photograph by Joseph Turp
A lot of things make me feel warm and tingly.
You already know about many of them. Handmade makes me warm and tingly. Anything to do with words gets me pretty excited. I love history and tradition and human symbolic behavior.
Another thing that makes me feel all warm and tingly is Magna Carta.
That’s right. An 800-year-old document gets me excited and when that document gets incorporated into a modern artwork, a huge piece, hand embroidered by hundreds of hands, working cooperatively? Well! Tingle, tingle!
Magna Carta is 800 years old this year and that has gotten lots of people thinking and talking about what it has meant, to England, to the United States, to democracy and justice.
Magna Carta may mean something different to each individual. I like what it meant to my American forebears, how it influenced the Revolution, and our Bill of Rights. I like that it seems to have led us toward equal justice under the law.
To me, it means that no one is above the law—too important to be bothered by the rules that bind the rest of us—or beneath the law—too unimportant to warrant protection from unfair bias and arbitrary persecution.
So, how about this embroidery?
My pal Gallivanta steered me toward a story that blew me away. You can read about it in detail elsewhere; think of this little post as a “heads up” to go look at the links I’ll include at throughout!
Magna Carta (An Embroidery), undertaken by British artist Cornelia Parker, has it all. The work was commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford, along with the British Library, after having been chosen from a group of proposals.
In a nutshell, the project is a facsimile of the Wikipedia entry on Magna Carta, replicated in the most minute detail in hand embroidery, and crafted by over 200 stitchers from all walks of British life. The finished piece measures 4.9 feet wide by 43 feet long (1.5 m × 13 m) and has been on display in the British Library (and will be until July 24—there’s time for you Brits to see it!)
This project moves me in so many ways!
Parker combines the gravitas of history and tradition with a 21st century flair. The meaning and value of Magna Carta has been constantly re-interpreted and re-negotiated over the years so it seems especially appropriate that Parker chose to make her text a screenshot, taken on June 15, 2014, of the Wikipedia entry for Magna Carta.
Because Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and constantly amended by people like you and me, the articles constantly re-negotiated in a largely democratic way, it reflects not official truth but a communal representation of what Magna Carta meant on its 799th anniversary. It seems fitting that an historical document so often adapted to the needs of different people and times is offered to us in a format that is constantly open to our adaptations as well.
Parker also made a conscious choice to take the digitized word and transform it by hand crafting. When the words and images of Wikipedia are translated into embroidery, they are elevated in ways that ask us to re-see and re-think words that may have lost depth of meaning. The stitchers certainly had plenty of time to consider the words they worked on, sometimes as few as one or two. As viewers, we ponder the stitches, as individual as the stitchers who made them, and see the words, as if for the first time.
And consistent with Magna Carta’s principles of justice, fairness, and equality under the law, the embroidery work was done by a large group of stitchers, a group as varied as the peoples Magna Carta has been held up to protect and represent.
Parker drew her stitchers from many sources and walks of life, from peer to prisoner, choosing people who represented groups, like convicts and barristers, that have been associated with Magna Carta.
Over 200 stitchers contributed and the majority of the text was done by prisoners from the social program Fine Cell Work (which deserves a blog post of its own!) The Wikipedia images were re-created by members of the Embroiderers’ Guild, from across the UK. Some of the stitching is expert and exquisite, some is rough and labored. The fabric holds stains, from tea and blood. It is not even and pristine and perfect, any more than is history itself.
Parker invited royalty to contribute but they declined. Other high-profile stitchers contributed, often by stitching words of their own choosing. Lord Igor Judge, who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the head of the judiciary, from 2008 to 2013, and Lady Judith Judge stitched the words, “Habeas Corpus.” Edward Snowden chose to stitch “liberty,” and Julian Assange, chose one of the instances of “freedom.”
The project seems to me to take the iconic and make it real again, to take the digitized and modern and make it warm and human. The varied stitches in the piece remind us that real people held the needles and that real people both shaped these words originally and are affected by them every day. It reminds that a word such as “freedom” will look, and mean, differently depending on who is uttering or crafting the word.
I hope you’ll go look for yourself. I have no access to photos other than those I can poach from the internet and I don’t like to do that (too much!) You can see many images typing the words “magna carta an embroidery images” into your search engine.
But, really, the best place to see and hear the story is in the video shared by Gallivanta. I predict it’ll make you feel warm and tingly too!
photograph by British Library