Art Seen: Chicago

Ariadne’s Thread

THE NEEDLE, THE HAYSTACK, THE THREAD // THE ARTS CLUB OF CHICAGO

By Stephanie Cristello

Theseus, Prince of Athens, having conquered the minotaur by the means of Ariadne, Daughter to King Minos, who fell in love with him, escaped out of the Labyrinth.

—Argument for Ariadne: An Opera (1721)

 

Two lovers enter a vista—it is a vast plane, like a monochromatic desert, grey and barren—and are confronted by a curved expanse of milk-white stone. The scale of the wall to their bodies is towering: its vertical height extends far beyond their sightlines, while its bowed curve vanishes almost imperceptibly in the distance. In the center of this immense, earth-like span is a singular passage, a thin and narrow gateway: the entrance into the labyrinth. As she steps forward (left foot first, then right), the rock turns from pale, unblemished marble to the opacity of a translucent veil. This transformation exalts them both, for through the phantom of complex lines, which weave and double back on themselves (like the interior of a seashell), they can see into the heart of the maze in the distance. There ahead lies the minotaur, which her lover must face. Yet, as she walks by his side to approach the entry, she sees the how the patterns of walls shift, almost glittering, and knows that the illusion is a trick—the ghostly interior is a luminous simulation, one that deceives and regresses, as if a hall of mirrors. The question is not at all about getting into the labyrinth; but getting out again. She gazes at her robe and notices a single fray near her ankle—reaching down, she plucks the red silk thread between her fingers and, drawing it delicately towards her, unravels her garment in a single string. Standing there, stripped bare, she looks to her lover, lacing one end of the crimson strand into a bow on her finger, and hands him the thread.

The myth of Ariadne is one based on cunning intelligence: throughout history, the ‘red thread’ has come to represent a pattern, or underlying current, that connects seemingly disparate thoughts to reveal a larger narrative woven just beneath the surface. Indeed, while the goddess indeed provides a path to escape the labyrinth, the formal quality of her solution can be imagined through the image of red thread itself, as well as the myriad pattern ultimately drawn by Theseus’ navigation of the ancient Grecian maze. Dependent on neither linear thought, nor linear navigation, the red thread functions as an elegant solution—yet its image is tangled, ensnarled, and intertwined. As such, its form acts as both a symbol of, and opposition to, a comparison of directness. In a word, it is psychological.

What is the labyrinth if not a metaphor for the mind?

It is this same quality of line that is demarcated within Monika Szewczyk’s curatorial proposition in the needle, the haystack, the thread, which featured works by four artists— Britta Marakatt-Labba, Lala Meredith-Vula, Aboubakar Fofana, and Maria Lai—installed at The Arts Club of Chicago earlier this year. The exhibition observed pre-industrial techniques as a means of confronting contemporary life, largely grounded in the materiality of textiles through works that employed spinning, stitching, weaving, and dyeing, among other methods. Born out of research conducted by Szewczyk for documenta 14, the pairing of artists invokes a turn toward the past as a proposition for a radical future— privileging works that engage with rural, Indigenous, and geographically constructed approaches to image making and practice.

Maria Lai, Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain), 1981. Image courtesy of the artist and The Arts Club of Chicago.

We begin with the thread: it will be our guide and conductor. The history of the thread as a vehicle for narrative pre-dates the written word. Before text, there was textile. As Liliane Weissberg writes on the origins of German literature, “Male poets may sing, but women storytellers weave. Their stories have a material presence that needs to be deciphered, and told not just in words, but in images, too.”1 Of the artists included in The Arts Club exhibition, none come so close to this concept of a visual essay as Britta Marakatt-Labba—an artist of Sami descent. The Sami are a nomadic reindeer-herding people, which today geographically encompasses large parts of Norway and Sweden, northern parts of Finland, and the Murmansk Oblast of Russia; in 1979, Marakatt-Labba co-founded the Sami Artist Group, formed to broadly defend the self-determination and sovereignty of the Sami people.2

For Marakatt-Labba, the visuality of her works, which are largely fashioned out of an improvisatory technique to depict both mythic and quotidian facets of everyday Sami life, is also synaesthetic. Working over a period of various seasons, and often years, the artist speaks of how her senses are imbued within the composition for each singular weaving. She runs her hand near a passage and explains the scent of April in her village. “Embroidery is also a season,”3 the artist said to me at The Arts Club, on the morning of the opening for the needle, the haystack, the thread, in the deep cold of March. The work is entitled We are still here (2017), and is one of the wider panoramas in the exhibition. The narrow expanse of canvas is comprised of mostly negative space, embroidered with figures of herds, groupings of trees, and swaths of water and smoke that punctuate the white field. We speak about the similarities between this and her work Historjá (2003–07), the artist’s twenty-four-meter-long masterwork, which traces the history of two ancient Sami traditions that have lasted centuries despite the region’s contestation—embroidery and yoik, a narrative and ritualistic singing—that was installed in Kassel at the documenta Halle in 2017.4 In both cases, Marakatt-Labba’s approach to figuration exists contrary to the naïve, or sleek style, often used in contemporary painting to depict figures floating in space. Instead, the whiteness she employs exists as a type of figuration itself; it points to an Arctic blankness, to blankets of snow, to Northern vastness.

Britta Marakatt-Labba, We are still here, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist and The Arts Club of Chicago.

This Baudelairean correspondence of senses across sight and scent, but surely touch and taste as well, is the score to Marakatt-Labba’s nearly filmic process. Just as tapestry has conventionally held the power to weave history through image, Marakatt-Labba’s work within The Arts Club space adopts a sequential and time-based quality. For these reasons alone, and there are many more, it would be incorrect to label her approach as a ‘chronicle’ or describe her practice as either ‘traditional’ or ‘domestic,’ though it does incorporate these methods, thus relegating her critical compositions to mere craft. Her practice is more subversive. As Anders Kreuger states in his essay on the artist in a recent issue of Afterall, “The land is a sensitive issue in any artwork that can be described as a ‘landscape.’”5 This is doubly true of artists whose work invokes indigeneity. If we return to text, the role of thread within Marakatt-Labba’s works is one that embroiders an essay to be read not from left to right, but dialectically, in circles—a roundabout process as complex and multivalent as the labyrinth itself.

This method of viewing is one that extends to the entire premise of the needle the haystack, the thread—as well as of documenta 14, held between Athens and Kassel in 2017—as nearly all of the selected works hinge upon techniques and traditions that are not readily apparent within the gallery, taking place just beyond the frame of the exhibition.

Work by Aboubakar Fofana. Image courtesy of the artist and The Arts Club of Chicago.

In preparing to view the exhibition, I revisited my documenta 14 catalogue—a tome of monochromatic texts—and motioned to remove the page marker, a strand of a thick but tightly woven brilliant and deep blue thread. The thread has weaved in and out of the texts since I acquired it in Athens last April, and will rest between words again soon. I learn the bookmark is a piece by Malian artist Aboubakar Fofana, whose textile works, dyed by the same harvested indigo the artist grows on his compound near Bamako, in West Africa, are installed within the main floor galleries. In a film entitled don o don tulo bè ta kalanso (each day the ear goes to school), which chronicles his three works commissioned by documenta 14, including Ka Touba Farafina Yé (Africa Blessing) (2017), screened as part of The Arts Club programming, aerial views of a farm site, turned studio, in the heart of Athens depict a herd of sheep—their wool dyed the same vibrant indigo as Fofana’s textile works. Fields of sapphire and cobalt blue flash across the screen as the animals scatter across the frame. Their multihued fleece appears unnatural, almost synthetic—yet the process is entirely organic. Shots cut to scenes of Fofana boiling the green leaves, which nearly alchemically transform the shallow vats of liquid into a blue of the deepest seas, as the artist begins treating the fabrics that will become the material of his sculptures.

For Marakatt-Labba and Fofana, geography makes identity and identity makes geography. Indeed, each of the artist’s practices make use of the physical world, “It is not an accident of birth that makes you belong to a place,” says Szewczyk. “I think you have to do something with it. You must photograph it, embroider it.” In the case of the recently deceased Maria Lai, we begin with the literal act of tying one’s self to the landscape; to place. In yet another allusion to Ariadne’s thread, Lai’s black and white photographs Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain) (1981), a series of images that feature a colored ribbon amid a sequence of vernacular images; children playing in a village; Sardinian women smiling in black long-sleeved dresses—bridging the archaic as means of contemporary art. The thread travels to the top of the impending mountain, as if an ancient folk tale, yet is one of the first of the artist’s ‘social sculptures,’ which followed in Aggius, Camerino, Orotelli, Siliqua, and Villasimius.6

We end, or perhaps begin, with Lala Meredith-Vula’s Haystacks, a series of large scale black and white photographs shot in the countryside of Albanian-speaking parts of the Balkans. Born in Sarajevo in 1966, in the former Yugoslavia, the UK-based artist’s work documents an affinity toward indexing ‘place’—contested place, impermanent place, persistent place—that is shared among each of the artists. As one of the namesakes of the exhibition, through the collection of compositions— readymade arrangements made by farmers in the region (the series began as the Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia)7 —photography becomes a tool to personify the landscape, to analyze its resilience.

Aboubakar Fofana, Ka Touba Farafina Yé (Africa Blessing), 2017. Commissioned by documenta 14 (Athens, Greece). Image courtesy of the artist and The Arts Club of Chicago.

As a proposal against accelerationism, through which contemporary images and artworks are more rapidly generated and consumed, the needle, the haystack, the thread motions toward a redefinition, if not eradication of, Western progress that weaves and traverses through time. As Szewczyk states, “I am hesitant of terming ‘tradition’ as a ‘past.’ I think it is continuous. Tradition is very renewable. I feel this is a more futuristic proportion. Every time you go deep into the past, you are also thinking about the future.”

Thread the eye.

Approach the haystack and bury the needle between its straws.

You will find it again.


the needle, the haystack, the thread ran at The Arts Club of Chicago from March 15–May 19, 2018.

1 Liliane Weissberg. “Ariadne’s Thread.” MLN 125, no. 3 (2010): 661-681.
2 Marakatt-Labba is based in Sweden; the ideological takeover of Sami land began in 1606, with the construction of ‘church sites,’ and in 1685 traditional Sami religion was outlawed. Derived from early shamanism (under the term šaman), handheld divination devices covered in images of human and animal spirits were confiscated and burned, holy figures were destroyed, and ritualistic song (yoik) was outlawed. Taken from: Kreuger, Anders. “Britta Marakatt-Labba: ‘Images Are Always Stories’.” Afterall, Spring / Summer 2018, 10-11.
3 Unless otherwise stated, all quotes in first person were conducted in conversation with the author, February 2018.
4 The work was accompanied by a yoik performance by Simon Issát Maranien and Axel Andersson.
5 Kreuger, Anders. “Britta Marakatt-Labba: ‘Images Are Always Stories’.” Afterall, Spring / Summer 2018, 10-11.
6 Casavecchia, Barbara. “Maria Lai (1919–2013).” documenta 14. April 18, 2017. Accessed September 06, 2018.
7 Szewczyk, Monika. “Lala Meredith-Vula.” documenta 14. Accessed September 06, 2018.

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