El Anatsui, Many Came Back, 2005. Aluminum and copper wire.
Textiles have been a vehicle for exploring political and personal narratives over the centuries, and in the hands of a select group of boundary-pushing artists today, they invite one to consider anew the stories we tell ourselves, collectively and individually. Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time features the work of contemporary artists, many of whom have been Artists-in-Residence at the Gardner. These artists are redefining textile art through mediums including music, video, and participatory art. Taking its cue from Isabella Stewart Gardner’s own magnificent collection of historic and contemporary textiles, this exhibition explores the ways in which the art of the past continues to inspire artists now.
The Museum’s magnificent set of sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries depicting scenes from the life of the Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian ruler, provide the stage for a new opera by renowned composer David Lang, with a libretto by the playwright Sibyl Kempson, in collaboration with dramaturge Jody McAuliffe. This new work—true pearl, an opera in five tapestries—was made specifically to be heard in the Museum’s Tapestry Room, the site of numerous musical performances in Isabella’s lifetime. The opera is not meant to be performed live, but is recorded and will be available on special headsets in the room, so that visitors can listen individually as they move from tapestry to tapestry, and from scene to scene.
This kind of highly personal and immersive encounter with textiles extends across the Museum and into the Hostetter Gallery in the New Wing, where a group of artists working across media—including El Anatsui, William Kentridge, Lee Mingwei, The Raqs Media Collective, Elaine Reichek, Standard Incomparable (a collective project spearheaded by artist Helen Mirra), and Nevet Yitzhak will be featured. New weavings and tapestries explore the historic medium’s enduring appeal, and also highlight the relationship between production and the human body. Other works, “woven” together digitally, or featuring unexpected materials, boldly challenge conventional assumptions and suggest a new, more expansive approach to telling stories through tapestries and textiles.
(Photo by Richard Goodbody.)