Suspended from the ceiling, “Iran Si Iran” (2019), by Eniola Dawodu, is at the center of the “Punctures” installation at Space Gallery. Photos by Carolyn Wachnicki

We don’t normally make much of a link between textiles and digital film technology. Yet their natural symbiosis comes intriguingly alive in “Punctures: Textiles in Digital and Material Time,” through July 3 at Space gallery.

The show originated at Squeaky Wheel Film & Media Art Center in Buffalo, New York. It was curated by Turkish-born Ekrem Serdar, a former film programmer, who connects these threads in his statement:

“From the Lumière brothers taking the intermittent motion of a sewing machine to create the cinematograph, to the punch cards of the Jacquard loom forming the basis of modern computation, and the role of sewing and gendered labor in jobs like editing and dyeing in film production, textile production remains an essential, but insufficiently unacknowledged formal and social influence on media arts.”

Garments, photos and video from Betty Yu’s work on display in “Punctures.”

Some of the works on display have more literal connections that are easy for the viewer to understand. For instance, activist artist Betty Yu created several videos that document her family’s exploitation as Chinese immigrants forced to work for almost nothing in New York sweatshops. The videos are part of a broader installation that occupies the window of Space and wraps around a corner to a perpendicular wall at the left upon entering the gallery.

The videos and artifacts of the installation are disturbing both for the stories her relatives relate about working conditions and pay, and because they clearly reveal that this is not a thing of the past but, for many contemporary Chinese immigrants, a clear and present reality.

Trump’s demonization of Chinese people and the anti-Asian violence it continues to provoke is but a modern-day echo of the many historical humiliations Yu’s relatives faced. There are T-shirts printed with copies of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law to restrict immigration to appease white paranoia about Chinese workers taking their jobs (absurd on its face since only 0.002% of the population in 1882 was Chinese). A wallet bulges with official documents family members had to carry on them to prove their immigration status and allegiance to America. Other ephemera document the establishment of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance to fight discrimination.

Sabrina Gschwandtner’s video quilt, “Hands at Work.”

Sabrina Gschwandtner contributes a “video quilt” called “Hands at Work.” The screen is populated with a grid of triangles onto which are projected 16mm and 35mm archival film clips of women doing a variety of tasks related to textile production and handwork: braiding straw, loom weaving, rolling bolts of fabric, sewing, knitting, trapunto stitching, threading a needle and so on. These appear in triangles that are interspersed among triangles of plain color, the grid configuration regularly changing throughout the loop of the video.

The work is not politically charged in the way Yu’s installation is – at least not on the surface. Yet if we consider the unsafe, poorly ventilated factory conditions under which many of these women labored, as well as implications of textile technologies such as repetitive motion disorder, the piece gains a certain portent.

As the credits roll at the end, the colored triangles are filled with the products of handwork, such as actual quilts. It made me wish Gschwandtner had started this at the beginning and continued it throughout the film rather than using plain colors. This element not only adds to the visual richness of the piece, but also imparts deeper resonance by acknowledging the beauty of what women produced throughout time.

Centrally placed in the gallery and commanding a large sculptural presence is Eniola Dawodu’s “Iran Si Iran,” which means “generation to generation,” though the wall text doesn’t say in what language. An artist and costume designer, Dawodu honors African textiles and the women who have created them for centuries. The piece, suspended from the ceiling, is made of synthetic hair fibers woven in collaboration with Wolof coiffure artists of Dakar, Senegal, and Majak weavers in a neighborhood of the city called Fass Canal 4.

Placed underneath it is a simple wooden stool where viewers are encouraged to sit. I highly recommend doing this, as suddenly the sculpture becomes a kind of enormous ceremonial headdress. The sense I had as I sat on the stool, my head grazing the woven fibers, was one of powerful transmission. It was as if I could connect somehow through time to the awe-inspiring spirit of these weavers. I’m not sure what the digital film connection is in this piece, if indeed there is one. But it really didn’t matter as I sat there, goosebumps spreading over my skin and chills rising in my spine.

Cecilia Vicuña’s “La Noche de las Especies.”

The digital film connection seems obvious in Cecilia Vicuña’s “La Noche de las Especies.” It is, after all, a video projected onto a wall of a dark space at the back of the gallery. But for those unfamiliar with this artist’s work, it’s the textile connection that will be unfathomable. Vicuña is a Chilean poet and multidisciplinary artist whose oeuvre, in the words of art historian Roberto Tejada, “at its very essence is ‘a way of remembering.’ ”

For Vicuña, words are vehicles for giving voice to what has been forgotten or remains unsaid. Further, she sees a connection between word and thread. For years she has made this explicit in her explorations of quipu, an ancient Incan system of recording information by making various types of knots in different colored threads. Words and quipu, then, are both languages that bring into manifestation what is unmanifest. Hence an implied, though not apparent, connection between digital film and fiber handwork.

“Especies” began as graphite drawings composed of words that were then digitized and made into video animations resembling plankton and microscopic marine life. The letters float across the screen slowly, but their varying type sizes and the ways they enter and leave the frame require us to wait patiently to reveal the phrases they spell out: “Hilos vivos” (live threads), “Suelo submarine” (sea floor), “Vivos al viento” (alive in the wind), “Pelo sensor y discos anemonas” (referring to the sensory hairs of sea anemones), “Membranas nictititantes” (nictitating membranes that protect the inner eye, such as those we see in fish or birds). In this way, the video seems to be evoking the creation of life, which evolutionists theorize originated with aquatic micro-organisms that emerged from deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In this light, the experience of the 60-minute video becomes a moving, meditative origin story.

A video and “trans-fashion” garment by Charlie Best.

There are other works too: A video and “trans-fashion” garment by Charlie Best that challenge the binary view of sexuality promulgated through media. A memorable snippet shows a woman impersonating Charlie Chaplin over which we hear a conversation about same-sex attraction from the movie “Victor Victoria.”

“Everything I Say is True” exhibits elements of a performance piece by Oglala Lakota artist Suzanne Kite. One wishes the videos here were actually of the performance piece itself, which involved recitation of a poem about various inhumanities perpetrated against Native Americans while the videos here were projected onto Kite as she danced in the dress on display. It is a lot to ask the viewer to put all these elements – dress, poem, videos – together in their minds. As with any conceptual art show, of course, doing it justice requires much longer than the half-hour slots one must reserve for viewing.

Jorge S. Arango has written about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.