Art Show Shimmers with Silky Ideas
A poignant and beautiful tribute to industrious insects and their lovely labour uses sculpture and graphics
(The Vancouver Sun, Monday, October 17, 2005)
Opening night, two days away when we visited, promised to be a fantastic affair at the Elliott Louis Gallery. Thirteen mulberry bushes crawling with silkworms would be placed in a colonnade along the entrance and ten women, models and friends of the artist, would be promenading around, exotically dressed with mulberry leaves on their heads.
Are you getting the idea yet of silk, silkworms and what they devour in their short, industrious life-spans? The show, by Joanna Staniszkis, is called The Emperor’s New Clothes. “What was this about?” we asked her. She didn’t want to say but it took only a few seconds to guess that a nude would be involved – a former student who’d volunteered to strip off and hopefully shock the assembly.
Staniszkis recently ended her 36 years of teaching textiles at the University of B.C. Two months ago, she came to her “senses,” as she tells a friend. Later she modifies that. “I loved teaching but it was taking me farther and farther away from what I wanted to do, which is this.”
The gallery is divided into two spaces, one room “austere” as she puts it, the other a Scheherazade of luxury, with amazing silk clothes piled on a bed. The latter wasn’t in place yet, with one bush inside, its pot still wrapped in plastic.
Staniszkis had arrived with a few of her friends – silkworms, which she had unsqueamishly picked up and placed on the interior mulberry bush. Fat, grey-platinum, active creatures, they were much larger than I’d imagined, wriggled around and once placed on the bush, took to it like a – well, silkworm to a mulberry tree. Time was wasting: the biological imperative.
The show forms part two of a trilogy which investigates natural fibers and what they mean. The first was linen, a cloth common in her native Poland (a country with a great interest in textiles, says a Polish-derived colleague – Staniszkis “never used to see the beauty in flax” when she was growing up there but did later). Now silk, and the future show, wool.
The silk show is a poignant and beautiful, representing the life cycle of the ephemeral silkworm and the 900 feet of durable protein fiber that have been extracted by the Chinese and Japanese from each cocoon for thousands of years. Beauty is cruelty.
There are two physical elements to the show and the world of ambiguous implications. There are sculptures, all delicate, made of either of wicker or black wire, the common element being a profusion of little white cocoons. And there are semi-graphic backdrops behind them, which reinforce the idea – cocoons which Staniszkis flattened and spread out, emphasize the ovoid shapes of the originals, then colored with natural dyes, then mounted and framed. Another element is the fine overlapping silk flaps that move with the slightest draft. Dead moth carcasses litter one of the sculptures and the whorls of wicker basketry mark the places where the cocoons in a previous stage of life chose to anchor themselves.
They suggested, for some reason, Hieronymus Bosch, seed pods and embryos, the phases of life, dramatically foreshortened. The black wire sculptures bristled with black plastic filaments (Canadian Tire) and the flat works on the wall rested on file black plastic mesh, reinforcing the idea of weaving.
Staniszkis, who is funny and light-hearted, welcomed the feeling of ambiguity as to what it all meant. In itself, putting the show together was like spinning and refining an idea. The silkworms are analogous to thought. To being and becoming.
By the end of the opening night, Staniszkis thought, there wouldn’t be a leaf left on the mulberry trees.
The show runs at the Elliott Louis Gallery, 1540 West Second Ave., to Oct.30.