The Cosmic in the Cosmic Loom

By Michaela Vieser

“In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-andwhite according to whether they mark a relation-ship of blood, of trade, or authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.” (1)

In Italo Calvino’s enigmatic Invisible Cities (1997), the citizens of Ersilia leave their city with relative ease if the networks that they have woven start to obstruct life – their expanses of land are big enough to keep on rebuilding habitats, interlacing them with fresh threads and patterns. Nonetheless, every time they try to create a new place, which “they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other” (2), they fail. They abandon and rebuild, try again – and fail once more. Everything falls to rubble and ruins, no houses or structures endure, only “spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.” (3)

In Berlin, the threads of past eras have been feazed and reused. A walk through the city is a constant reminder of the still visible networks of the people that lived here before us. We have tried new compositions, have abandoned concepts and ideologies, have started wars and rebuilt from scratch, yet the underlying patterns of the cosmic loom persist. There were times when we strung bones and furs into our fabrics, pearls from distant lands, silks and fibres, dyed with blood. More recently, we have embedded digital technologies into these textures. We can systematically place blinking lights with tight, neat knots where one thread crosses another. This meta-weave looks fancy and complex but feels stiff. The colour scheme lacks life and lustre despite the LEDs, when all we are longing for is to have a soft blanket that wraps around, protects and comforts us.

The seven rooms in Hella Jongerius’ exhibition at the Gropius Bau encourage us to think newly about how we weave, what we ought to weave and, indeed, what we are able to weave. What is a fabric and what can a fabric provide? The art of weaving combines craft and technology. In most cultures and societies throughout history, there has been a mystical element, a spiritual intention laced into the very texture of life’s fabric. This element seems to be missing today. The looms that create the “stuff” that surrounds us – the clothes that cover our skins, the materials that furnish our houses – stand in noisy factories, handled by underpaid workers for whom the process of weaving has become a burden to bear rather than a mission to provide for.

In 2020, Jongerius asked me if I would help to bring the aspect of the “cosmic” into the loom. She saw her role as one of listening and giving shape – creating, recreating, fabricating a Gegen-Stand (this German word expresses the idea that an object is something we confront and through the exchange with it, arrive at something new), that would open up to a new kind of thinking about the fabrics and fabrications of the world. Jongerius’ work always comes first from her hands; from touching, playing, experimenting. Where others feel they have exhausted the material and technique, she strives further and goes beyond, sometimes progressively, with a futuristic approach. Her hands intuitively respond, seeking the spiritual; they become teachers that eventually sensitise technology. Her approach is efficient, radical, and yet poetic and sensual.

Together we looked at the archetypes of weaving. We took inspiration from fairy tales, where the sister crafts of spinning and weaving surface time and time again as a medium that brings something into the world. The act of weaving may fuel desire (the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin creates gold from straw, the most humble of materials turned into the most valuable). It too can be dangerous if not properly handled (Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle wrong and a whole nation falls asleep for a hundred years). Conversely it can bring about a process of healing (the sister in The Six Swans weaves six magical shirts out of nettles collected in the moonlight). In such stories, which essentially weave their own form of tapestries, wise women can sometimes appear as a means of bridging new narratives. My role was to find such people: shamans, energy workers, world-wanderers and witches, even. Women who have “learned the technology of ecstasy”, (4) as the philosopher Mircea Eliade phrases it. To find them I had to connect with the river that runs through all of us. I meditated, practiced, sank in deep, trusted. Upon finding them, I realised that to invite them is a different matter: one has to speak in clear words. Every intention is reflected in one’s utterances – I felt that if there was doubt within me towards their abilities, they would know and perhaps not accept.

Hella Jongerius, Skuld from the series Space Amulets, 2021

Hella Jongerius, Skuld from the series Space Amulets, 2021 © Gropius Bau / Hella Jongerius, VG Bild-Kunst 2021, photo: Magdalena Lepka

Hella Jongerius, Verdandi from the series Space Amulets, 2021

Hella Jongerius, Verdandi(detail) from the series Space Amulets, 2021 © Gropius Bau / Hella Jongerius, VG Bild-Kunst 2021, photo: Magdalena Lepka

In 2021, two months before the opening of Jongerius’ exhibition, seven of us gathered at night in the Gropius Bau’s atrium. This included four female shamans from various backgrounds – Celtic, Siberian and Slavic – as well as me, Jongerius and the director of the Gropius Bau, Stephanie Rosenthal. Together, we called upon the cosmic loom. The atrium is an open, empty, somewhat defiant and powerful space in the centre of the Gropius Bau, which itself is in the heart of Berlin. Like most old buildings in Germany’s capital city, this too was impacted by bombing in World War II, but instead of erasing uncomfortable memories by filling holes in the wall with plaster and painting them, the decision was made to have them coated with concrete, leaving them barren and raw.

After the evening, Rosenthal said she had never experienced the space as she had that night. The architecture proved to be versatile, its atmosphere allowing the change we had asked for – it naturally transformed from a shell within which artefacts are sheltered, into something feel a centre, to which all of us were drawn. There we stood in the midst of a room held by soaring pillars, built on a floor made of earthen-baked tiles in floral designs and sealed with a glass ceiling through which a bluish- black light shone. That night, certain details of the building – which was once a Museum and School of Decorative Arts – started to become meaningful in a different way. The atrium’s four exits align with the four directions of the sky (north, south, east and west). The southern portal is flanked by a stone bird that greets those who enter and leave. Despite its vast dimensions, the atrium felt warm.

Mediating the evening, I supported Jongerius by asking the questions that would connect her intentions with the cosmic loom: what materials could constitute her interpretation of the cosmic loom? What stories should influence the healing amulets in the exhibition? From who can we draw wisdom?

The four women brought objects into the middle of the atrium, where they built an altar using carpets and different pieces of cloth. They then chose things that they deemed to be important to Jongerius’ world: a horn from the wisent and the quill of a porcupine, as well as crystals – molecular structures that grow as liquids, cool and start to harden – water in brass cups, fresh roses to celebrate, candles, cymbals, leaves and a spindle. Writing about the evening, Jongerius said: “As objects are my language this was a power source. The smell of white sage, the sound of drums and bells, looking at the wholeness; the presentation of our world, present in all these elements, laid out in circle with no hierarchy, made me think of my ceramic angry animal vases, which I made for the exhibition at the Gropius Bau: they have the full right to be angry.”

A shaman feels into the liminal spaces of our cosmos and receives data from entities beyond that which we can grasp with the intellect. Their data speaks to our senses; it comes in song and dance; in words that we hear from within or sometimes, perhaps, from ghosts. How to analyse the data is up to us; some of it remains cryptic; some may even be banal. The reception of this data – messages – and what it triggers is personal. The Siberian shaman and author Galsan Tschinag has written of entering a state of ecstasy: “Now I am about to summon the spirits, although the words that slip fish-like silently from the floods effortlessly converge into verse and the voice that catches them has long since intoned and settled. I am still a neighbour of the clouds and a brother of the fishes only, but I feel, I stand in transition, am on the way to the water and to the air, willing to rise to the throat of the fishes and to the heart of the clouds. If this succeeds, I will also succeed in growing into a counterforce and counterweight of the sky and the earth.” (5)

The shamans that night had never worked with each other and yet shared the space to create a fluid choreography that erupted there and then. They played drums and raised their voices. Each of them entered from a point at which they were able to both connect and receive using their own methods. Evoking the four directions, they opened portals. We even had a visitor from a faraway place, Alwine, who was the long-deceased grandmother of one of the wise women. “I have come from far”, she said in rhymes that used an old form of German. Then she lamented: “So many fires on my way. The smiths never cease to forge new things.”

And so the invitation stands for all of us: to pick up the spindle and turn it, dance with it so that the yarn is strung with good intentions and energy.

I was reminded of the fact that, by now, 70 percent of the energy that we consume goes into producing things: clothes, electronics, plastics. Last year, for the first time ever, the planet carried more manmade objects than natural objects. Is this what Alwine was referring to? Turning to Jongerius, the shaman said: “Everything is already here, what you are realising now started a long time ago. When something is needed it will ask for your attention, and your antennas will hear.” Jongerius later conveyed that it was good to hear these words: a confirmation that she should continue to rely on her intuition – her most skilled tool, which has enabled her life and artistic experience to become manifest. These revelations helped her to feel confident in proceeding with what she had planned as part of the Gropius Bau show, which was to dedicate a part of the exhibition to the creation of wood from recycled paper (old exhibition leaflets) and to manufacture glass from recycled sand – a material gathered from the Lee Mingwei exhibition in 2020, which seemed too precious to throw away. Creating new from old. Rethinking our resources.

Alwine, at this point, had to be fed with little cups filled with vodka and milk, and was offered cakes coated in sugar. She stayed for a while and answered more questions, also giving answers to matters unasked. She was clear about Jongerius’ envisioned Space Amulets (2021), which she said should be placed in the exhibition rooms. Furthermore, she highlighted what they should protect: “The corners are important. Use wood.” Jongerius noted this down, saying: “…and I heard wood as a material. Immediately I was thinking of the big tree trunk with a large burl I saw two weeks ago, this needs to be in this space.”

Together, these wise women went deeper into the notion of healing. They had all seen a river – the river of life. They said that vitality needed to be restored in this time and age and that the colours of the cosmic loom, woven continuously during the process of the exhibition, should reflect living water – mercury dark in the mornings, reflecting silver strands as sunrays play on its surface. Another colour was described, which is reminiscent of the empty space within the universe and, perhaps, within our hearts: it is not dark in a negative sense, but creatively dark: a darkness from which the new can take root. The yellow light of the rising sun was also mentioned. One woman specified: “Put things in that are alive, young. Sprouts. The luster of young children’s hair. Entwining vines. Healing comes from life.” Eventually, Alwine jumped, faster and faster. Then she was gone, having returned to where she came from. The shaman who had hosted her was exhausted.

The one thing that all of the shamans agreed upon was the healing character of Jongerius’ exhibition. They said that it was not something that she needed to bear alone: “There are many working on this now. All you need to do is to stay focused on your intention. And when the yarn you spin should tear, think about what thoughts crossed your mind in that moment. Realise what interrupted, pick it up again and keep on spinning.” And so the invitation stands for all of us: to pick up the spindle and turn it, dance with it so that the yarn is strung with good intentions and energy. Weaving life and sensing the connections that bind our tapestry.

Endnotes

1. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, London (Vintage Books), 1997 [first: 1972], p. 68.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, Princeton, USA (Princeton University Press) 2004, title.

5. Translated from the German original: “Nun bin ich dabei, die Geister herbeizurufen, obwohl die Worte, die fischhaft stumm aus den Fluten schlüpfen, mühelos zu Versen zusammenlaufen und die Stimme, die sie auffängt, sich längst ein- und festgesungen hat. Noch bin ich ein Nachbar der Wolken und ein Bruder der Fische nur, aber ich spüre, ich stehe im Wandel, bin unterwegs zum Wasser und zur Luft, gewillt, mich zur Kehle der Fische und zum Herzen der Wolken zu steigern. Gelingt dies, wird es mir auch gelingen, zu einer Gegenkraft und einem Gegengewicht des Himmels und der Erde zu wachsen.” Galsan Tschinag, Die graue Erde (suhrkamp taschenbuch), 1999, p. 16.