It’s easy to think of sculpture as art in three dimensions. But at root, sculpture is about space.
Walking into the Center for Contemporary Native Art gallery at the Portland Art Museum to see the Salish weaving show Restoring the Breath— Sacred Relationship, I wasn’t immediately struck by the use of space in the way that I would be at a more traditional exhibition of sculpture. And yet, the space is in the room.
Traditional weavings like these were used to cover the floors, the walls, and human beings. Space was, at one time for a certain group of people, bounded by weavings like these. Indeed, printed on the wall is a quote by Gabriel George, entitled “A Salish Weaver,” which begins:
“A weaver blends and brings together the four directions.
A weaver maps out the universe, travels back in time, and journeys into the future.”
And in a sense as the practice of Salish weaving today is about the carrying forward of tradition, it is even more so about creating space. The weaving constitutes a particular way of thinking about and doing culture, in a time and place where the dominant culture does not place such an emphasis on bringing the past forward into the future.
With each crossed fiber in the warp and weft, with each knot that is tied, a small sculpture is created in a massive series, arranged to overlap each other and weave together a plateau. Standing back from the works, one cannot see the individual threads, just the textile pattern. Even upon closer inspection, one cannot see the individual fibers in the strand, or the particles of dye that cling to the fiber, or the molecules of the wool that were aligned by the cells of sheep as their coats grew long and shaggy, in one of the many inevitable and yet invisible natural cycles that forms our world. The planet is woven from these sorts of small actions, and through the intentional arrangement of such tiny knots, art is made.
Along one wall are recreations of the garments worn by the delegation of Salish chiefs that in 1906, 110 years ago, traveled from their ancestral lands in British Columbia to petition King Edward VII to honor the promises made to them. The recreations are made from modern, commercial wool produced with industrial dyes. The bright colors gleam against the bright white, a stark contrast in themselves, and also against the black-and-white photograph of the Salish chiefs set behind the garments on display. This is, much more literally, about space. It is about the space between the past and the present that we call history. It is about the space between the nature of the earth in that time, and nature as we now construct it. And it is about the space apportioned to Natives across North America, taken from them, given to them, and then taken back.
When I walk into this exhibition space, and see these weavings on display, this is the way in which my notions of space are transformed.