PHILADELPHIA — Started around 1907, Municipal Pier 9 was built as part of a comprehensive plan to upgrade the Delaware River as a shipping channel. Intended to resemble (and rival) Chelsea Piers in New York City, these buildings were designed to accommodate larger cargo ships and it was hoped that they would help rejuvenate the waterfront area, making it once again a competitive port for international trade and commerce. From roughly 1880 to 1920, Philadelphia’s industrial district supported an array of mills and plants and no other city produced a wider range of textile products. At the turn of the 20th century, there were close to 700 textile companies operating in the area, creating everything from yarn, rope, ribbons, and lace to silk stockings, upholstery, and military cloths. Yet the area’s textile industry declined after the 1920s, and the trade activities at the ports began to suffer in turn. While other similar building sites have been turned into condos, Pier 9 was until recently used as a storage facility and it retains vestiges of its previous life: a railway track bisects the interior and metal covers lift to reveal large portals that open directly onto the river — it is as if the space was patiently waiting, still ready to receive cargo.
This pier is the setting for Ann Hamilton’s latest installation, habitus, made in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, where a companion display fills three floors of exhibition space. Cloth and the history of textile production in the city form the foundation of both parts of Hamilton’s project. At Pier 9, the former space of bustling trade is filled with 12 spectral, spinning curtains that hang from the steel beams and girders that crisscross the ceiling. Next to each curtain are two thick ropes — made from a twist of linen and wool — that are attached to a pulley system. These ropes activate the installation when the visitor pulls them: the fabric forms begin to spin, slowly, and some emit the humming wheeze of an accordion or the ringing of bells. Made from Tyvek, the curtains have been dyed, as the artist says, to match the atmosphere, in shades of soft gray-blue. Gathered and draped in billowing furls, the fabric falls some 30 to 40 feet from the steel beams to just above the compact and uneven dirt floor. The draped fabric looks somewhat like the over-fussy curtains of a stately home, the kind you would like to hide behind, or even the full dress of a fine lady, who has gathered up her skirts and lifted them, too high to be dainty.
The sides of the pier are open to the elements and the cold breeze off the Delaware adds to the motion of the spinning forms that seem to sway together in a slow, hypnotic, mechanical dance. At the back of the pier is a shipping container upon which are projected two poems by Susan Stewart, with whom Hamilton often collaborates (Stewart’s poems “CHANNEL” and “MIRROR,” printed on fabric strips wound on reels, are also on view at the Fabric Workshop). A short distance away, beyond a fenced barrier, a figure stands carding a large pile of wool fleece, while, sitting at a wood table near the projection, another performer cuts and pulls apart a wool sweater. These additional elements at first seem disconnected, especially compared to the neat unity of the 12 curtains, but they each link the ghostly installation back to the space and its original purpose as a point of trade. They remind us of the industry that helped lead to the pier’s construction and the subsequent, parallel “unraveling” of the textile empire and docks.
At both Pier 9 and the Fabric Workshop and Museum are piles of newspapers containing texts written by Hamilton. These writings grew out of a collaborative residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center and provide insight into Hamilton’s thought process and how she came to draw together the numerous objects and texts that fill the Fabric Workshop. On the ground floor are examples of the artist’s other textile-related work, including a man’s suit composed entirely of toothpicks, matching felt jackets (one facing the wall and the other facing forward), and a video installation that cuts between cropped shots of a pen writing the phrase “my love is increasing” and a piece of thread being pulled through fabric, never catching to make a stich. The first floor feels a bit like an unnecessary intermission, providing a distracting pause between the swirling installation at the pier and the display that fills two of the upper floors of the museum. Here, a long shelf holds boxes of textile fragments arranged for their use in classes taught at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science (now Philadelphia University); 26 wool and linen bedcovers and bed cases from the late 18th and early 19th centuries adorn an entire wall; numerous metal display cases, designed by the artist to look like canopy beds, are filled with commonplace books (collections of literary quotations or occasional thoughts), fabric swatch books, lace samplers, thread catalogues, dolls, needles, and weaving shuttles; and two shelves are lined with pages of quotes sourced by the artist through a Tumblr page.
For Hamilton, text and textiles are intimately linked, though the connection she proposes through her display between historical commonplace books and textile ephemera can feel tenuous — commonplace books (personal collections) involve a more idiosyncratic act of assembling information than the precision seen in the textile catalogues (commercial tools). Displayed in metal cases and removed from use, many of these objects seem to have become fetish; they reveal Hamilton’s own interests rather than providing an unbiased archive. But the act of compiling a commonplace book is similar to the method Hamilton employed in curating the exhibition, and approaching the display with this knowledge allows us to embrace the conceptual premise that ties it all together.
Ann Hamilton: habitus continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 8, 2017. The installation at Municipal Pier 9 (121 North Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) closes October 10.