My grandmother used to collect articles, photographs, and other ephemera that reminded her of someone she knew. She would send me an article that she had neatly cut out of the newspaper and put in an envelope, and I would receive it on my doorstep. Nowadays, most of my friends text me when they read or see something I might like or need to know: “I just read this, and I had to think of you.”
The exhibition She spins the thread, she measures the thread, she cuts the thread at Nest, The Hague, is precisely about these intimate moments of connecting with other people. Having a chat with someone you never met before, finding common interests, or having different thoughts on a particular subject. The exhibition is a conversation between the three artists, colleagues, and friends: Mila Lanfermeijer, Ana Navas, and Evelyn Taocheng Wang. They got to know each other between 2012 and 2014 during the two-year residency program at De Ateliers in Amsterdam. In their studio spaces, they talked about each other’s ways of working, discovering shared interests, and the use of similar materials (textile, drawing, painting) and approaches (repetition, appropriation, research).
When entering Nest, I’m asked to take my coat off and offered a cup of tea. It creates a homely encounter that probably wouldn't happen pre-corona, when you could just walk into an exhibition space. A large wooden structure divides the existing space into seven rooms, offering the possibility of wandering through the different rooms and getting a glimpse of the works exhibited. Architect Donna van Milligen Bielke designed the exhibition, based on the theme of domesticity. She created a “house” based on the floor plan of Villa Tasch in Dresden (1875-1876), designed by Bernhard Schreiber following the example of a Roman villa. The rooms are dedicated to themes that coincide with the room's functions: a bedroom, study, salon, and studio.
The exhibition starts in the central vestibule, an open space from which all other rooms are accessible, called “Moth-er”. The names of the rooms are a wordplay with the suffix ‘-er’, based on Taocheng Wangs False Posters series. evoking the graphic language of the poster with reference to Chinese calligraphy. There are two miniature tableaux from Navas, one mimicking fashion and car logos with found jewelry and beads, and the other depicts a living room scene. On the back wall hang two textile sculptures by Lanfermeijer that look like flat garments, coats, or skirts with zippers and hooks. The deconstruction of these garments relate to Taocheng Wang’s play with the construction of language, while Navas examines the traces of objects and symbols that are present in our world.
An important common factor is their interest in appropriation and reiteration. Elaborating on the work of others is used by the artists as a research method, either to understand the form and meaning of objects and to interpret their place in art history. In the salon, titled “Form- er”, I recognize the sculpture Bird in Space (1923-1940) by Constantin Brancusi. Navas made a copy of the sculpture, acquired from an online decoration shop, which she placed on a textile rug. She questions the value and meaning of a canonical work of art: what happens when it gets reproduced and sold as an ornament? On the wall hang textiles by Lanfermeijer, responding to the color theory of the expressionist painter Johannes Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus. The patchwork is made in color combinations that he considered to be unsuccessful examples of color combinations made by his students. Next to it, hang works that mimic Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases, executed on soft and metallic fabric by Navas.
Sometimes it is difficult to interpret the works, as the exhibition doesn’t give you any guidance, there is no fixed route, no signs with titles or dates, and no clear distinction between the artists. Their treatment of canonical artworks addresses an in-crowd, and because of the lack of explaining or descriptive texts, not everyone will be able to get the reference to these artworks. The architectural design does stimulate the visitor to freely associate, make connections between the works, and form their own ideas. This is best illustrated in the “studio space”, where finished and unfinished works and sketches by all three artists are assembled in a joint composition. There is no hierarchy, no fixed order, no beginning or end.
In “Fing-er”, the study room, shared ideas, and beliefs are expressed through texts and in personal letters. I read the letter written by Lanfermeijer for Eve (Taocheng Wang), a letter on elegance of four pages that she wrote after receiving a dress from her. The letter deals with the way women have to behave, how we show our emotions, the way we dress and the strategies we teach ourselves in order to survive in a patriarchal society. “The term elegance has this idea of natural behavior attached to it, it’s something you possess. She doesn’t behave elegant, she is. One that is elegant doesn’t snore, doesn’t sweat. She is titillating but not overly sexual. She is not bodily.” With these words, Lanfermeijer hints at the emotional labor women undergo in both our personal and professional lives. I think every woman can relate to the experience of being looked at, cat-called on the street, either not feeling safe, or not taken seriously.
In the bedroom, titled “Inn-er”, a number of everyday objects are wrapped in painted fabrics: a vacuum cleaner, a trolley, and a clothing rack. The silhouettes of the objects are still visible, but the volume of the textiles turn the existing objects into sculptures. In the corner hangs a yellow blouse with the embroidered text “Green Tea Bitch”: a term for Chinese women to describe ambitious women who act innocent and dumb but are actually ambitious and intelligent. The “green tea bitch” is one of the many terms that categorize different types of Chinese women. With these expressions, may they be fictional or nonfictional, Taocheng Wang plays with existing stereotypes and their underlying power structures.
I can imagine that Lanfermeijer, Navas, and Taocheng Wang had many conversations about their conceptual methods and the connections between certain canonical artworks and their work. Still, as a visitor it feels like you're not really part of their inward-turned conversation. With the architectural design they tried to evoke the feeling of being at home, creating a space to wander around and make connections between their works. It invites you to share and establish links between the artists, the same way they did and continue doing. When I walked out of the exhibition, I sent one of my friends a picture of the letter on elegance. She replied: “Thank you for sharing.”
The exhibition was on view from 5 June until 1 August 2021 in Nest, The Hague
This text has been written and edited as part of het AICA-mentorschap