The more I think about fiber arts, the more enamored I become with it as a form of sculpture. Visiting the Françoise Grossen Selects show at the Museum of Art and Design put this motion into overdrive, as I explored the variety of things that might be done using solely rope.
We might tend to think of fiber arts as a more traditional art form— and rightly so, as it is a technique that has been practiced for thousands of years. But weaving took center stage in some of the world’s first industrial transformations. And today, high-tech robots weave carbon fiber into solid forms for applications as diverse as the automotive and aerospace industries. Weaving may be an ancient technique, but the process of designing series of knots continues to form a structural component of the human-created world.
Françoise Grossen tends to use natural fibers in her work, and the texture and colors in the show reflect that— shades of browns and earthy greens, forming twisted, sinuous sisal and hemp pathways. This acts to show off the traditional, handcrafted form. But it also contrasts nicely when she chooses to utilize other material, like fire hose or metal wire. It also contrasts nicely with Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Crochet Coral Reef a couple floors up in the Museum, which is a series of sculptures woven to draw attention to plastic trash impeding upon ocean environments. But we also shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that natural fiber rope is somehow “home spun.” On the contrary, rope was a key technology for much of human history, as it enabled worldwide trade through shipping. Even today, our globalized production pathways rely upon massive container ships, which still must be tied to the dock during loading and unloading, using ropes little different than those used to establish trade in the Mediterranean in Roman times, or to first circumnavigate the globe.
Grossen’s sculptures also bear this timeless message. They look like wall hangings, but they also look like insects, like computer networks, like the human form folded in prayer or meditation. The complicated series of whorls and loops appear like the archaic symbols of alien coats-of-arms, perhaps signifying allegiances and relationships of power that we could never fully understand. And they do— because that is our world of technology today. Tied together through a myriad barely-visible fibers, our world is one of spider webs, but with that apposite strength concealed within its microscopic tendrils.
I wonder about the time and precision necessary to assemble not just our global networks, but Grossen’s sculptural works. Two knots can be similar and yet never identical, tied at two near-exact lengths in a piece of rope. To balance these works, to make the fibers fold precisely where the artist wants, to remove the slack and let tension reign across the work without use of loom or frame— it is not simply ingenuity or skill, but wisdom that guides the artist’s hand. It is this sort of wisdom that we need now, it order to weave our world better, tighter, and more beautiful.