forwards to be used at the same time as it is offered up in celebration. There is a promise that comes with provisionality and temporal limitation—the promise that our limitations, our particular desires and imaginings, or even our disastrous failures as yet unrecognized, do not circumscribe the future of the ‘work of our hands’.
Cunliffe, Mitzi. 1968. ‘Sculpture, Uniqueness and Multiplicity’, Leonardo, 4.1: 419–22
Forster, Jilly. 2016. ‘Review: The Sculptor Behind the Mask, 3 May 2016’, www.thestateofthearts.co.uk [accessed 12 November 2020]
90Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place
in all generations.
2Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting thou art God.
3Thou turnest man back to the dust,
and sayest, “Turn back, O children of men!”
4For a thousand years in thy sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.
5Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
6in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
7For we are consumed by thy anger;
by thy wrath we are overwhelmed.
8Thou hast set our iniquities before thee,
our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
9For all our days pass away under thy wrath,
our years come to an end like a sigh.
10The years of our life are threescore and ten,
or even by reason of strength fourscore;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11Who considers the power of thy anger,
and thy wrath according to the fear of thee?
12So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on thy servants!
14Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15Make us glad as many days as thou hast afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
16Let thy work be manifest to thy servants,
and thy glorious power to their children.
17Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish thou the work of our hands upon us,
yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.