Of Staples and Stitches
“Face to Face” with Elana Herzog
It will not be the first time on the site that I point out that textile work has attached to it a thousand thread-related metaphors that rely on the connectivity inherent within the material. While these metaphors can start to feel tired if they are used without discretion, we are in no such danger when discussing the work of textile-based artist Elana Herzog, as her way of thinking about connection is less about lines and more about rivers or veins. A thread might connect two disparate elements, but a river has direction, and mingled in its end are elements of its beginning.
At a recent residency at Wave Hill on the Hudson, Herzog was thinking of the ways in which water connects us to those upstream. This is an age old metaphor for time, as we may stand in a fanning river delta and receive accumulated silt. The works she began by the river, four layered tapestries that hang from curtain rods, are a meditation on this accrual. Favoring macrohistory over the micro, Herzog is not directly concerned with the physical making of these materials, but rather uses as her material the stories embedded within mass produced fabric.
These works-in-progress, inspired by a recent trip to Russia, could be called a Short History of Russian Taste, as they convey a loose timeline of popular Russian textile motifs (alongside textiles collected elsewhere) which makes reference to the history of the country’s aristocracy and working classes, its agriculture during the years of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and nowadays, its trade with China and other industrialized nations.
The base of one tapestry is a beautiful grey cloth depicting fruits, which Herzog found during a residency in St. Petersburg, where she had been in search of motifs both pre and post-Soviet. It is made of linen, a fiber extracted from flax, which can be grown in the colder climes of Russia. (It wasn’t until the empire–– and then the USSR––gained control over the much warmer Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that they were able to produce cotton domestically.) To a modern viewer, this cloth is a reminder of the imperial domination and coerced labor on the horizon––a history so often attached to cotton production.
The artist’s residency in St. Petersburg, as well as the many other projects that span the globe––from Norway to North Carolina, as well as closer to home in places like Wave Hill and the Albers Foundation in Connecticut––are not the wanderings of an artist without direction, but rather a determined study of the way textiles tell the story of a globalized world. “I like the idea that there is no such thing as a purely abstract form, that everything has connection to the world,” she says, citing utilitarian textiles and the decorative motifs in the fabrics that she incorporates into her work as the perfect example of these worldly ties. Best known, perhaps, are the brightly colored wax fabrics we associate with West Africa, but in fact were based on the batiks of Southeast Asia and produced by Dutch companies to be sold in Africa.
This story of economic interdependence between nations illustrated through the history of textiles is one of many, some more documented than others. For example, the possible influence that Anatolia, on the Turkish peninsula, has had on Scandinavian textile design––most likely a result of Viking expeditions and trade–– is something that remains unproven, but which the artist is exploring. And while we know the socio-political effects of the cotton trade on the history of the United States, what about its effect on that of the formation of the Soviet Union?
Herzog is somewhat of an accidental historian on all these matters and more. She is an enthusiastic amateur in reading textiles as primary source documents, akin to coming across papers in an archive. As much of her materials’ meaning is external to the artist’s hand, I ask the artist if she thinks of the Surrealists’ interest in the found object when making her work, to which she responds, “Maybe it’s the puritan in me that feels more comfortable with Dada and the conceptualism...that did not romanticize the unconscious.” If anything she is doing the opposite and rebelling against the unconscious, as throughout her career she has been subverting many of the obvious psychological associations with material in service of her art. In a rejection of the masculine connotations surrounding the use of metal in large scale artworks (think John Chamberlain and Richard Serra), she began to use prefabricated shelving units, to eliminate the need to manipulate it with tools or machinery. “It flies in the face of any macho idea about what metal is,” she says.
That her main tool in creating her textile work is a pneumatic staple gun, whose release sounds like a gunshot, is similarly subversive. Within the artist’s body of work is a series in which Herzog staples pieces of fabric––sometimes an item of clothing, sometimes a chenille blanket––to a wall and then rips away the swathes that are not held down. The result is somewhat like an etching, in which the elements with which she has interacted remain visible, while the rest is wiped away. “I always resisted being taught skill or being told the right way to do something,” she says, and we can see this process of destruction is rife with deskilling. (So, too, is the use of prefab metal structures, as they present “no barrier to entry.”)
The destruction these staples bring to bear, however, is carefully controlled by the hand of the artist. Often Herzog will use their form to mimic stitches, as in a log work which looks as if its fissures have been patched, or in a wall mounted work whose staples mimic the cloth’s original criss-cross patterning, as if suggesting the tools we use to create and destroy are one and the same.
This metaphor is brought home with Untitled #4, an image of an American flag made after 9/11, inspired by the flags Herzog’s then-young daughter incessantly drew in her doodling. Presenting a ghostly whiteness floating on the surface of a section of drywall, the artwork (which began as a chenille blanket) is not destroyed by the staple gun, but rather is brought into being by the act of violence against it. The days after September 11th––particularly in New York City––were ones of vital energy, when what seemed like every apartment building flew an American flag. The tumultuous period that ensued launched us into another era of our history, one which tried the spirits of many Americans, Herzog among them, and continues to define us today.
In further response to that moment, as the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, Herzog looked for “a way to bridge the apparent chasm between America and the Middle East,” by connecting it to her Jewish roots; one semitic culture to another. The result was Civilization and Its Discontents, a series which has at its center the Islamic Carpet, a textile which is so present in our lives we might not question its origins.
Parts of the Middle East, incidentally, were among the top world producers of cotton for much of the 20th century, an export which knitted its history with those of many nations with much demand but little supply of the soft material, including––to bring this story full circle––Russia. When the story Herzog is telling is the complex history of our textiles, this interconnectivity is no coincidence. Every river, after all, must eventually reach the ocean.