Man-Made Fibres by Mitzi Cunliffe

Mitzi Cunliffe

Man-Made Fibres, 1954–56, Portland stone, University of Leeds, LEEUA 1956.013, © Mitzi Cunliffe; Photo University of Leeds Art Collection / https://explore.library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections-explore/504

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Cat’s-Cradle

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

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’.

 

References

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]


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