Lesbók Morgunblaðsins, February 11, 2006

A discussion with Ingibjörg Jónsdóttir about artwork and perception and the ties of weaving to literature, music, and philosophy, on the occasion of her exhibition at the ASÍ Art Museum, Ásmundarsalur, February 2006.

What is the main point of this installation of your work in the ASÍ Art Museum?

The installation of these pieces is mainly about illumination. The weave has reflective material in it and the light in the gallery is constantly changing, because of the big window. So this is a work in unpredictable reflection, and hopefully it will keep coming clearer and clearer. Like people that you’re fond of and can never see in their entirety: you’re always seeing them in a new light.

Your work is stimulating not only to the eye and mind but also to the ear. Do the images you create have some inner connections to music?

The whole time I’ve worked in visual art, I’ve lived with a grand piano, and I also listen to lots of music while I work. Music and literature are much more apt to influence me than other visual art, though obviously art has influenced me as well.

Would it be possible to speak of antiphonal weaving, or weaving with someone, or is weaving a performance on a solo instrument?

It is, in a certain sense. Weaving as an industry is not necessarily solitary but as an artist I choose in the end to work in complete solitude. But the web is never really yours alone. It’s full of threads that stray into your life from other people. Some ideas you want to weave into your warp. Some people’s ideas are threads that constantly distract you, in a good way. The French philosopher Michel Serres, for example, is a thinker that I can always connect to.

Might one say that you weave thoughts or even music into your material?

Often something I experience, or hear or read, will arouse feelings or sensations that set off a process that starts spiraling, winding itself like a bobbin, creating an insoluble problem that then gives birth to something new, at which point there’s no turning back.

Michel Serres says that whenever a living organ or technology is free of its assigned function, the door is open to new perception, new thought, and that this is a prerequisite to invention. Now, weaving is a very complicated technical process; how do you view the interplay between the warp and the element of unpredictability, the unknown that derives from something other than the laws of the loom? How do you work with the loom’s ties to industry?

I find the history of the medium very interesting, no less so for the fact that weaving has generally been industrial. For example, the first punch cards used in industry were invented by the French weaver Jacquard. The Jacquard loom, which is a famous phenomenon, was revolutionary. After that punch cards were applied to a variety of devices, among them the player piano. The earliest computers ran on this system, though punch cards are a thing of the past in the computer industry as in most things. Personally I now do all my work on a computerized loom, using my laptop for preliminary work on patterns, and I control the warp through a motherboard connected to the loom. So the coming of new discoveries lightens the load for artists and designers working in weaving. And yet that development is predictable; another kind of creativity has to come into play. It often reminds me of human genetic structure and the connections joining the creative aspect of separate lives. Every person is an extremely complex cloth. Inheritance, like the warp, is a given, but experience, personal will, and circumstance form the weft. You need to use both hemispheres of your brain and keep the connections between them lively, just as a musician or composer does, to do creative work in weaving. Actually I think the kind of person who would have worked in weaving in centuries past nowadays chooses to go into computer programming. These people have quite a similar thought pattern; the world- wide web is perhaps a logical extension.

What kind of thought pattern is that, exactly?

I don’t like to generalize, but it appears to me that people who work in computer programming and people who go into weaving professionally have a hard time fitting into a prescribed mold or framework and greatly prefer to define their own scope of work, and in this respect might be a little eccentric, but now I’m getting out on very thin ice....

Now that there seems to be a revival of interest in craft in the arts, can it be seen as a positive thing that craft was put in brackets for a while?

Every age has a mainstream. It’s only natural that art students have needed time to explore the potentials of the computer and information technology. Personally I don’t understand this fear, which some people feel urgently, that craft is being lost. I believe for example that it’s right and better to teach visual art and general two- and three-dimensional design rather than waste students’ time in very specialized technical work; it’s more in tune with the times. Specialized study should come on top of general studies. The world has been shrinking in recent years; one weaving workshop with good equipment would be enough for all the Scandinavian schools. That would bring all the students who have been badly bitten by the weaving bug together with a good faculty and visiting faculty. Something interesting would come of that. Instead of everyone learning a tiny bit of everything and never getting beyond the rudimentaries of anything.

Do you think the complexity of weaving is why so few people in contemporary art choose weaving as the channel for their creativity? Maybe for fear of losing the thread of invention?

There’s certainly a widespread prejudice that weaving, as a channel for creativity, is inherently narrow. But I find that having to deal with the loom and all its technical aspects in fact provides me with freedom and infinite possibility. On the other hand, it’s a very laborious process, requiring endless patience; I believe no one should choose this path if they can conceive of doing anything else. You need strong inner determination and passion for the task at hand to justify such a choice for yourself. I’ve had hours when I’ve felt as if I were caught in my own web and I’ve even torn myself loose for a few instants; but that has always given me a sense of self-betrayal and I’ve hardly been able to wait to get started again. As if weaving were saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Now that I have the skill to run around on my web like a spider, I have no desire to abandon it, no matter what comes along.

Are you ever afraid that Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and weaving, will show up with her owl and turn you into a spider, as she did to Arachne?

She did that long ago!

Do you remember why and when you chose weaving as your path in art?

I remember the first time I got to weave. I was still a child and I remember it as an almost mystical occasion. So of course then and there I knew I’d met my fated choice, so to speak.

When I got to look through your papers at your studio and saw all your research, all the speculations on pattern and the samples, I felt as if I were visiting a scholar in the midst of preparing a magnum opus, with memoranda and marked-up books all over the place. In any case like this you have to ask, What makes this person tick? What is this heartfelt urgency?

I regard my artwork as research labor. The main objective of the research is to get the weave to resound in the present. Though the research stays fairly fluid; I’m so afraid that if it got too cut and dried I might overlook something important or interesting. I do countless experiments on my materials, on the inner tension between the materials and the bindings in the actual web. Weaving is also an excellent way to study the creative process itself. It’s interesting for example that the Bauhaus men Johannes Itten, who wrote The Art of Color, and Josef Albers, who wrote Interaction of Color, used the web as a starting point for their new explorations of color. Itten’s workshop lay close by the Bauhaus weaving workshop and he taught many courses there. Color blending becomes very palpable when one color is woven into another. That sparked Itten’s interest in weaving, and after his Bauhaus period he founded his own weaving workshop. Josef Albers on the other hand was married to Anni Albers, that remarkable woman, printmaker, weaver, and thinker. I believe she had a big influence on his painting; some would no doubt see the influence going the other way, but to anyone who knows weaving it’s perfectly obvious how it went.

Some of your works have empty pages in them, and you wrote the texts for this exhibition yourself. Is writing important to your work? Do you write a lot?

No, not very much. I write down thoughts on slips of notepaper and put them in a cardboard box in my study. I don’t do any further work on the writing, but I process the ideas in the web. But I’m attracted to writing in and of itself, as symbol; the same goes for musical notation. The loom is like a stringed instrument except no melodies come out; it’s also kind of like a printing press, with no text. Maybe I just weave the envelopes for the letters its writes....

Weaving has long been closely tied to literature; it is a persistent theme in myth and other story. How do you view those connections? Do you have weaving in mind, yourself, as your read books?

I can’t say that I do. I read widely, on a variety of subjects, and I always try to approach each book with an open mind, on the basis of what I think are its underlying premises. But mankind is wrapped in humble cloth from cradle to grave. We take our babies and swaddle them from almost the first moment. All our lives cloth gives us protection, and at the end of the journey we shroud the deceased before the earth takes back its gift. So in that way the web connects to the earth, life, and death and the stories we tell about it all.

While Icelandic academics tend to fall back on the vocabulary of farming, their French colleagues for example often use concepts from weaving in trying to describe thought or language. Why do you think that difficult deconstructionism, for example, looks to weaving for its concepts?

People who invent patterns or who are studying new methods of weaving often engage in so-called pattern analysis. They delve into the weave, examine the patterns, and also analyze the structure, the process of formation. It might very well be similar to the way one approaches an understanding of how thought and thought patterns come into being. Sometimes I feel as if the story behind my pieces is like a micro-story of the origin story of the patterns that produce the world, produce our perception and thought. I’m used to seeing the world as a many-stranded weave. For example when I think of global expansion I picture a three-dimensional weave growing constantly in all directions. I picture a binding system that is incredibly simple and at the same time complex. Because of the diversity of fibers and the chaotic alignments of composition, color, coarseness, and density, we’ll never be able to analyze the pattern, the very bond that holds everything together.

Many of the materials that you use are organic. How do you connect to your materials?

I use parchment in some of the pieces in this exhibition. I’ve always found it a pleasure to work with organic materials, to investigate their possibilities. They can be delicate or strong or sometimes both at once. I am very respectful of the materials that I work with, I do my utmost to hear what they have to say, to release them from their previous duties, and give them a new role in a new context. It’s often a major effort to procure the materials that might prove interesting for a given experiment. I order thread from all over the world and then save every last bit in case some day a shipment comes too late or not at all, so I’ll always have little leftover snippets to work with, to keep the research going, keep the process from coming to a halt.

That strange being from Kafka, Odradek, came to mind as I was looking at your big piece, here.

Yes, of course Odradek was some kind of spool of thread, with many little bits and ends tied together and wound up on the spool. Like longings – so delicate and intricate and often full of knots.

Now you have the bobbins right in this piece; what are they doing there?

The bobbins are like little cocoons – Odradek cocoons! They are wound in a fine-spun silken thread that forms a spiral around each bobbin. The silver thread is so fine, it’s reminiscent of human hair. When the longing inside the cocoon is fully developed, the cocoon breaks open and the longing spreads its wings and flies.

Would it be possible to see these works as your cast-off skin, as a metamorphosis that has taken place? Can you imagine what your next shape will look like or what you’ll weave it from?

I expect the next shape will be a natural progression from my two youngest pieces. They have certain aspects that I want to explore more fully. But what lies ahead for me just now is a time of experiment and development, so really it isn’t possible to say what comes next. We’ll just have to see.

Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir

Translation by Sarah Brownsberger