by Claudia Gould
Editor's Note: The author was awarded a PEI 2011 travel grant to visit the Venice Biennale specifically to this exhibition. A related exhibition on the work of Sheila Hicks, an artist who works with yarn and thread, was concurrently on view at the ICA.
The first time I went out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore to try to see Penelope’s Labour: Weaving Words and Images, an exhibition of tapestries and carpets largely drawn from the collection of the Giorgio Cini Foundation, the exhibition center was closed. This was on a Tuesday. I was in Venice to see the Biennale, a trip made possible by a generous travel grant from the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, and I had heard that Penelope’s Labour was one of the best shows on view. What could I do except try again on Wednesday?
On Wednesday, it was pouring rain as I set out with Philadelphian Jennie Hirsh for San Giorgio. The Institute of Contemporary Art is currently hosting a major retrospective, Sheila Hicks: 50 Years, which surveys the work of this extraordinary artist who works largely in thread, so I was particularly curious to see an exhibition of historical and contemporary works in thread. Penelope’s Labour did not disappoint me. For a museum director who spends her life going to shows, many of which come highly recommended, it is a particular delight not to be disappointed.
The title of the exhibition, of course, refers to Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus fails to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, his wife Penelope must fend off the advances of the many suitors who hang around, eating her food, drinking her wine, and insisting she choose one of them to marry. Penelope, who is convinced that her husband will return eventually, develops a ruse by which to put the suitors off, announcing that she will choose a new husband as soon as she finishes weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. By day she busies herself weaving the shroud, and by night she unweaves it, thus postponing—indefinitely, she hopes—the day she will be forced to take a new husband. Weaving, for Penelope, is an act of will and a path to self-determination, as well as a duty and a practical art.
The objects on view in Penelope’s Labour have similarly various intentions. The exhibition showcases a mid-16th-century Flemish tapestry and an early 16th-century as well as contemporary works by Lara Baladi, Alighiero Boetti, Marc Quinn, and others, including “Fin de Silencio,” a wonderful installation by Carlos Garaicoa who had a solo show at ICA in 2007 exploring Cuba’s politics and ideology through architecture.
One of the most stunning work in the exhibition was an enormous tapestry—45 feet long by nine feet high—by Grayson Perry, who has previously been mostly known for his ceramic work. “The Walthamstow Tapestry” is a depiction of the seven ages of man and a gorgeously detailed critique of contemporary society. It begins on the left with a graphic image of a baby being born, and you can follow the river of blood in which the newborn floats past depictions of a girl holding what seems to be a Christ doll, a Madonna clutching a Chanel handbag instead of a child, a middle-aged man whose glass of red wine matches his power tie, all the way into the mouth of a yellow-eyed devil. The colors of the tapestry are stunning: blues and reds and acid greens. The work seems to contain everything: deer and rabbits, as you would find in historical tapestries, as well as pizza boxes, walkers, umbrellas, discarded water bottles, laundry, tin cans, and lots of guns. Between the large and small figures flow the names of brands: Evian, Tesco, Porsche, British Airways, Yves Saint Laurent. The more you see, the more you want to look, and the more you keep looking, the more you see.
There we stood, Jennie and I, for a long time, postponing from one minute to the next going back out into the rain. Why should we, when we had the whole world there in front of us, fixed in visionary thread?
Claudia Gould is the The Daniel W. Dietrich, II Director at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania