From Earth to Mars - The Humble String in Visual Art
Ah, The humble string. From fishing lines and nets, cordage, clothing and bow strings to sutures, traps and leads, string has helped us stay warm, dry and fed for millennia.
As vital today as it was back in prehistory, string is manufactured in huge quantities and varieties. Just this morning, a mysterious and sandy bundle of string popped into my news feed, this time from an alien planet.
Seeking signs of microscopic life that may have inhabited Mars billions of years ago, the Perseverance photographed the loose bundle earlier this month. Officials at the space agency later confirmed that they believe the familiar tangle to be a string left over from Perseverance's spectacular February 2021 descent onto the red surface, likely left over from the largest parachute ever built for a Mars landing.
So is this string a tangled testament to humanity's far-reaching ingenuity? The humble utility of this sculptural remnant has a long history, a phenomenon reflected in modern art. For example, Barbara Hepworth first introduced string and wire to her work in the 1930s and continued to utilise stringed constructions throughout her career, defining a particular style of post-war sculpture that contributed to the popularity of string art as a decorative item throughout the 1960s. In her writings, Hepworth stated:
I used colour and string in many of the carvings of this time. The colour in the concavities plunged me into the depth of water, caves, or shadows deeper than the carved concavities themselves. The strings were the tension I felt between myself and these, the wind or the hills
In 1937, British sculptor Henry Moore also began work on an extensive series of sculptures featuring threaded string and wire. Moore stated that the mathematical models found in the London Science Museum were a primary source of inspiration, saying:
It wasn't the scientific study of these models but the ability to look through the strings as with a bird cage and to see one form within another which excited me
Marcel Duchamp's iconic installation Sixteen Miles of String was realized for the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York in 1942. For the artwork, Duchamp purchased a rumoured 16 miles of white string, and bedecked the central exhibition space in the Whitelaw Reid Mansion, partially masking the Gilded Age architecture of the room as well as some of the paintings hung on display. Through an economy of materials, Duchamp created an environment of intrigue and dynamic charge, eliciting a wide variety of interpretations from labyrinths to spiderwebs. In his book The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, T.J. Demos writes:
By entangling the gallery in a mile of string. Duchamp threw the display of surrealist artwork into a disorienting labyrinth that announced the dislocated status many exiled surrealists wished to forget
Some saw Duchamp's installation as a visual pathway, while others again saw it as a manifestation of the complexities of life, art and the difficulties of perception and comprehension However, many of the other artists partaking in the show were perturbed, insistent that visitors to the show should be able to view the paintings that they had struggled to get out of war-torn Europe .
A key figure in Russia's post-Revolution avant-garde Naum Gabo worked with spatially radical sculptures, also drawing inspiration from mathematical modelling. Linear Construction No. 2, 1970-1 is constructed from plastic and nylon threads, a visually suspenseful manifestation in which arcing contours appear to levitate above a static plinth.
Eva Hesse's unorthodox approach often included hanging forms suspended by cloth-covered wire and electrical cables, our modern iteration of string or cordage. Lenore Tawney, also known for her sculptural assemblages, became an influential figure in the development of fibre art. Tawney often went beyond traditional definitions of weaving, incorporating needlework to add to the linear quality of a woven design. Furthering her experimentation, Tawney began weavings that abandoned the rectangular format of traditional tapestries and suspended them from the ceiling with more string, thread or yarn.
.Practical importance and evocative visual properties mean that string, cord and thread have proven to be an enduring medium in contemporary art. In Tomás Saraceno’s third solo exhibition at Esther Schipper Gallery, he transformed the exhibition space into an immersive web-like geography of dimensional latitudes, longitudes and spheres. The 3.4 kilometres of 1–2.5 millimetre black cordage arranged in complex networks arise from the artist's fascination with spider webbing and vibrational transposition. This work, titled Algo-r(h)i(y)thms is designed to explore the correspondences between the spider web and the greater cosmic network, speculating upon notions of scale and the organisation of organic and inorganic formation.
Chiharu Shiota's first use of wool webbing took place in 1996. Since then, the artist has transformed her sculptural works and performances by elevating them with a vast amount of concentrated strands. In one installation, Shiota attached six hundred donated shoes to the facade of a Berlin apartment block, each connected to a red thread to symbolize the passage of life. Since the 2000s, Shiota has continued to produce vivid cobweb-like installations at institutions worldwide.
While the Mars-string could be viewed as a semi-historic piece of trash, we have much to be thankful for. The string has endured in art because it has been such an integral part of human history. And perhaps one day, the tangle may be recovered in the stiffened gloves of the first astronauts to walk on our red neighbour and preserved as a mark of human ingenuity sparked by our ancestors in the prehistoric era.
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