Weaving with Yto Barrada
MoMA curators reconsider five works in Barrada’s Artist’s Choice exhibition.
River Bullock, Lucy Gallun
May 17, 2021
Across many periods of her life, from Paris to Tangier to New York, the artist Yto Barrada has been inspired by the ideas and writing of French social work innovator and writer Fernand Deligny (1913–1996). While working closely with Barrada as she developed her ideas for an Artist’s Choice exhibition at MoMA, we have learned about Deligny’s approach to the world and have also come to new realizations about many works in the Museum’s collection, reconsidered in this context. In the exhibition, Barrada explores the resonances between Deligny’s ideas and art. Rather than illustrating Deligny’s thematic concepts—including the network (réseau), the raft (radeau), wander lines (lignes d’erre), and areas of stay (aires de séjour)—Barrada brings together selected artworks with films, maps, writing, and photographs that document Deligny’s revolutionary project, and invites us to consider art in relationship to language in ways that might inspire a reexamination of what it means to be human. The exhibition does not include “interpretive” labels about the works on view; instead, visitors will find themselves following themes, motifs, or gestures from one work to another. So here, as Barrada’s collaborators and coordinators at the Museum, we share some of the stories behind a selection of works that we experienced anew as part of Barrada’s exhibition, A Raft.
Ilse Bing. Spider Web and Stables, New York. 1951
Deligny found a resonance for his model of a network in the idea of “the Arachnean,” which evokes a spider web; he described how “there are networks that spin and weave themselves like so many spider webs, in nooks and in the forks of trees; until birds pass by, or a housekeeper’s broom.” Only one image in the exhibition—a photograph by Ilse Bing—overtly depicts a spider web, light glistening on its woven asymmetrical threads. Born in Frankfurt, Bing moved to Paris in 1929 and built a successful career as an avant-garde and fashion photographer. In 1940, she and her husband, both Jews, were interned in the south of France; they were able to emigrate to New York the following year. Bing’s photographic output waned in the 1940s and 1950s, and in 1959 she decided that she “had said all that she had to say with photography” and gave up the medium altogether, turning instead to poetry (which she called “snapshots without a camera”). Later, Bing informed an interviewer from the New York Times that she had given up photography because “everything moves, nothing stays and I should not hold on,” a description that evokes Deligny’s metaphor of the ephemeral web.
Lygia Clark. O dentro é o fora (The Inside Is the Outside). 1963
“What moves me in the sculpture O dentro é o fora is that it transforms the perception I have of myself, of my body,” Lygia Clark recounted. “It transforms me and I become formless, elastic, without definite physiognomy, ‘Inside and Outside’: a living being open to all possible transformations.” From a series of sculptures she called bichos, or “critters,” the stainless steel is meant to be warmed by the heat of human hands and manipulated and reconfigured.
This merging of motion, formal experimentation, and viewer participation were central to the Brazilian Neo-Concrete movement, in which Clark played a formative role. The Inside Is the Outside, an abstract form with no front or back that is meant to remain in motion, disorients us so that the relationship between the self and the world, and the self and the other, may be reexamined.
Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. Still from Dripping Water. 1969
A river runs through Le Serret, one of the three encampments that make up the experimental communal network that Deligny initiated in the south of France. The children who lived there fetched water from the river; in one photograph in the exhibition a child is seen gazing up at water streaming through a colander. In their experimental black-and-white film Dripping Water (1969), collaborators Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow record the transfixing sound of water dripping, and show the water pooling and rippling on the circular surface of a plate. The rhythmic drip sustains for the duration of the 10-minute film (which in the gallery continues on a loop); the shimmering light on the water hypnotizes, while the sound might alternately relax or torture the listener. The importance of water to the children—it keeps the raft afloat—is an example of what Deligny calls a binding joist: a point at which the paths of the adults and the wander lines of the children cross repeatedly.
Milan Knížák. A March (Pochod) (detail). 1973
A March (1973) and Raft (1974) come from Milan Knížák’s Performance Files—documentation gathered between 1983 and 1985 related to the activities of Knížák and his collaborators in the Aktual group, which was founded in Prague in 1964. Aktual worked outside of the established art community and expressed distrust of actions focused on “art” in and of itself, favoring alternative explorations in social relationships and communities. One of the group’s stated goals was “living otherwise.”
The Performance Files do not distinguish between individual and collective authorship. By the 1970s, when these two actions were conceived, the political regime in Czechoslovakia no longer permitted public gatherings. Knížák was arrested and detained in 1972 and 1973; by the mid-1970s, he and his family were living in an isolated rural area.
For the somber action titled A March, a small crowd of people gathered in a valley outside Prague, tied themselves to one another with rope, and marched silently, or, in the words of the score, “in quiet, wordless song.” As one of the participants described, “we tied ourselves to each other with the ropes, and so for the rest of the walk we were entirely dependent on one another.” The action ended when the ropes were cut.
For Raft, no photographs or other documents exist; perhaps the action was never realized beyond this text form, which reads: “[Build] a raft, set a fire on it and [float] with it as long as the fire will burn through the raft to the water.”
Milan Knížák. Raft (Vor). 1974
Trisha Brown. Untitled. 2007
Scaled to a human body, Trisha Brown’s monumental 2007 drawing Untitled seems to trace movement in space. Early in her career, Brown, a member of New York’s Judson Dance Theater, often made small diagrams to represent a moving body. This later drawing, linked to the choreography of an opera, uses expressive lines to performatively represent movement. The rigorous experimentation and study of everyday actions for which she and the other Judson dancers are known are reminiscent of the ritualized daily activities in the living areas or areas of stay of Deligny’s communal network. Deligny suggested that Jacques Lin, a young electrician who had left his factory job to join the community, transcribe the children’s movements and gestures in space rather than seek to understand or describe them in language. These transcriptions, made up of a series of traces, compose what Deligny called wander line drawings, which suggest an image of a space “outside language.”
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