“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź

Removing the outer layer and looking below the surface. "The Second Skin" exhibition at The Central Museum of Textiles

Second Skin” is an exhibition which presents textiles and at the same time shows how today’s artists can interpret museum collections. Marta Lisok, the exhibition curator, explains: 

“The concept of a second skin is not only reflected in the exhibition title, but also in the design of the exhibition itself. The intention is to make the audience think of gestures made when removing the outer layer, looking below the surface, turning things inside out, scraping off, unsticking and unwrapping. Through this expression we are making a reference to how we proceeded while preparing the exhibition. We took a closer look at the collection of the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź from our private points of view and consciously emphasised our personal preferences and contexts.”

The exhibition is the result of an international project “Interweaving Structures: Fabric as Material, Method, and Message” organised by the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, the doctoral school of the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and the Faculty of Fine Art, Music and Design of the University of Bergen. The participants of the project were undergraduate, graduate and PhD students who attended seminars and lectures, and took part in residency programmes at those schools. The project included meetings with specialists in the field of historical, folk and industrial textiles, experts in the history of the textile industry and researchers of decorative textiles. All these events became the starting point for decoding stories hidden behind textiles and retelling them through other media: installations, video and audio. The curator further explains: “In the process we consciously overstepped and omitted official museum narratives. The fresh point of view of project participants who do not work with textiles on a daily basis, but rather use other means of expression in their practice, became the foundation of what we present to you here” 

“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź
“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź

A Treasure Hunt in a Museum

Objects in museum collections are often removed from the original context, deprived of their practical function and kept in storage facilities. As Marta Lisok stated, the inspiration for the exhibition was “a vision of museum storage rooms which are archives of objects that underwent metamorphosis, textiles, clothes which became ecdyses discarded by former users, who left their DNA code, smell and traces of individual and generational biography on them. The second skin therefore equals not only our automatic association, a usable fabric which defines our identity, but is also a concept or tool which, in the case of our exhibition, depicts another dimension of a museum collection.”

Artists participating in the project took a closer look at works from the collection of the Central Museum of Textiles and tried to initiate a dialogue both with the works themselves and with the contexts, whether functional or historical. The curator points out that: The key working method for our team was studying the museum collection on the basis of a catalogue available online (digitex), where each exhibit can be thoroughly examined. Invaluable assistance was offered to us by museum employees working in individual textile departments, who patiently explained to us the nature of certain parts of attire, how they were used, the importance of selected fabrics, weaving techniques, ornaments, etc.”

In this way the potential of the museum was revealed, as a reservoir of objects whose stories need to be told anew. The narrative of the exhibition is focused on concepts describing how textiles are used, for covering, wrapping or uncovering. Textiles have been used, inter alia, as a tool to work with memory and as a stimulus to spin a tale about former users. 

“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź
“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź

Characteristics of Textiles

Selected works from the Museum of Textiles collection are presented together with works prepared by project participants specifically for this exhibition. The preparation process consisted of several stages. Initially, artists looked at the form and properties of fabrics, which may have been fine and elastic fabrics, but also heavy and resisting. The original cultural context of the functioning of selected objects, together with their symbolic meanings, were then analysed. Thus, works which were created are in fact a reinterpretation and unique rendition of museum collections. They provide references to the original context, but are also enriched by the authors’ very own experiences and metaphors.

This extraordinary combination of two types of objects presented at the “Second Skin” exhibition brings about a confrontation of perspectives, contexts and sensitivities. As the curator says: “The exhibition showcases a different dimension of a museum collection.” That is true both in the case of these specific exhibits, but also, more universally, for museum collections as such.

“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź
“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź

At Work, in a Factory

The first object which we see upon entering the exhibition is a photograph situated directly opposite the entrance, featuring workers against the factory background. In fact, one of the areas of interest of artists is the situation of male and female workers in factories of the past. This photograph became part of the Museum’s collection following a competition entitled “We are looking for memorabilia related to Łódź of the past and the history of textiles.”

It was possibly a personal keepsake linked to the family of a person who presented it at the museum. In the photograph we can see a group of 61 people, 45 of whom are women, standing against the factory wall. The photograph dates back to 1908, when women accounted for more than half of the workforce in the textile industry. Thanks to the competition, a lot of private objects were donated to the Museum and, just as in the past when people built factories together, the current Museum of Textiles is also co-created by the city inhabitants.

“Light Matter, Hard Work” by Ala Savasevich is another piece making reference to hard work and the situation of women in factories. We are facing a factory gate which is not made of heavy metal, but instead has been woven out of linen tow and as a result, became light and fragile. In this way the artist wants  us to pay attention to the personal and bodily sphere of our existence. Instead of presenting an official and publicised story of factory owners, she gives a voice to average female workers. Similarly, with her embroidered fabric, Monika Drożyńska speaks about women working in textile factories. The title of her work, “Snowaczki, Przewijaczki, Tkaczki, Przewlekaczki”, lists the names of jobs that female workers used to perform in old factories. Behind the job names there are countless women whose names and images have been forgotten. Right next to this spot there is a photograph in which we can see members of the board of one of the factories in Łódź, all of whom are men.

The work of Paweł Błęcki entitled “Chimney” refers to the factory building and its most distinctive architectural feature. Monumental factory chimneys are a follow-up to industrial development, achieved at the price of the exploitation of people and degradation of nature. Błęcki’s “Chimney” is a reversal of characteristic chimney properties. Instead of a heavy, hard and smoking structure, the artist proposes a light, hanging lamp with the elongated shape of the chimney made of translucent fabric. Around this object beads are arranged to create various intriguing shapes, for example of humans. In a certain way this element converts the installation into a symbol of cooperation. 

Right beside hang stiff worker’s overalls covered with a layer of white substance – “Salty Sweat” by Grzegorz Demczuk. The salt soaking through the overalls signifies sweat excreted by a human body during hard work. It aims  to remind us about the hard toil and sacrifice workers make on an everyday basis. The artist decided to juxtapose sweaty overalls with a clean white towel which has no traces of use.

“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź
“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź


Female factory workers are not the only figures that faded into oblivion. “We Put it Down to Fate” by Agata Jarosławiec is one of the most moving works presented at the exhibition. Two kontush belts from the museum collection, which used to be an important element of male dress worn by Polish and Lithuanian nobility, are presented in a display case. Next to the belts there is a screen presenting a hand that is stroking and massaging a body. The frame surrounding the screen is embellished with decorative cuts which refer to a stick used by a karbowy [an official overseeing the unpaid work of peasants in properties of the nobility], formerly used to settle liabilities and record data.

The number of cuts on the stick corresponded to the number of days a peasant worked for the nobility without receiving any remuneration. Such sticks are one of the very few traces of slavery, with Polish peasants serving as slave workforce of the nobility. 

The chosen kontush belts greatly influence what the entire exhibition looks like. Marta Lisok said: “My encounter with kontush belts which Agata Jarosławiec selected as a complement for her installation was truly fascinating. The way conservators worked with the belts reminded me of a sacred ritual celebrating invaluable holy relics. Due to strict limitations related to lighting of the 18th century belts, the entire exhibition space had to remain dark, which makes the audience feel convenient and cosy.” 

We keep various memories deep inside us, and we often want to record them in some way. “Woven Stories” by Kuba Święcicki is composed of the memories of different people, which are almost impossible to decipher. The installation was made of VHS tapes collected by the author from his friends and family members, on which they recorded important moments of their lives. This encrypted message refers to Antoni Starczewski’s textiles named “Deleted Texts” – under stripes suggesting deleted text lines, new content is hidden, remaining   a secret.

“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź
“Second Skin” exhibition, Central Museum of Textiles, Łódź

Textiles and Bodies

Olga Konik draws our attention to the similarities between textiles and the skin. Her work entitled “Complexion” was inspired by the bottom skirt layer, which used to be called an apron in the historical Spiš region. With small spots or tears this thin and fine fabric bears the traces of the old owner . The fabrics we use wear out over time and traces of use, like stains or small imperfections appear on them. Olga Konik emphasises the close relationship between human bodies and textiles. Just as damaged skin can be cured, textiles can also be repaired. “Complexion” is a skirt made of square pieces of fabrics with various tears, cuts or holes which have been darned or mended in a visible way. The process of repairing things and making them usable again gives rise to the idea of developing relationships with objects and using them as long as possible.

“Tying Tubes Melting Space Twisting Holes Ripping Gravity Listening Motion Liquid Collapse” created by Clea Filippa Ingwersen is yet another work which discusses damage and tears. The installation brings both bodily and mechanical elements to mind. Forms made of metal, cement, latex and fabric are bent, split and tied. The installation was inspired by weaving machines, which currently remain in the museum space but are no longer used. In the past they were operated and set in motion by weavers who complimented them, creating a single mechanism, linking the body and the machine.

In the exhibition space, bodies are integrated with fabrics. Both resemble a fibrous matter in terms of their structure, which can easily be damaged, but can also be repaired with forms resembling seams, scars or scabs. Under this material sculpture layer there are cultural, historical and metaphorical meanings filtering through. Artists not only explore the form but also pull out and discover hidden meanings, often placing them in contemporary contexts. The spatial design also influences the perception of the exhibition to a great extent. The curator remarked that: “The spotlights and the specific heavy scent in the room, combined with the design architecture by Bartek Buczek made of bent plywood, created the impression of us being inside some living organism. Gloomy, sheltered, dense, following its own rules.”

About The Author


Art historian. Currently, she works in the Education Department at the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, where she creates educational programmes and workshop scenarios. Interested in architecture, artistic fabrics, and issues related to ecology.

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