We Made It: Aerial Net Sculptures

Janet Echelman’s aerial net sculptures are all about intersections and interdependencies: between ancient and modern technologies, between mankind and our environment, and between each painstakingly knotted thread. They also unite the worlds of art and craft. Echelman is a sculptor and artist whose work has incorporated everything from Balian Batik dyeing to Lithuanian lacemaking. Now she uses net, creating vast, floating installations inspired by natural phenomena. With a brand new work premiering at the first Lumiere London festival next year, and another on show before that at Lumiere Durham in November, she explains how she learnt net craft from fishermen on the shores of southern India.
Take us back to the moment you saw a fishing net with fresh eyes.
It didn’t feel like an epiphany at the time. It felt like desperation. In 1997 I was a painter, and had committed to deliver travelling exhibitions in India. I was in Mahabalipuram, a fishing village in Southern India, and waiting for my supplies to arrive by ship. Finally the deadline for the exhibition arrived, and my paints didn’t. This area was famous for sculpture: the Chola bronzes. I began embracing this tradition, but there was no way these small bronzes would fill the museums. I was absolutely at my wits end. Every day I would walk to the beach for a swim, and see the fishermen reel their nets into these beautiful hovering mounds on the sand. In my desperation I looked at them again. It suddenly struck me: there’s volumetric form without all the heavy solid materials. So I set about collaborating with the fishermen to create my first sculpture.
What did the Indian fishermen teach you?
How to knot, how to join the panels, how to start the net… I would sketch the forms, and the fishermen would help me knot them. When I lifted the pieces up in the air, I discovered that the wind breathes life into their surfaces in ever-changing patterns – that was when I discovered what the work was about. At first the fishermen were puzzled by my request to collaborate. This was a tool, a livelihood, they didn’t see it as art. A few said, “But I can’t make the mesh that large, the fish will get through”. One man said, “The net is my god”. Because the net had fed him and his family and their lives depended on it, it is something he reveres and cannot change. It was different with different people.
How is the piece titled 1.8 London being made?
London is in the braiding stage, which takes at least a month. The structural ropes are made of ultra-high molecular-weight polyethylene, a fibre 15 times stronger than steel. We custom-braid it to different thicknesses according to the loads they need to bear with wind and weather. After braiding it will go to the looms, then be hand-cut, hand-knotted, and the ropes hand-spliced for strength. The braiding machines run 24 hours a day, and we work in three shifts. You can’t rush it. That happens on the north west coast of the United States, in an area that creates giant trawler nets for commercial fishermen. I’ve worked with these people for 15 years. It feels like a different time, where everyone knows everyone and there’s intensive craftsmanship. One thing that’s interesting to me about this work is that it is simultaneously in different eras: pre-industrial, industrial and post-industrial all at the same time. It is a very satisfying feeling for us as human beings, because you don’t have to lose your history and identity when you embrace the new technology. It can all be linked and integrated. That’s part of the meaning of the work.
What new technology is involved?
1.8 London is the second in a series of pieces inspired by data sets of earthquakes and tsunamis – "1.8 micro-seconds" is the amount of time the day was shortened by as a result of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which sped up the earth’s vibrations. We developed custom software with the design company Autodesk, so we could build, model and analyse these forms. We are able to input the exact thickness of each twine and rope, its weight, its stiffness, and then exert the force of gravity to let it drape. A net itself is a complex of interdependencies. One single element moves, every other element is affected.
Why do you describe craft traditions as "vessels of wisdom"?
The cultural transmission process from generation to generation has the beauty of erasing the inessential. Only things that have some value and truth survive. When I learn a method of knotting, embedded in that comes all the history of its use. In fact the knot the Indian fishermen taught me is the same as the one my colleagues in the US use to make commercial nets – and when I studied with a lace maker in Lithuania, they were using the same knot to create doilies. Rope splicing is a technology so robust that, thousands of years on, it is still the optimal way to maintain strength. But I’m also developing ways of working with mist and coloured light, working with interactive technology and coding. I don’t see a separation between old and new craft, analogue craft and digital craft. I’m interested in bringing the two together – and that’s what I’m going to be doing in London.

  • 1.6 Durham, powered by Atom, will be at Lumiere Durham 12-15 November. 1.8 London at Lumiere London 14-17 January 2016
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