Nevet Yitzhak, “WarCraft” (detail) (2014) (all photographs courtesy the artists and the Gardner Museum unless otherwise noted)

BOSTON — The human body, war, and opera: these themes meld within the drapes and folds of the textile works on display in Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time, now on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The exhibition brings together a group of boundary-pushing contemporary artists to consider how millenia-old traditions of textile-making can continue to narrate our stories in the 21st century. In two galleries, this little gem of a show boasts only eight artworks, but each offers a sensual, immersive, and personal encounter with textiles.

“This exhibition reminds us that artists today are redefining a traditional art form in multiple ways that prove the enduring appeal of the fiber medium,” says Pieranna Cavalchini, the Museum’s Curator of Contemporary Art.

Award-winning composer David Lang and playwright Sybil Kempson certainly prove the enduring appeal of 500-year-old fibers in the exhibition’s first outstanding work. They created a contemporary opera, “true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries,” to accompany a group of 16th-century tapestries dramatizing the life of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia (ca. 600-530 BCE). “True pearl” is radical in several ways. First, it is an “in-ear opera,” a new form of opera that offers a private experience through headphones available exclusively in the Museum’s Tapestry Room. The opera’s private experience playfully upends the Tapestry Room’s original public function as the Music Room, where Isabella Stewart Gardner hosted concerts and other artistic events. Finally, the opera’s libretto offers a fresh, contemporary perspective on each of the five tapestries, calling attention to details and themes in direct and oftentimes comedic ways. For about an hour, I was immersed in tales of empire building, passion, and tragedy.

Lee Mingwei, “The Mending Project” (2009) (photo by Yoshitsugu Fuminari, courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo)

Whereas the opera is an individual experience, “The Mending Project” encourages participation and collaboration. For this remarkable installation, artist Lee Mingwei erected a worktable where a volunteer sits in front of a wall of multiple spools of thread. Visitors are encouraged to bring a textile in need of mending or embellishing. Unprepared, I offered my old coin purse for embellishing. While the volunteer worked on the piece, she asked pointed questions that really did compel me to share stories and anecdotes about the coin purse, reviving old memories of my time in college when I first received it as a gift. To my astonishment, “The Mending Project” succeeded in generating an intimate experience that blends narrative and textile arts.

I left “The Mending Project” with a happy heart, which was then torn apart by “WarCraft,” an immersive multimedia installation by artist Nevet Yitzhak. In a small dark room, three digital screens are mounted on three walls. Projected on each of the screens is a recreation of the artist’s own war rugs, inspired by Afghan prayer rugs that incorporated weaponry and war motifs after the 1979 Soviet invasion. Yitzhak brings the war motifs to life through digital animations, making “WarCraft” resemble a violent video game. With an explosive soundtrack, a continuous loop of tanks, helicopters, and jets zoom across the screens, dropping bombs and missiles and setting the three screens aflame. As the label declares, “in Yitzhak’s war, there is no victor; the battle rages on in endless loops, reflecting the seemingly endless wars taking place around the world.”

El Anatsui, “Many Come Back” (2005) (photo by Richard Goodbody, collection of Newark Museum)

For the remaining artworks in the exhibition, contemporary artists experiment with the many facets of textile production and function. Ghanaian artist El Anatsui pushes the material boundaries of textiles with “Many Came Back”. Made of flattened metal slats from liquor-bottle tops stitched together with copper wire, “Many Came Back” drapes more like a sculpture than a piece of fabric. Yet it’s the work’s materiality that formalizes the historical associations of the importance of textiles in the African trade network and the role of rum in the transatlantic slave trade.

“Standard Incomparable,” by Helen Mirra, is a collection of international weavings that relate production to the human body, with the length of each textile corresponding to the length of the weaver’s arm, and the width of each of the stripes to the width of the weaver’s hand. When displayed together, the weavings’ human parallels are striking, highlighting the similarities and differences between people’s bodies.

Raqs Media Collective, “The Great Bare Mat” (2012) (photo by Stewart Clements Photography)

And finally, Raqs Media Collective reimagines a pair of 3rd-century Chinese bronze bears into a wool carpet with “The Great Bare Mat.” The artwork plays with the delightful bears in a few ways. The word “bare” in the title is a homonym of “bear,” a nod to the Chinese tradition of playing with such aural puns. The bronze bears once served as weights to anchor rugs where Chinese scholars sat and debated philosophy. And the subject of bears appear on this mat as the Great and Little Bear constellations, floating amidst criss-crossing lines that are based on an algorithm of conversations among computers all over the world. Waxing poetic, the label summarizes, “the stars in the rug conjure the sky above, which appears to watch over the humans sitting below telling and retelling their stories.”

Famous textiles such as the Unicorn Tapestries (16th century) and the AIDS Memorial Quilt (20th century) tell and retell political and personal stories across time. Although my humble coin purse will never be that culturally significant, just the same, it will continue to preserve my personal stories, and now, it is embellished with my memories of this provocative exhibition.

El Anatsui, “Many Come Back” (detail) (2005) (photo by Richard Goodbody, collection of Newark Museum)

Kate O’Brien, “Standard Incomparable” (partial) (2015–2016), organized by Helen Mirra (photo by Ivo Corrà)

Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time continues at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, Boston, MA 02115) through January 13, 2019. Pieranna Cavalchini and Christina Nielsen co-curated the exhibition.

Dany is an art historian, author, and fiction writer currently working on her second novel. You can read about her art writing archived on her website and follow along as she jams on her planners. You...