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Knitted Art: Andy Holden’s Pyramid Piece at Tate Britain

Posted by Deadly Knitshade on February 26, 2010

Knitting can be a bit gruelling at times. For some just getting to the casting off of a particularly nightmare jumper is a bit of a relief. Really though, once you laid eyes Artist Andy Holden‘s art installation Pyramid Piece you may never whine about endless rows again.
As a sticky-fingered urchin Andy stole a rock from the Great Pyramid of Cheops, Giza because he wanted to take a little bit of the awe at seeing the ancient structures home with him. Years later the stone grew heavy in his possession as he felt the guilt of nicking a piece of history.
What to do? Return it and then come home and knit a replica of said piece 1000 times bigger than the original stolen stone to get across to people the ancient awe he felt and maybe suffer a little for his stealing in the making.

A feeling of knitted awe

The Pyramid piece stats:

Just how big is the gargantuan knitted version of your little piece of pyramid?
The Pyramid Piece is 100 times in length bigger – which is a volume enlargement of 100,000 from the original fragment…

How much yarn?

I don’t know, I should have counted the empty cones.  Thousands of miles. A lot, 55 square meters.

What kind of yarn?

A mixture was used. Predominantly six strands of 2 ply yarns, two 4plys and one DK mixed together at any one time. Also I made up my own cones with lots of little lengths of various colours tied together on, which I used to get the colours to fluctuate, and to get the flecks and speckles required for the texture.

How much time?

The project from conception to finish took a year, including working out how to approach making the structure and traveling to Egypt to return the original piece of rock to the spot from which I had originally taken it.

What needle size?

Oh, confession time. It’s machine knitted. It’s done with a Brother Chunky knitting machine, forcing 12-14 yarns through at one time.  To work on this scale it was really the only option.

We were constantly battling with knots and bending needles, the machines were constantly jamming and we broke two of them, however it was in the end the best way to get the strata effect, constantly changing the yarns that were being fed in, one person  altering the yarns and another dragging the machine back and forth.  It took as long in the end as if we had done it by hand I think, but the process was more physical, closer to sculpting.

Knitted bit of ancient art

The piece:

Why so huge? Wouldn’t it have been enough to knit a piece that came up to your knees?

It’s a question for me of scale – I was interested to see what effect it would have on the body – you are used to the knitted object being something that fits in the hand and I wanted to see what would happen if that relationship was the other way round – the body standing in the shadow of the object.

I was also hoping to try and depict an object as it seemed to me as a child – in the way things often feel bigger, there significance and size becoming confused.  It also needed to feel monumental, this tiny piece of a monument itself becoming a monument to be encountered by the viewer.

At the time of making it I went to visit the blue whale replica at the Natural History Museum, and thought that I would like to make something that affects the body like that, I wanted the Pyramid Piece to be a Moby Dick, this small fragment itself becomes a landscape.

What was your opinion of knitting and knitters before you started the piece?

I have fond memories of a knitted caveman that my Grandma made.  My assistant on the project, Gillian Bates, knits some interesting things. She also helped me make some knitted cherries for a  wooden claw-grabber arcade machine that I made a few years ago.

Did knitting the piece change those opinions?

I was aware of Stitch and Bitch, and that attitudes to craft, and knitting in particular, had changed somewhat since I received my knitted cave-man.

Many of my projects seem to throw me in at the deep end of a field that I previously don’t know much about.  I then attack the subject with an amateur enthusiasm, learning as much as I can on the way. I try not to judge these things.

I enjoyed wandering around the isles of BSK’s (Bedford Society of Knitters) warehouse trying to find the colours I wanted.

In the end it’s a process and a material that you can manipulate and enjoy, so for me the terms I was thinking in whilst making it were those of painting, sculpture and conceptual art.  I like the way art can wade out of its depth, embrace an area and try and think about it in new terms.

There are hundred of ways to craft something out there. Why choose knitting?

The handmade knitted toy has always fascinated me.  Encounters with toys are our amongst our first encounters with objects and play a part in how we come to experience the world later.  For a while I thought I couldn’t approach the area as Mike Kelly had explored the nature of the handmade toy in some depth in the 90s, but I feel my investment and questions are quite different.

How was the piece designed? Did you have help from a knitting designer?

I made many scale models, trying out different ideas for internal frames and knitting lots of samples, trying to work out how to do it. A friend, Hoagy Dunnel, in the end helped with the metal internal structure.

We had two models on the go – one was used to work out the divisions and joins of the knitted panels, and one to try and bend the metal into the the correct shape to keep it as close to the original fragment as possible.  In the end after many plans I worked out a design for the panels that we needed and Gillian worked out ways of joining it all together.

Did you feel a bit of disquiet thinking knitters might come along and judge the quality of your knitting?

For me it’s imperfections are part of it, it an interpretation of a stone, enlarged many times, an attempt to communicate my feeling towards the rock in an absurd way.

The sculpture is also just part of the work – the video of me climbing the Pyramid to return the stone to the original spot from which I had taken it, and the anecdote, are all part of the work. The narrative and the sculpture rely on each other.

I enjoy the details in the colour of the knitting, and the form, but for something so unknown whenit was begun I’m happy with the way it turned out

Knitting as punishment:

Did you find that your ‘punishment’ became meditative eventually? Many of us would say that we knit to relax.

This idea of “penance” or “punishment” in some ways is a reading that has been put on the work, not something I ever said. That’s not really how I saw it.  It’s true that it was really hard to make it, in the cold warehouse of my studio, and took hours, but that is also true of my plaster sculptures.

It was never meditative, constantly wrestling with the machine, breaking several of them, and up against a deadline, not even sure if it would work, or look any good as a sculpture.

In a way I was more interested in the outcome ~ depicting the small fragment as a large knitted mass that looms over you ~ trying tocapture the way the rock seemed to me as a kid.  I wanted to see what it would be like to encounter a knitted object on that scale, as the knitted object is normally, due to the time involved, something that fits in the hand.

I have always been interested in hand-madeknitted toys, and the way they escape the normal commercial transaction, their curious status as semi-representational.

Did the process help to assuage your guilt or do you still feel the odd twinge?

The day of putting the piece back in the pyramid was really quite joyous.  Only art allows such an absurd luxury –  to travel backand try to undo something like that.  The whole thing was a kind of emotional experiment.

In a way I was also hoping that my returning of this fragment would be a microcosmic way of opening up onto bigger questions of the returning of cultural artifacts in general.  It is a very relevant political question at the moment, as Egypt have requested thereturn of many artifacts, and I hope my video of an English man clambering around the Pyramid trying to return his tiny piece would be a  way of engaging in that dialogue, without saying one way or an other.

Many objects were saved, and our knowledge of Egyptology greatly increasedthrough the artifacts that are now in museums all over the world.  Should they go back? I couldn’t say.  As for my guilt? I got rid of this tiny thing but in exchange I got this far bigger reminder that took up my studio for a year….

Did you ever suspect an Egyptian curse was put upon you when you stole the piece and that you’d one day be attacked by a vengeful mummy? If so do you think they’d really be impressed that you were knitting instead of burning yourself with hot pokers or something?

If the curse of Tutenkamon was strong enough to kill Lord Carnarvon then perhaps, if you scale it down, by just taking a tiny piece of rock I got, instead of death, mild guilt.  I think the matter is now settled.

More knitting than you can shake an Egyptian sceptre at

The aftermath:

Are you, like most knitters, obsessed by cake too now? Many of us suspect the two are mysteriously linked.

Not really.  I quit smoking around that time and biscuits had been factored in as a substitute.  Art remains my only obsession.

How many requests for jumpers/scarves/hats/gloves have you had from ‘amusing’ acquaintances since the piece has been shown?

I don’t think the colour and style of the Pyramid Piece made for an immediate side-step into fashion.

What happens to the piece after the exhibition? Aren’t you terrified the whole thing will be eaten by giant moths? I’m not sure the Tate Britain has very good anti-moth precautions.

Mice in the studio were more of a problem, they nest in the wool and foam.  The moths would have to be really quite large to have an impact.

Will you ever knit again or do you have twinges of horror when you pass by knitwear in the shops now?

No more than previously. Enough time has passed and I’m even thinking about another knitted piece.  I’m my own worst enemy.

The free Art Now: Andy Holden Pyramid Piece and Return of the Pyramid Piece exhibition is open 9 January – 10 April 2010 at Tate Britain, London.
Go and see it. I did. It’s a wonder to behold but may make your joints ache in stitching sympathy when you see all that knitting.

4 Responses to “Knitted Art: Andy Holden’s Pyramid Piece at Tate Britain”

  1. […] became a gigantic boulder – almost a mountain. That is the scale it assumes in his sculpture, Pyramid Piece, a towering fragment of rock, like a fallen meteorite, that dominates the gallery, covered in […]

  2. […] became a gigantic boulder – almost a mountain. That is the scale it assumes in his sculpture, Pyramid Piece, a towering fragment of rock, like a fallen meteorite, that dominates the gallery, covered in […]

  3. Nice blog…Thank you very much.

  4. Nat said

    wow…amazing, I wish I could have seen that for real! Very inspiring.

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