Drawing lines in space, threading stories, making webs … the act of weaving has the quality of being able to include other arts, from drawing to architecture, through writing and music.
One of the recurring images of the spinner in mythology is that of weaver of destiny: both the Greek Moiras and their Norse correlates. But the warp that we will trace in this writing defies this idea of predetermined destiny, because our plot will be crafted by Arachne and astute Penelopes, who will discover that the thread of life is not only linear, can get entangled in the ways of sleep, can defy established patterns, and even can rebel against the fateful scissors.
Louise Bourgeois said that she began working with hard materials but that “life teaches oneself to bowing” and, certainly, during her later years she took up needle and thread much more. To kowtow in a figurative sense, of course, since the combative spirit of this French artist remained until the end.
In those last years she emptied the wardrobes of her house, rummage in old trunks, recovered old garments, and the needles gave to her sewn figures some kind of restoring magic. Her sculptures, which always had some of votive offering to ward off the fear, now soft and made in pieces, became pregnant of conciliatory cadences.
Contradictory senses coexisted in the bronze spiders that she made as allegories of the maternal figure: threatening and protective at the same time, patient and impetuous as Penelope, with great power of cohesion and persuasion, intimate architecture that constructs the body itself and is transformed into a cell, even to herself.
Then the arachnid allegory was internalized and those dual aspects that she saw in her mother nourished her own person as a woman and artist. She was always, like Aracne, a mistress craftswoman who did not fear confronting the status quo, machismo (remember the myth of the embroiderer woman who challenged the goddess Athena and even made fun of her before the Zeus’ don juanism). And being nonagenarian, as Penelope learned to obviate the linearity of time, making it cyclical, spinning and fraying, mending portions of the past, completing lost fragments of the tapestry of life, reinventing herself over and over again.
As a teenager, Louise had worked in her parents’ tapestries restoration workshop, shaping since then her metaphorical vision of sewing as a healing activity, as well as the value of the lost fragment that she herself reworked with skill and imagination.
The childhood, dwelling of mystery and drama, promise of happiness and threat of horror. Annette Messager neither believed the myth of childish innocence: she eviscerated her toys, impaled them, entangled them in her spider web …
Collector of childhood trophies, of youth adventures (les hommes que j’aime), misogynistic proverbs (popular sayings that she sewed and framed in threads of different colors: “when a child is born even the walls cry” , “Women with long skirts and short mind”), since the 1960s she has used embroidery, recycled objects and photographic collages to compose an art that has a lot of votive, to disrupt the imposed rules of the game and to invent her own ludic fabric, to oppose her own chimeras to the lies that are sold.
Wizard, lover, collector …, changing roles, maybe fake… maybe not. The lie is part of the initiatory journey of the artist (remember her tribute to Pinocchio at the Venice Biennale), because truth can’t be communicated more than bordering the secret: “I am the seller of chimeras, simian dreams, arachnid delusions. I am the counterfeiter of repainted photos, of deformed enlargements. Of overprints of clichés, of murky frames, of images carambolas, of deforming lenses … I am the liar, the messenger of false premonitions, doubtful loves, suspicious memories, the tamer of paper spiders … (information sheet in her Mexico D.F. exhibition, in Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 2011).
The delusion, the challenge to our perception, is part of the artistic task. In a Sao Paulo chapel, the Brazilian Tatiana Blass installed a loom on the altar, from which a red carpet emerged, favoring the optical effect of being woven at that time.The threads are filtered through the walls hollows of the church invading like cipo-lead (parasitic plant) the garden. The intervention makes us think of the purple red of ecclesiastical power and royalty, in the blood shed with their alliances, in the deadly weed.
Blass called Penelope to this installation for its deceptive effect, for that knitting without knitting, for the apparent stagnation of time to not be held accountable. Like the wife of Odysseus, who at night waved what he wove by day to eternally postpone the answer to her suitors. But she deceived for love.
The one who also weaves by love is David Catá, and he does it under the skin, sewing in the palm of the hand the portrait of his relatives, or the “scars” that the civil war left in his grandmother, transferring with thre ad and needle, again under the lines of the life of his hand, the old family photo while the elderly woman tries to narrate in a broken voice the events that truncated her childhood.
Another Greek heroine, Filomela, used the needle for other purposes, a denunciation. Tereo, her father-in-law, raped her and cut her tongue so she would not betray him. Locked up in a tower, she found the means of talking: sewing. The artist Laura Piñeiro dedicated to her an installation (El canto de Filomela 2012) composed of ceramic thimbles hanging from the ceiling. His sonority, like a bell, reminds us that aggression is not silenced.
Piñeiro has used the metaphor of sewing on repeated occasions: thimbles transformed into helmets (Belígeras labores), embossed sewing eye through which to “see” unmentioned art chapters (Ambliopías de la Historia)…, and to address more intimate issues related to the family memory. Re-reading letters from ancestors, legacies of aged paper, bits of life that she has felt close to her despite not knowing them, she has threaded words with her own pulse, spinning present and past from the same intergenerational thread (Construyendo (me) 2007), or embroidering them in spatial rhizomes (cartografia daqueles mares).
Piñeiro says that she owes much to Elena del Rivero, an affinity that is easy to see in the epistolary attention that has shaped largely the production of the latter: letter to the mother, the bride’s letter… Writings that are transformed into fabric, in sheets which surround the viewer and invite to a contemplative approach, because the reading remains hidden, indecipherable, somehow encrypted. Unfinished letters, always in process, whose work (the piercing of paper) is even heard (the echo of unfinished letter).
It is significant the appropriation of that photo in which Duchamp appears playing chess with a naked woman. Del Rivero took the place of her, seated, threading pearls. Les Amoureuses (Elena & Rrose) synthesizes the coexistence of two worlds, hers and Duchamp, each one creating its own network of reflective fabric, he on the chessboard, she concentrated on a craftwork.
Elena inserted this picture in her version of Las hilanderas, placing herself in the role of Aracne, surrounded by friendly seamstresses, and in the background the woman who laces jewelry next to Duchamp, replacing the Rape of Europe painted by Velázquez in honor to Tiziano.
De Rivero, like Duchamp, likes strategy games, but hers are based on the patchwork, allegory, mise en abyme, collective work… An Arachnee who doesn’t hesitate to question History and its genius, to rewrite it, to challenge the “gods” of art …
The stitchs of Ghada Amer are also incisive, sewing scenes taken from porn magazines (sometimes mixed with Disney icons), whose explicit character is blurred under the dense embroidery. She claims female autoerotism, showing women giving pleasure themselves, while with those striated wool betrays the male voyeurism.
In war time weaving was a subversive activity: affable old women, hidden in listening posts, coded secret messages in her crochet work. Far from the front line, but being also endangered from the rearguard, spy weavers were key players in the two world wars.
Those encrypted fabrics suggest us a Tania Candiani‘s piece, Bordadora, a loom transformed into a kind of confessional or machine that listens secrets and then write them in graffiti calligraphy. This work was exhibited for the first time at the Centro de Arte Alameda (México, D.F.), whose old walls of the inquisitorial convent heard so many forced confessions, false secrets.
It was not the only time that Tania intervened old looms, she is always seeking to transfer linguistic codes, making us reflect on what is lost and what is gained with each interpretation, with each translation.
Bourgeois has been like a great mother spider for many artists. But there is another woman equally influential pioneer in the use of fabrics, which made the knotting and untying a cathartic gesture, Eva Hesse.
On a trip to her native Germany she discovered an abandoned textile factory, and there began to recover poor and malleable materials, warm fabrics that would face the cold minimalism of her peers. Her search would culminate with Untitled (Rope piece), 1970, the last one she made before dying of cancer at only 34 years old. Although she claimed to flee from connotative art (seeking non-representation), it is difficult not to associate with her diseased body the organic vulnerability of that tangle of knots hanging from the ceiling, formed by strings of carnal texture given by the latex coating.
The feeling of uprooting, so intense in Hesse, the existential absurdity (relatives dead in concentration camps, suicide of their mother…), the fruitless search for an identity (also as a woman), the feeling of emptiness … determined her creations.
Curiously, they are themes (absence, memory, diaspora …) that in the work of Chiharu Shiota also are expressed with dense structures that never rooted in the ground. The idea of the rhizome germinating from objects, conquering the atmosphere, suggests that state of floating, the impossibility of grasping the more immediate reality.
The uprooting is part of the human being, more and more. Maybe that’s why their webs pick up suitcases, shoes, boats … as if wishing us a good trip. Weaving is for her, and for so many other sewing practitioners, a way of correcting, protecting, preserving the ephemeral.