A Thread out of the Labyrinth

According to an Athenian version of the Myth of Ariadne, when Minos attacked Athens after his son was killed, the Athenians negotiated for terms. They were required to sacrifice seven young men and seven maidens to the Minotaur every seven or nine years. One year, the sacrificial party included Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, who volunteered to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne, a Cretan Princess, fell in love with him at first sight and provided Theseus with a sword and ball of thread so that he could retrace his way out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. This meant that Ariadne betrayed her father and her country for her love.

Anni Albers, “Pasture” (1958), cotton, 394 x 356mm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Edward C. Moore Jr. Gift, 1969 © 2018 the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London)

In “Ariadne s’est pendue” (Ariadne hangs herself), a review of the book Différence et répétition by Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault invents a new version of the Myth of Ariadne. In his version, Ariadne grows tired of waiting for Theseus’ return from the labyrinth, of listening interminably for his phantom steps and looking for his face among the fleeting shadows so she hangs herself. Her body turns thoughtfully around the cord, which is woven from the identity, memory and recognition of her love. “The thread is broken. Theseus is not coming back. He runs and races, staggers and prances through corridors, tunnels, cellars, caves, crossroads, abysses, and through lightning and thunder.” By saying that the thread is broken, Foucault meant that the whole history of Western thought has to be rewritten.

The mythical basis of Ariadne’s thread and Focault’s interpretation can be used to look at the works of Anni Albers as a guide to understanding linearity, starting from the basic level of observing the behavior of lines in space and how it orders vision and thought. For Foucault, the Minotaur is the representation of chaos but in Anni Albers, we see the labyrinth itself as the chaos into which the thread brings a linear structure; the chronological order marked by every strand. The labyrinth, though, existed, before Ariadne gave it order with the help of Theseus and it bears mentioning that Ariadne’s idea to use a thread as a way out of the labyrinth came from Daidalos, the builder and designer of the labyrinth.

The same goes with the principle at the heart of weaving: the practice of giving chaos an order that makes situations comprehensible. In many cultures, weaving is another way of telling or describing the myth and the weaver’s mind holds the blueprint of the maze. In light of the weaver’s practice, we can say that the labyrinth is in fact configured on the thread of Ariadne. The degree of complexity of the labyrinth increases as the thread finds multiple ways out of the labyrinth. What we get from Foucault is the mythical root of non-linearity, where a dependency between apparent opposites is formulated from the outset: the labyrinth needs Ariadne’s thread in order to measure its dimensions and Ariadne needs the labyrinth to give the thread a purpose.

Anni Albers who was a true master of weaving, presents us a better understanding of this nonlinear weaving process and the dependency between the thread and the imagination of weaving, which exists first as a labyrinth in the mind of the weaver. Alber’s knowledge of the art was encyclopedic. In fact, she wrote the entry on weaving for the 1963 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Her treatise on the craft in a book titled On Weaving had a far-reaching impact on the worlds of art, design, and architecture which isn’t always given due credit in the canon of modern artists. Her recent recognition in critically-acclaimed museum exhibitions mends the broken threads between modern art and craft which links the practice to the tradition of ancient civilizations. In a Foucauldian sense, Anni Albers held the thread that rewrites Western Art History.

Not many are aware that textile design was one of the disciplines taught at the famed Bauhaus school and that Anni Albers continued to teach it at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she headed the weaving department for more than 15 years. A consummate innovator, writer, researcher, and collector who revered Pre-Columbian textiles, she made, in her words, “pictorial weavings,” artworks meant to simply be looked at. She was commissioned to make fabric designs (some still in production today) and textile works that interacted with auditoriums, restaurants, private homes, and synagogues. Albers’s visions for using textile panels to divide rooms for flexibility and to reflect light were not mere afterthought or decoration, but integral to architecture. Albers translated the structure and techniques of an ancient craft into a visual language that is fully fresh and modern. She used modern materials and processes with an open mind, coaxing out the possibilities of a thread in innovating ways. “What I’m trying to get across,” she wrote, “is that material is a means of communication. That listening to it, not dominating it, makes us truly active, that is: to be active, be passive.”  In the following passages, I will attempt to tell the myth of Anni Albers in an oracular manner befitting the rendition of ancient mythology.

The Weave

Many lies emerge from the thread. All the more believable that a figure is rising from the surface, in the layers of thread, in the gathering of shadows, in the middle of the weave. The copper wire is shimmering with libido. This is where all stories begin, from what is not said or finished; to wrap the visible in your peripheral vision. In the memory of the frame we left behind, the surface, the vision. No beauty will change the truth; in confronting this to wash the desire, it’s so easy to deploy the monster from the thread wrapped around my tongue; and the heart wooed by this illusion will rebel from the lies that they themselves formed.

The Thread

She went ahead of me before I can see her—slipping past my vision,  moving into the seaweed, stone and dead corals, displacing the shy but colorful stroke troubled by the worry of the hidden orange, blue, and yellow scales, that once more, in this moment, its escape giving shape to the soul of the sea; peeling, splattering in the current. In this way, myths are formed, from the wonder that forms in the midst of surprise, like a stormy night and the knocking of the skeleton hand of the tree on the window, rocking us again to sleep: Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid.

Another Thread

Dragging herself by the tentacles, like a smashed heart beating on the floor, staring at light that peeks near the edges of the cloth; facing the horrified posture. It is natural for her to get lost. Don’t worry, she is not bothered by this. Believe that this is how our dying wishes are given form by being free while outside, the thread is ravished by the unravelled imagination, kissing the eyes as they contour the line. Not far from here, the light is scattered in the zipping vision of an unstoppable train. Licking the fire of the newly divided plane. Yes tomorrow, the surface is so open to danger. The light is swimming on the surface, catching the waves, trembling with the dynamite explosion of thought. Violence is always tempting—tracing the ferocity of the raging cold of ice and the tremor of hitting the wall. And how do we return to calm? Here we stomp our feet as we grow near, poised to throw whatever. This is how we link ambitions—in the lack of trust—even if it only wants to be set free.

The Edge

The attempt to escape leaves a trail: a curve, a circle, a zigzag, while the line bends from the weight of being stretched. How long can it hold? When will the yearning to flee stop. The tugs underneath are brief. The shaking of the hand convinces the unbroken threads. An escape is easily detected, they are marked by ripples on the surface, like the webs on broken mirrors, the snap of an overstretched line. Meanwhile from where she sits, the weaver’s steadfastness slips from the palm, and her spine surrenders. This is the moment to confront your own weakness, finding something to pull on with limited grasp. Stillness. The stinging sweat slicing the vision. In the mind, bearing the pain of the fully opened arms. The foreboding darkness of not resigning. The severity of the line caught in a needle. Often, the paths merge: sometimes diverging; often, dragging.

Labyrinth

The torsos slice through the maze of cotton. Behind the hedges, the eyes of the prince pointedly grin at a footprint in the mud. The breath is at the cusp of not winking. The prince hangs his breath on his bravery. Eyes wide open searching in the mad landscape. In the depthless darkness, the shining of purpose is the light. The hands waddle through the crossing paths, the trail of sinking: the cramping leg, the shortening breath. And the thread melts like mercury in one’s palm. Salvation rests in between the fingers. In the weaver’s feeling. The bubbles are left with the moss of a challenge taken. When the thread surfaces, the gasp echoes on the walls of Hornbeam; the ease at which the puncture on the surface heals.

Hidden Letters

Because the reasons lineup in the face of death: the doubt before the crash; the letting go despite the tightness of the hold. There crashes the previous promise of companions who went ahead—without hesitation they surrender themselves to the explosion, to the fire and smoke. While a few fathoms apart the body of intention, the moment of restraint tightens in the mind. How to prevent the push of the assault? Once, control: the stillness of a catapult before it locks on a target. O stillness. The furious are swifter: with their desire to get ahead. But evasion is always in the beginning and fear arrives at the wrong time—the headless chicken chased by its own shadow. Like this, the ancient weavers practiced to make that leap: before destruction lands, the exact distance, so they can get away from the explosion, the moment of salvation given to them by the spool. But there were others taken by the fires before the calm. In war, the fire treads even the sea. Who else then can hear the cries for help. Returning to the point of origin, there thousands of spears riddle from the anxious enemy. Hold your ground, salvation can’t be found there too. Only an inch more and like the web created by the thawing ice in the lake because of the weight of each step, a split second to take in the view—the long forest of white, the stroke of a whip of light in the sky. The spark from the striking of the match. A bulb that increases in luminescence before it dies. The jolt of a chariot to the bosom of a cliff. The closing of the eyes at the moment of crash. The feeling of going back to oblivion that is the riddle of the thunder: even the heavens are angry.

The Mind

I cling on to the belief that my husband will survive, maybe, in a sealed cabin. And in the dark corridors, the feeling of the locked chains that can’t be undone: in the narrowness of possibilities, the ripening terror. Here is the stage to come to the surface: the sheets twisted are like angels in the forest of a never-ending war, and at the end the decaying faces of those who drown in quicksand. It is like facing a frightful teacher, the opening of the palms to be struck by a stick, the wincing at every blow. Even though the map was drawn in water, I am telling you that my mind can no longer hold any memories.

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