Janet Echelman: Net Work

Janet Echelman interview with Dr Jessica Hemmings

JH: How did you first become interested in netting and knotted structures?

JA: On a Fulbright Lectureship to India, I had agreed to give an exhibition with the US Embassy in a large exhibition space. My paints never arrived from the States and two months before the exhibition I realised there was no chance that I could make a painting exhibition in time. So I decided to embrace my environment and take advantage of the opportunities that were there. I was staying in Mahaballipuram, in a village near Madras known for sculpture and bronze for a thousand years. It was several weeks until the exhibition and all I had were twelve bronze casts that each fit in the palm of my hand. I was in trouble! Every evening after I finished work in the bronze workshop I would go for a swim on the beach, which was a block away. It was at the time when all of the fishermen were bringing in their nets at the end of the work day, and these beautiful volumetric shapes appeared on the beach. It dawned on me that this was an alternate approach to sculptural volume and mass. I didn’t have enough money to cast giant bronzes or transport them for city to city, so the netting was this nomadic, flexible form that could be folded up and spread out, and it was beautiful. While working there I slept in a mosquito net. So between these two kinds of netting - one was hand knotted fishing net and the other the sewn machine knotted mosquito net – I began to make sketches of how to extend the gestures of my small bronze forms. I worked with one of the fisherman families that lived on the beach and did hand knotting for me and then we dyed them. I then worked with one of the tailoring shops on the main road a block from the beach and they sewed mosquito netting in the shapes I drew. In that town, all the tailors are Muslim and all the fishermen and Hindu, and the art drew everyone together with a single purpose.

JH: Despite the massive scale for many of your public commissions, does hand knotting continue to be central to your work?

JA: The majority of the material is now machine knotted into components and then hand joined. So the lace patterning part is hand done with machine knotting in between. Now I am actually using knotting machines to make lace-like patterns because the new digital machinery can be manipulated. My fabricators will turn off the machine after each knot and readjust. It allows me to have a strong, repeatable and warranty-able piece that has characteristics of a handmade piece. It is both industrial and hand-crafted.

JH: Can you speak a little bit about the role of scale in your work? Most textile work, certainly embroidery, is often quite small in scale. What has drawn you to work on such a massive scale?

JA: It comes from my content- the experience of awe that comes from childhood and also from per-verbal life; before you could use language, the way you experience the world. We don’t have a lot of that as adults, the sense of the world opening up around you: holding on to your mother’s skirts, or climbing into crinolines, or sculptures that allow an adult human to feel small and surrounded and protected. So the reason for the scale of my work is based on the experience I want the viewer to have. It is not some arbitrary view that larger is better.

JH: Some of your commissions are contained inside built structures. Others exist outdoors and contend with the natural elements. Do these two contexts provide significantly different challenges for you?

JA: In some ways they are quite similar: I am sculpting an air space in relation to a world around it, whether that is architecture, the interior of a building or fixed exteriors of multiple buildings or features. Working indoors is a controlled environment with no wind, so that is the major engineering difference. The work that is indoors has to be delicate so that it can respond to the minute changes in wind current inside the building from the air conditioning system, for example. Outside I let the piece be animated by the choreography of wind. I let that breathe life into my sculpture.

JH: Your work seems to be increasingly engaged with fluid space. I am thinking of earlier works such as Roadside Shrine and compared with She Changes.

JA: The Roadside Shrine series were in relation to highways, their material and their forms are related to safety cones. So they have more of a solid nature and I am also interested in that. I’m quite interested in fluidity through time as well as fluidity through form. The Roadside Shrine series were specific to their sites. Also they were made from an industrial fabric and it was a less fluid material.

JH: Maximising the lifespan of the textile must be crucial to your large public commissions. Do you ever intentionally engage with materials because of their ability to disintegrate over time?

JA: I do create temporary work. There are pieces that I design to render space, for example with the idea of change definitely being a part of the work. But in public commissions that is not always feasible. This is an issue that I am still open to in my work. Sometimes I work in a very temporal manner and sometimes I respond to this desire for ‘permanence’, as if architecture were truly permanent!

JH: The textile is burdened with stereotypes, often to do with women’s work and issues that are often describe as feminine, if not feminist. Are you interested in engaging with these issues through your practice?

JA: I do want the primary way that you take in my work to be the first way that you take in my work: the kinaesthetic experience. But then I am additionally interested in multiple layers of reference to culture. I’m interested in both. But I want your first experience to be your body, and then you think about it. That is what creates a satisfying work of art, a response to so many parts of who you are and what you are.

JH: Thank you.

Embroidery Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2007: 14-17)