This week marks the culmination of two textile-related projects that seek to make “women’s work” visible, albeit in two different contexts: art and politics. In New York, this is the final week to catch Saatchi gallery’s Champagne Life, notable not only for being the gallery’s first all-female art show, but also for its bringing together of such a variety of provocative artists. The most fiber-forward of the bunch is Alice Anderson, whose pieces for the show include a 3-meter tall hand-wound bobbin. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the 5.4 Million and Counting project, spearheaded by artist Chi Nguyen, presented a collaborative embroidery work at a Supreme Court Rally in support of women’s reproductive rights on Wednesday, March 2. Anderson’s and Nguyen’s works are different—one hyperbolizes a sewing notion to make an artistic statement, while the other gathers sewn stitches to express a political position—but they both link traditionally feminized labor with current questions about the agency of the female body.
Anderson is a London-based artist who initially came to prominence through video art but has, for the last decade, devoted herself to performance-based sculptures made primarily from copper wire and/or copper-colored doll’s hair. Dealing with some admittedly macabre topics and materials, Alice Anderson’s art pieces themselves are almost whimsical and can be, quite literally, stunning, considering her use of scale (elevating a small mundane object into a monumental thing of beauty) and copper (reflective, rich color).
Anderson’s main contribution to the Saatchi show is Fort Da (2011) (also known as Bound), a 3-meter tall wooden bobbin with rope-like copper doll’s hair wrapped around it, the end of the “thread” pulled out and drawn over one of the gallery’s ceiling rafters. This gargantuan spool is not the only nod to fibercraft in Anderson’s oeuvre: Fort Da was created alongside her solo installation at the Freud Museum in London, where she strung the same copper hair-rope across the interior and exterior of the museum building, formerly the home of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. In Anna Freud’s room, Anderson seated a doll (a child-sized replica of herself) at Anna’s loom, into which she had woven strands of the red hair.
The name Fort Da is itself a reference to Freud, whose book Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) recounts his observation of his grandson playing what Freud calls the “fort-da game,” tossing a bobbin away from himself and saying “fort” (German for “gone”) and then reeling it back, saying “da” (“there”). According to Freud, this little game reenacts the child’s experience of the mother’s alternating presence and absence. Thus, Anderson’s oversized spool of copper hair seems to be memorializing a child’s fraught relationship with the maternal body and, perhaps, the grown artist’s fraught relationship with her female body and the meditative, memorializing craft work that mothers have done for centuries and that Anderson now honors in a big way (literally).
Also seeking to honor feminized craftwork—and also utilizing hair, her own and others’—Nguyen recently staged a weave-in at TheaterLab in New York City. In October of 2015, Nguyen cut off a portion of her own long mane and gathered hair donations from other attendees, after which she sat for six hours, weaving the strands into a tapestry as a public performance of memory and making. The exhibition, called i hope to find you at the end of this, is part of an ongoing weaving project.
Since that show, though, Nguyen has been focused on an even more pressing project: a collaborative embroidered quilt project, called 5.4 Million and Counting, to be presented in protest of a pending Texas law that would effectively shut down almost all abortion providers in the state. The name of Nguyen’s initiative refers to the 5.4 million reproductive-aged women who live in Texas and would be restricted by the passing of the law.
Nguyen, in collaboration with the Textile Arts Center in New York, has hosted a series of stitch-ins to slowly but surely produce 5.4 million stitched tally marks. The resulting scraps of tally marks (plus the many sent in from both novice and expert crafters across the country) were stitched together into a giant quilt to serve as a visual reminder to the Supreme Court of the humans being affected by this decision.
The fact that Nguyen chose this particular form of protest—embroidered, quilted, collaborative, time-consuming—gestures not just to the future at stake but, like Anderson’s work, to the long tradition of women creating, repairing, and memorializing through stitches. By stitching for a cause in this way, Nguyen and her many collaborators remind us that “women’s” labor is embodied in many different forms and can be harnessed in powerful and sometimes unlikely ways.