Any notion that ‘Entangled: Threads & Making’ might take a delicate, romantic view of such ladylike pastimes as embroidery and weaving is put paid to by a ferocious opening corridor. The exhibition commences with a procession of works by Geta Brătescu and Louise Bourgeois. Opposite Bourgeois’s spiderweb quilt and embroidered traps is Brătescu’s Bound Fan (2002) which, in its quietude, is somehow more sinister. For so simple a gesture, there’s something horrifying about this act of binding, and it’s an activity that reappears in works by Phyllida Barlow, Sonia Gomes and Judith Scott. To bind is to constrain, to refuse potential, to announce control, to reject growth: here, the fan is held tight shut, its slim leg-like struts unable to open, its pretty skirts concealed. And all done with this little wisp of cord.
Further along, we meet Kate MccGwire’s White Lies (2015): toothy creature-feature constructions made with pigeon quills pushed through embroidered doilies. These avian vagina dentata have apparently had a deflatory effect on Maria Roosen’s nearby After David 2 (2015), a stool upholstered in a limp corona of knitted pink phalluses. These ladies with needles? Don’t mess with them.
Starting fierce allows for the inclusion of darker material in a show destined for a broad audience. In general, the trajectory from this point is a slow movement upward toward the light. A feel-good ending comes courtesy of Annette Messager’s featherlight The Dancing Tutu (2012) – a suspended bundle of tulle dancing on the breeze of a fan – and Laura Ford’s charmingly anxious child-sized penguins (or, perhaps, anxiously penguin-suited children). En route, however, there are horrors, drama and delicacy.
The first large gallery is loosely themed around weaving, with pride of place given to Hanna Ryggen’s extraordinary 6. oktober 1942 (1943). Knotted from naturally dyed fibres, Ryggen’s large tapestry mixes myth, symbolism and autobiography with historical events that took place in Norway during World War II, among them the Nazis’ assassination of theatre director Henry Gleditsch. It’s a powerful and explicitly creative response to an act of barbarism aimed at quashing dissenting voices in the artistic community: not much else here can compete with it on those terms. A work by Ryggen’s contemporary Annie Albers – a geometrical composition of oblongs and stripes – seems a mere formal pronouncement by comparison. A large tapestry by Kiki Smith (Sky, 2012) of a naked woman floating in a starry sky above ice-capped mountains may share some of Ryggen’s narrative qualities, but wouldn’t look out of place in a new-age emporium.
There’s a lovely face-off between two suspended works in the next, light-filled space. Phyllida Barlow’s Untitled: Brokenshelf (2015) is an outsized witches besom, levitating despite the plaster, steel and cement sticking to its brightly wrapped sticks; Karla Black’s What To Ask of Others (2011) is a gauzy, weightless (gosh, how feminine) swag of polythene, pink with chalk dust.
Similarly ethereal are Christiane Löhr’s fragile structures – arcs, yurts and pagodas bent from strands of grass and a column knotted from horsehair. Löhr’s works occupy a sphere of making that ‘Entangled’ embraces quite unequivocally: craft is presented here – as per Bauhaus philosophy – on equal footing with art: specifically those practices that are awake to the possibilities of hand production (and which, of late, have drawn heartily on craft traditions including tapestry, embroidery and ceramics). This, today, is a more politically audacious move than the decision to dedicate the show entirely to female artists. But, given that it opened a week after women all over the world took up their needles and knitted pink pussy hats as an act of protest, you can’t fault the timing.
Main image: Paola Anziché, Natural Fibers, 2016, knitted natural fibre (32 works). Courtesy the artist; photograph: Sebastiano Pellion di Persanots