Knitting Nation at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

There’s something really wonderful happening right now in museums across the country. Within the past year or so, fashion exhibitions like Cocktail Culture: Ritual and Invention in American Fashion 1920-1980 at Rhode Island School of Design’s Museum of Art; Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Arnold Scaasi: American Couturier at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston— have all broken attendance records further stressing the demand for more fashion exhibitions in museums.

On Friday November 25th, the Institute of Contemporary Art hosted a performance by Liz Collins entitled Knitting Nation Phase 8: Under Construction, as part of the museum’s latest exhibition Dance/Draw. A textile artist, designer and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Liz Collins’ work also falls within the realm of fashion and installation.

Performed in its first phase (Phase I: Knitting During Wartime) in May of 2005 on Governors Island in New York, Knitting Nation employs an army of volunteer knitters who operate vintage knitting machines, and produce lengths of vibrantly colored fabric. Phase 8: Under Construction, is the second phase of Knitting Nation performed in a theater setting. The first phase, Darkness Descends, 2011 was performed at the ICA on October 16th.

Knitting Nation Phase 8: Under Construction, featured 14 female knitters wearing white shorts over fishnet stockings, short-sleeve shirts, over-the-ear headphones and gray Dr. Marten Boots. It also featured 8 knitting machines, and 80 pounds of brightly colored polyester-cotton yarn.

I was reminded of the “mill girls;” the young Yankee women who worked at the large textile mills all over New England under strenuous and unsafe working conditions. While the “working” conditions at the ICA do not in any way resemble those of the textile mills of the 19th and early 20th century America, the repetitive and tiring work the knitters performed did.

Weaving in and out of the installation, I caught about an hour and a half of this ten hour long interactive performance.  Watching these knitters finish one color and start the next was exhausting, yet I caught myself unable to pull away from all the action. The body movements, the sounds created by the knitting machines, and the never-ending lengths of brightly colored yarn had me hypnotized. I lost all sense of time as I am sure the knitters did too.

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