youTo enter Elizabeth Price’s Underfoot exhibition, you first have to climb a concrete spiral staircase, like thread wound on a spool. Once you get to the top, Price’s new movie comes to life. Reversed black and white images of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, its reading rooms and desks are juxtaposed on a split screen. The whites in the images glow like X-rays, making any piece of furniture that catches the light buzz with the spirit of all who have touched it. You feel these spaces full of potential energy, all the work that remains to be done.
Price, who won the Turner Prize in 2012, uses video to explore technology and social history. Born out of a collaborative research project involving the Hunterian Museum, Panel, Fiona Jardine and Dovecot Studios, Underfoot offers an investigation into the archives of psychedelic rug maker Stoddard and Templeton, whose infamous psychedelic rugs grace the Mitchell Library.
Price’s film is narrated by two characters, written inside message bubbles: one in yellow, one in red, soundtracked by the loud click-clack of a keyboard. These disembodied characters have assertive personalities. They guide us through the concert hall, bar, and lecture hall of the Mitchell Library. Behind the red and yellow text, images of the carpets radiate, buzzing with kaleidoscopic intensity. Perceived notions of what a library should be begin to shift, backing against modernist lines and stable shelves, presenting a space that some may find too lively for traditional ideas of learning.
The rugs rotate upward, meeting the viewer’s face to weave, revealing the detail of peonies and pineapples, the looped trellis, the patterns of nearby leaves. These things that we often reach for in our soft moments of leisure are suddenly crushed under our feet, their function turned acoustic, their softness now absorbing the sounds of the library.
In Underfoot, Price launches an investigation into the Axminster Spool Loom, the colossal machine used to create the Mitchell rugs. Multiplying the hands of an individual worker, the machine was designed to be operated solely by women, since they could be paid at a much lower rate. The social and the technical collide in a way typical of Price’s work. The rug becomes representative of the poorly paid work of women, used to produce an object of public leisure.
The menacing size of the machine is never shown in the film. Instead, there are just tight shots of reels purposely jangling in place. As seen in one of only two archival images in the exhibition, part of the machine hangs like a dense cloud over a woman’s head as she works. The scale of the image works within a contemporary context, invoking the modern reality of files endlessly pouring into data banks.
Opposite the two archive images is the textile work of Price Sad Carrel.. In a library, a cubbyhole is the name for a single-person study room: Price’s own rug installation echoes this, the piece hanging vertically on a curved bracket, creating a sense of privacy and intimacy. Hand tufted at Dovecot Studios, Sad Carrel uses the repeating, abstract motif of a record found in the music department of the Mitchell Library. Its striking yellows and faded discs are reminiscent of other memorable rugs, those found in pubs and workers’ clubs. Places full of music, energy and exchange of knowledge, are worked into the fibers of the exhibition, once again animating the traditional space of the library.
Touch prevails in the work, another common theme for the artist. We feel the tufting and ripping of the weft so slyly, as if we were part of the team of women running these puffing looms. Dirty machines weaving landscapes of learning and leisure. At Underfoot, Price reminds us that as universities become privatized and more libraries begin to close, it’s imperative that we don’t stop learning, preferably in the noisiest way possible.