Textile artist turns Delaware River pier into magic forest of cloth

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Tommy Wison (left) and Stephanie Greene pull on the ropes to make one of the 12 large circular curtains spin, as if the wind currents were making it move in the art installation habitus.

The artist Ann Hamilton once took over the enormous drill hall in New York's Park Avenue Armory and turned it into a room-sized loom, powered by people on swings. The piece, the event of a thread, delved into the complex and fragile connections between human beings who find themselves thrown together in a common space. It was so popular the lines wound around the block.

Hamilton has now commandeered a similarly gargantuan room in Philadelphia, in the underused Pier 9 warehouse on the Delaware River, for her latest interactive art installation. Called habitus (She evidently likes lower-case titles), it riffs on many of the same themes, but in a whole new form, involving curtains and chimes, wind and water. Once again it's powered by the audience, who must tie together the many opposing strands to complete her vision.

Hamilton, a soft-spoken, Ohio-based textile artist with a thatch of snow-white hair, has partnered with the Fabric Workshop on the installation, which is timed to coincide with this year's Fringe Festival. They've been working for months to get the parts just right, and now it's curtain time. habitus formally opens Saturday, but the presence of the baroquely-swagged, yurt-like curtains has already transformed the gloomy municipal warehouse into a magic world.

 

The word habitus happens to come from the sociological term for the way people perceive the world around them. As visitors wander through the mysterious forest of cloth, curtains billow, bells ring, and distant, droning voices waft through the room. 

The pier becomes its own contained world, one that feels far removed from the roar of the nearby PATCO trains and I-95 traffic. Visitors are encouraged to tug on bell-ringer ropes, which are strung from the rafters in twos. The pressure from the pair of operators spins the curtains, in the same way that an old-fashion spinning wheel turned raw fleece into yarn. Here the spinning produces connections, between people and ideas.

The cavernous warehouse, located next to the Race Street Pier and across the street from FringeArts, was once at the center of Philadelphia's maritime trade. Enormous ships docked alongside and disgorged their contents through garage-size bays. But after the city's port moved south in the 1960s, the once-bustling pier was reduced to a static storage facility.

Habitus, which is accompanied by a companion show at the Fabric Workshop's Arch Street galleries, fills the cavernous room with new activity. Yet this modern use is also dependent on the river and the tides. For the installation to work, the bay doors will be raised to allow the Delaware River breezes to gently ruffle the curtains. "It's a collaboration with the wind," Hamilton says.

In Hamilton's work, fabric is always a metaphor and packed with multiple layers of meaning. Cloth, she believes, is really the first architecture we experience, when, as babies, we are swaddled in blankets.

While the curtains in her New York show were made of silk twill, this time she has switched to the synthetic Tyvek. If the brand name sounds familiar, that's because the material has become ubiquitous across Philadelphia. Made from polyethylene, it's used to wrap and insulate new rowhouses before the final cladding goes on. Tyvek has become the architecture of our time.

Since Tyvek comes off the factory roll white and stiff, Hamilton had the Fabric Workshop's studio assistants wash it until it was soft and wrinkled. Dye was rubbed onto the surface. The billowing curtains now resemble fluffy clouds rather than building insulation.

Hamilton is obsessed with exploring dualities, and yin-and-yang themes are woven through the installation. The choice of the synthetic Tyvek was meant as a contrast to the fluffy wool ropes that visitors use to turn the curtains; it's the natural controlling the synthetic. It's no accident that it takes two people to operate the ropes. Rather than pulling, Hamilton prefers to think of the actions as letting go or releasing.

While the curtains swirl, others activities are going on at the far end of the space. A woman seated at a table painstakingly pulls the threads from a sweater, one at a time. Nearby, a second woman spins a pile of raw fleece into thread. This endless cycle, what Hamilton calls "making and unmaking," is another duality.

So is a text by poet Susan Stewart, which is projected on a screen in two halves, like open pages in a book or the two sides of a body. Hamilton sees a connection between the acts of reading and weaving. In both cases, the eye follows a line. In a sense, she says, "reading has a warp and a weft."

Hamilton seems to be saying that a line, whether made of letters on a page or a thread, is what unites the disparate elements in the world into a coherent whole. Something like a piece of cloth, it's what gives our lives meaning.

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"habitus" by Ann Hamilton. Through Oct. 10, Municipal Pier 9, Christopher Columbus Boulevard south of Race Street. And Sept. 27-Jan. 8 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street. Free. 215-561-8888, fabricworkshopandmuseum.org