Webbing the Nest

Luanne Martineau’s The Knitter Woman

Luanne Martineau created The Knitter Woman in the winter of 2019 in response to an invitation by the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA). With a curatorial premise that asked artists to “envision and create a ‘nest’ to cope with the end of the world, however it may come about,” the group exhibition was conceived in “response to our current tumultuous and polarized world where we see the rise of Nationalism, the clashing of belief systems, environmental destruction and the fight to mitigate climate change.” Generally, in art writing, it is a faux pas to rely extensively on quoting curatorial text; however, at this moment, it is necessary. “Nests,” writes the gallery, “will spark conversations and inspire you to think about what your own personal nest might be, how you face current challenges both big and small, and what the future might look like.”

The exhibition, which included four other artists and artist collectives, opened January 25, 2020, and was scheduled to run until May 3, 2020. Scheduled, of course, because at the moment this article is being written, the Art Gallery of Alberta is closed. All public galleries are closed. All sporting arenas are closed. All schools are closed. An unprecedented halt has come to what once was daily life. Referencing the AGA’s exhibition text in the midst of a global health pandemic—one that has seen the term “social distancing” rise to the level of battle cry—is both traumatic and triggering. The notion of creating a nest to comfort yourself in times of crisis stings like salt in the wound when you are being told all you can do to stay safe is to remain isolated in your home—to wait and ride out the wave of spiking infection rates.

All images: Luanne Martineau, The Knitter Woman, 2020, multimedia. Installation of “Nests for the End of the World,” Art Gallery of Alberta, 2020. © Luanne Martineau. Photos: Charles Cousins. Courtesy the artist and the Art Gallery of Alberta.

So right now, The Knitter Woman stands alone. Silent. But she wasn’t meant to. She’s somewhat of an Amazonian creature. Standing atop two muscular yet truncated white plaster legs, her torso is an A-line steel cage, whose framework is clad in pastel pulped and pressed paper; her head is a hexagonal crown of the same black metal and glass. She has three monocles for eyes, and stands armless, tucked up and tall, teetering slightly on her knocked knees. She’s like a motionless marionette, a Bauhausian dancer frozen in mid-step at a 1920s costume party. She’s a hollow frame, an exoskeleton iced in baroque filigree. She’s slightly messy, slightly dishevelled, yet still a classy gal. She’s emotionless but also fully transparent. We know exactly what she is thinking because we can see her thought process, what she is working through, what she is spinning on. Because inside her sparkly cerebrum, a tiny motor clickity-clicks away—a series of hooks dancing around a spindle, hooking and unhooking themselves to a multi-coloured piece of yarn. Round and round and round on the same thought they circulate, repetitive like a mantra or a mistake she can’t let go of—tick, tick, tick, they loop and reloop, over and over again. We see these thoughts on her face, too—enlarged schematic diagrams of her inner monologue pressed up against her glass cheeks—not so much a façade but that accidental inner expression she’s let appear, too tired of holding the idea within herself. As the hooks catch the thread, the thoughts continue to build, and a length of chord begins to form. The idea becomes a belief, the story becomes a tale, and it grows. Grows down through her throat, through her heart, through her lungs and into her guts. It forms and coils itself, until it travels the entire length of her body, and when it becomes too much, it drops out between her thighs, gets balled up and then jams the machine. So the thoughts temporarily stop, the mind shuts off for a minute until an attendant comes, clips and cleans away the knot. And the process starts again.

In reality she’s a Knitting Nancy, a dolled-up child’s toy, a G-rated version of Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll. Martineau invented a machine that could self-soothe by weaving herself her own area rug—a nest of sorts—from the i-cord that her busy brain produced. Luanne Martineau is known for her exceptionally laborious, densely built-up sculptures that are formed using traditional crafting techniques like felt punching and paper casting. These time-consuming objects take as much physical as mental energy on her part, a significant amount of solo, often tedious, toil. While “crafting” is often deemed as a “pleasurely” or “leisurely” activity, the procedural act of making requires both attentiveness and skill; metaphors between the maker and homemaker are never far apart, and it would be easy to link them to Martineau’s work. But that isn’t what is really happening here.

The Knitter Woman is a high-maintenance madame. She needs constant support, a team of care workers so she can function at her optimal level. Her bobbin slips off its rocker fairly regularly, and her digestion can get thrown off pretty easily, not to mention her raging PMS. She’s not just a pretty picture, and not particularly model-like. She’s sturdy but not always stable; in fact, inside, she’s quite fragile.

When the work is on view and functioning, it requires a full-time gallery attendant to help every five minutes with the inner components so the machine can continue to knit. Martineau originally intended the pooling i-cord to gather into a continuous heap at the sculpture’s feet; instead, the heaviness of that accumulation also triggers the mechanism to stop, and the same attendant must constantly gather the rope up and keep it off the ground. Once enough is spun, the umbilical cord is cut and the ball set aside, until a time is found, often after-hours, for the cord to be sewn into a coiled rug.

In effect, The Knitter Woman is a make-work project, a machine that visualizes the act of making but also forces the museum into the place of caregiver—not just caretaker (curator)—of the work of art. Martineau’s didactic text for the installation references Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 1969 “Maintenance Art Manifesto,” where the artist created a series of work that calls attention to, as Martineau’s wall label stated, “the place of art development and maintenance within the systems of the contemporary art exhibition. Ukeles’s radical series examined the socio-economic powerlines that feed and enforce our associations of (political, social, economic, artistic, conceptual, facility, and environmental) development as an act of creation, with maintenance as an essentially uncreative, subservient, and servicing janitorial function.”