Contemporary artists know no boundaries among mediums. In their hands, paintings become sculptures, and ordinary objects become art. Indeed, not even the more artisan-oriented medium of textile has escaped being stretched beyond its conventional materials. The current tapestry exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time,” showcases textiles from the hands of historical and contemporary weavers and craftsmen alike.
Taiwanese artist Lee Mingwei’s “The Mending Project” (2009–18) weaves both symbolic and literal connections across space. The interdisciplinary installation is at once performance-based, participatory and visual. Upon encountering the artwork, viewers see hundreds of spools of threads pinned scatteredly across two walls in the gallery’s corner, forming colorful constellations. The thread from each spool is sewn onto a particular article of clothing or puppets among a garment compilation, placed on one end of a long table. On the other end sits a volunteer mender who sews additional items. Across from them is a seat where patrons are welcome to start conversations with the mender. The expansive complex of spools and garments physically connects the three planes that these objects occupy — two walls and the floor — bridging different dimensions in the most literal sense.
Meanwhile, for Lee, the threads are representations of more abstract and deeper connections. According to Lee’s words printed on the wall tag for the installation, “There are so many things that are broken in the world now, with politics, the climate, relationship between people, between countries.”
But do Lee’s metaphoric threads hold any genuine power of remedy in the real world? The answer is positive for both Lee, himself, and for the participants in the exhibit. “The Mending Project” is an artistic reenactment of Lee’s personal experience during 9/11. At the time of the attack, Lee’s partner was supposed to be working in the Twin Towers. Luckily, he was out of office for a meeting that morning and hence escaped the tragic fate that befell many of his colleagues. When Lee’s partner went home that night, Lee started mending all of their clothes that were in need of repair without thought. For Lee, sewing became a healing mechanism for the trauma that he had temporarily experienced upon the thought that his partner might never come home.
Mending also brings the exhibit’s volunteers and viewers together. The menders recruited for “The Mending Project” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum gathered before the exhibition’s opening to hear about the project from Lee, himself. While the installation is on view, museum visitors are welcome to bring items to the menders or simply to talk with them. They may also glimpse items left behind by previous visitors. Lee unites individuals who would not have interacted otherwise in acts of care and conversation through the medium of material objects.
“Many Came Back” (2005) by the Nigeria-based Ghanaian artist El Anatsui is a similarly modern, mixed-media reinterpretation of textile. “Many Came Back” is one of many Anatsui’s signature “tapestries” made of tiny aluminium sheets and copper wire. The artwork is a screen of golden radiance dotted by hues of black, red, blue and white, bearing striking resemblance to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” (1908). Meanwhile, the stunning object assumes a considerable size (213.3 × 292.1 cm), comparable to that of a medium-sized wall tapestry. The lustrous and expansive “tapestry” emits an authoritative beauty that humbles viewers.
However, a closer examination of “Many Came Back” gives away its kitsch nature. The aluminium squares are made of flattened industrial scrap metal, many of which bear printed names and logos of foods and beverages, namely alcohol. Anatsui’s metal sheets piece together a mosaic of the transatlantic slave trade, which was partially fueled by the exchanges of rum for African slaves. Yet Anatsui contextualizes such oppressive colonial legacies within a landmark African cultural symbol: the tapestry.
The top and bottom sections of “Many Came Back” bear references to the repetitive geometric pattern of interweaving parallel lines, which is prevalent in traditional African tapestry. Anatsui combines ancient artistic glory and a relatively modern history of exploitation to create a coherent representation of the African identity. Many other creative minds in the pan-African community, such as “Beloved” author Toni Morrison, also wrestle with the dynamic intertwinings between cultural identity and a history of suffering. “Many Came Back,” representing a once intimate and personal medium using mass-produced metal wastes, also speaks to a cultural shift on a global level: the continuing process of consumerism and industrialization.
Of course, the exhibition would have been incomplete had it lacked representations of traditional textiles or those from Isabella Stewart Gardner. The museum’s Tapestry Room hosts an alternative part of the exhibition, which features Gardner’s collection of five 16th-century Flemish tapestries that illustrate selected events from the life of Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia. The five large tapestries span most of the wall in the dimly lit room, sealing off viewers from the twenty-first century outside. To perfect the immersive experience for the visitors, the Tapestry Room provides headsets that play “true pearl: an opera in five tapestries,” an opera composed and written by David Lang and Sibyl Kempson specifically for the exhibition. This multimedia approach pays homage to the former purpose of the Tapestry Room as Gardner’s Music Hall.
The exhibition is open from Oct. 4, 2018 to Jan. 13, 2019 at the Hostetter Gallery and the Tapestry Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.