Knoxville Museum of Art Director David Butler has spoken about the importance of including regional traditions and artists in the museum's exhibition mix while also introducing cutting-edge work to Knoxville. Consider the compelling installation by Chicago artist Anne Wilson, Wind/Rewind/Weave, on view until April 25. Wilson has shown internationally in museums and at the 2002 Whitney Biennial; this exhibit explores the textile-manufacturing industry, specifically in the Southeast, as well as regional craft weaving, as well as the often sad history of mill life.
Installation artists often use an inviting empty space to marry disparate components, perhaps hoping the work will coalesce into a whole by being tossed together in a dedicated piece of real estate. By contrast, Wilson uses the KMA space to perfection. Planned with the KMA, the site-specific work is collaborative or "relational," cross-disciplinary, flowing, embracing, and evocative of important, timeless themes like memory and "making."
The rich, fugue-like quality of events remembered later has inspired many artists. Found or treasured objects and ephemera reference history, cabinets of wonder, and the potency of artifacts. Some, perhaps in response to present-day uncertainties, focus poignantly on nostalgia and times past. For example, John Ford's mixed-media "Cisco-Pol," in the KMA permanent collection, uses found objects as the fulcrum or focal point in an intricate, labor-intensive assemblage, encapsulating his own memories while simultaneously inviting others to recall their own.
Wilson takes these themes even higher and wider. A multimedia piece made up of several smaller pieces that add up to a whole, Wind/Rewind/Weave is also as pedagogical as you will allow it to be. Wilson combines original sculptures, hand-made furniture and equipment, wildly colorful weaving materials, archival photographs and socio-historical research data, filmed performance, a reference library, and web presence. This abundance may potentially affect how, and how well, the public receives her show. Wilson asks viewers to work hard; it takes time to experience all the various offerings in order to do the show justice.
Time and work are also themes that cross-cut Wilson's many perspectives, multiple media, and levels of meaning. Referencing work historically, Wilson's original sculptures are exact replicas of weaving tools and materials, but in glass, a more fragile material. Some of these beautiful objects are lit from below in a vitrine. Others—glass bobbins wound with threads of glass—are scattered on a vast floor lit from above. Their preciousness and delicacy could be, these days particularly, a metaphor for the fragility of our access to meaningful work. But Wilson also asks that we consider issues of accountability, contrasting satisfying, egalitarian hand work (done alone or communally) to the asymmetrical relations that result in typical industrial settings. Wilson addresses issues of mechanized and enforced labor, socio-economic and gender stratification, worker welfare and the co-opting of workers' time. This agenda is less apparent when one first engages with the installation; the information must be sought out in the books, film, and online.
At a more immediate and sensory level, Wilson uses space, color, sound, light, and shadow to create richly seductive environments. A large table is piled high with industrial quantities of thread in every imaginable color; on a high wall, cascading vertical lines of thread terminate at the floor in multi-colored spools. Professional weavers are serially occupied at a large loom in the back. Wilson invites the public to collaborate with the weavers to create a hand-loomed tapestry, providing pristine birch work tables with small wheels for winding. "Workers" choose any color from the table of spools, then wind thread that will contribute to the tapestry, intended for KMA's permanent collection.
This experience can be quietly meditative or, if you are with friends, fun in a chatty, quilting bee sort of way. The room is as inviting for children as well as for adults. But if you start imagining workers doing this for 10 hours a day, six days a week, year after year, weightier thoughts on the nature of labor could intrude.