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Analysis out of the box

Fiber Art, a thread that weaves different worlds

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | Thread is made of fiber - textile, paper or other - and bears witness to an ancestral process. From fiber to thread, from spinning to weaving, tools are born, a knowledge base, forms, architecture, culture, networks’ up to the present day, where the wires of our computers connect us to the world. We observe in art and craft production a significant passion for the woven, braided and knotted - experiments with fiber. From thread to fiber, the path leads us to a set of contemporary problems. Seven timeless concepts.

Chiharu Shiota, where are we going, 2017 © Gabriel de la Chapelle
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Chiharu Shiota, where are we going, 2017
© Gabriel de la Chapelle


From ancient mythology to our contemporary epoch, the meaning of thread hasn’t changed : a vital link crystallizing the orientation of life. Ariadne unwinding her thread so Theseus can exit of the labyrinth or Penelope striving to continually weave, unravel and recreate her tapestry to suspend time and put off her destiny.
The knot is closely linked to thread, and knots include the deepest inner workings of nature : action, function, form. It links us to life, if we think of the umbilical cord. Knot symbolism is imprinted on mystical antique Egyptian and Kabalistic structures : the Knot of Isis (the breath of life) and Sephirot (creative energies).


In a study entitled « The Knot » , art historian Itzhak Goldberg demonstrates that from generation to generation, « knotting and crossing threads remain gestures devoid of artistic spontaneity » , but nonetheless « the artisanal and ancestral aspect of the activity give it a place of predilection in artistic production ».
Spinning is a constructive action, the organization of a thread that, through time and space, follows technological innovations in the field. From the Neolithic period up to the invention of the mechanized Jacquard process, thread links ancestral knowledge to the modern textile industry.


The « Arts and Crafts » movement, founded by William Morris in England during the Industrial Revolution, developed artisanal codes and fabrics with animal and floral motifs that would inspire Art Nouveau. At the other end of the spectrum, the Bauhaus opened new fields of experimentation, putting in place a weaving workshop that positioned the activity in two domains : the functional textile for domestic uses and the art textile with the creation of unique pieces. The studio was organized under two heads : painter Georg Muche and the weaver Hélène Börner. This artist-artisan duo allowed experimentation and pioneered the conjunction between art and craft, traditional and industrial techniques, and research into new materials.


In the 60’s, in the wake of the experiences of the preceding decades, textile art defined itself as such and set itself a contemporary approach. In 1961, Jean Luçarat et Pierre Pauli, founders of CITAM - International Center for Ancient and Modern Tapestry - created the Biennale de Lausanne, that would transform the field and construct a new landscape for international textile art. With these developments, textile became a medium in its own right, a space for experimentation crystallizing the new revolutionary spirit sweeping the globe, with different denominations according to the country : Fiber Art, Art Fabric, Fiberwork, Nouvelle Tapisserie... The movement infiltrated the closed-off world of fine art and engendered two inverse approaches : those from craft who evolved toward art and those who came from experimenting with materials to textile, as the foremost choice. From this, contemporary emulation was born, leading « fiber artists » to elaborate a veritable philosophy.


Sheila Hicks, The Treaty of Chromatic Zones, 2015 © Patrick Staub/EPA
Sheila Hicks, The Treaty of Chromatic Zones, 2015
© Patrick Staub/EPA

Fiber artists unite around three degrees of ritual : intimately approaching the material, penetrating the material, and treating the material as a living, biological organ. The workspace is contemplative, time become a creative element. Gestures of spinning and weaving are no longer about ancestral knowledge, but are ritualized to give birth to reflective works, corresponding to a metaphor of union : to unite is to reinforce. In that, the spirit of companionship is recurrent : to cite an example, Anna Moro Lin conceives paper rugs that recount her relationships with her Middle Eastern friends, the rugs can symbolize a garden or a structure, an ideal or philosophical space, and allow antagonistic forces to cœxist.
In the 60’s and 70’s, the American conceptual artist Fred Sandback and the Italian artist coming out of Arte Povera Alighiero Bœtti also broke ground for contemporary artists in conceptualizing the use of textile thread.
From the marketing angle, the mythology and ritual surrounding thread are not lost on luxury brands. The Louis Vuitton Art and Culture department, with the goal of uniting the three Louis Vuitton cultural spaces in Paris, Tokyo and Munich, institutes the theme « (theme) /1 Fil rouge » (common thread) in three exhibitions. Along these lines, in Paris under the title « Date Space » , the British artist Alice Anderson creates hanging sculptures and environments, perceived as solid masses but made up of rolled copper wire that the artist and her companions weave in accordance with a ritualized bodily gesture.


Maria Lai, Libro cucito, (Exposé au Biennale di Venezia 2017) © Ph Studio vandrasch
Maria Lai, Libro cucito, (Exposé au Biennale di Venezia 2017)
© Ph Studio vandrasch

Fiber art artists have generally remained on the margin of avant-garde trends. However, around 2010 a progressive reactivation of this art began, due to the reassessment of art history in the context of globalization. During this time we witnessed a change of perspective that broke down the barriers between art and craftsmanship, reintegrating women artists. In 2017, Christine Macel’s Arte Viva Arte and Adam Szymczyk’s Documenta, Universes in Universe have integrated a substantial number of pioneering artists belonging to this artistic practice, as well as its new generation. Some examples are : Sardinian artist Maria Lai (1919-2013) who has worked since the 1960’s using textile yarn as her art medium (currently exhibited in Venice, Athens and Kassel) ; Filipino artist David Medalla, creator of Stitch in Time, an itinerant project that establishes embroidery as an artistic act; German artist Franz-Erhard Walter (winner of the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion as best artist) who created textile sculptures combining the subjects of Architecture / Body / Sculpture / Painting; and Lebanese feminist artist Huguette Caland, whose work is often unknown to the public. The younger generation includes fiber art artists coming from diverse backgrounds who are also breaking ground in the art scene : Chinese Lee Mingwei, Chilean Cecilia Vicuña, American Marilou Schultz, Italian Michele Ciacciofera or Portuguese Leonor Antunes.


The last Lausanne biennale was held in 1995, but textile art has continued its natural mutation through « networks » in the flux of the digital world, in close connection with digital art and scientific research. The 3D printer is nothing more than the modeling of a form with the aid of a thread of matter, and numerous artists already explore this technology, such as Miguel Chevalier. The « fiber artist » Ruth Scheuing has created an interactive website Walking the Line, with a simple digital line that traces the path of her daily activities, finally forming four layers : motifs, colors, images and textures.
Conversely, the 2001 creation of the European Tapestry Network incites creators to revive the legacy of the traditional tapestry, with the resurrection of the Jacquard system, improved and modernized to incorporate digital technologies.
Fiber becomes a base of scientific and technological research ; it enters the immense domain of new technologies, becomes transdisciplinary, excites the interest of artists, designers and creators but especially physicists, chemists and mathematicians. We study the resistance of fibers, imagine new ways to interlace, genetically optimize natural fibers, and analyze the « contact emotions » generated by touching a fiber...
And so Google, in cooperation with Levis, put in place Project Jacquard to explore the new field of research that is fiber. The first piece of clothing connected to tactile zones (replacing the touch screen) has seen the light of day in an experimental prototype. Thread and fiber are « in revolt » and « transmitting information » , and subsequently they’re reshaping textiles, furniture, daily life, mobility, urbanity, architecture, behavior...

Carlotta Montaldo / Nina Rodrigues-Ely
Publié le 22/07/2017
Copyright © Observatoire de l'art contemporain - Tous droits réservés
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Version française

Chiharu Shiota, where are we going, 2017 © Gabriel de la Chapelle Maria Lai, Libro cucito, (Exposé au Biennale di Venezia 2017) © Ph Studio vandrasch Alice Anderson, floorboard-diagrams, 2015 © Alice Anderson Studio & Louis Vuitton Paris Akio Hamatani, W-Orbit, 2010 © Maison du Japon Emil Lukas, #1459 Brew, 2015 © Emil Lukas Sheila Hicks, The Treaty of Chromatic Zones, 2015 © Patrick Staub/EPA Koch Otteapis, tapis du bauhaus, 1923 © Anni-Albers, tapis du bauhaus, 1922 © MoMa-NY Anna Moro Lin, Co-abitare, 2003 © OFF LOOM II / MAT

Chiharu Shiota, where are we going, 2017
© Gabriel de la Chapelle

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