‘It Felt Like an Overwhelming Collapse’: Artist Lisa Anne Auerbach on Why the Overturning of ‘Roe v. Wade’ Made Her Unraveling ‘Rights’ Work Go Viral
Knitting becomes a powerful metaphor in the artist's work.
In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade, allowing states to outlaw abortion, many turned to social media to express their outrage at this assault on reproductive health.
One widely shared image that seemed to perfectly illustrate what was at stake was Lisa Anne Auerbach’s Rights, a short animated video of a knitted artwork proclaiming the word “rights.” Over the course of just a few seconds, the textile unravels, its message eventually disintegrating into complete illegibility—echoing the loss of women’s rights in the U.S.
We spoke with Auerbach about the piece’s viral success and how she came to embrace the unconventional medium of knitting in her work.
When did you first make the piece Rights and what inspired it?
Rights was the first piece I made that I unraveled after knitting it. I’ve been creating knitted work for a long time and always had bound off my edges. I intended to reflect a world that was literally fraying in a visceral way.
I’m also thinking about textile vernacular and its parallels with matters of community and culture—a “tight knit” community, “woven” or “stitched” together, or “fraying,” “at loose ends,” “bursting at the seams,” “unraveling.” We talk about the fabric of democracy, understanding how threads tightly woven together create strength, without thinking specifically about the why we use these terms. Seeing the work come apart is a return to the reference in an embodied and tangible way, and I find this physicality of linguistic terms impactful.
You first shared a still image of Rights in September. Do you feel differently about the work now following the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling?
I made the first version of this piece last September in relation to the Texas statute encouraging vigilante enforcement of abortion laws. After the Supreme Court ruling, I wanted to go farther with it, to see how much I could take apart before losing the word.
At a certain point in these unravelled works, the letters start to collapse, leaving behind only illegible strands of yarn. How does that speak to the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision?
The overturning of Roe v Wade felt like an overwhelming collapse; rights that were solid one day suddenly disappeared. and I wanted the piece to reflect that idea of
dissolution. When unraveled, the pinks start to suggest bodily interiors, organs, tissue.
The feeling of the Supreme Court decision was visceral. I, like so many others, characterized it as a “gut punch,” and the strands of yarn are twisted, gut-like, visibly tangled, fallen apart, hopeless, “at loose ends.” It’s a long way towards rebuilding freedoms we took for granted for so many years. The strands of yarn, once a word, an idea, even a truth, are an analogue for the feeling of something so broken, such a tangled mess.
The initial still image of the work was only half unraveled, but the video completely undoes the entire piece, unlike the halfway unraveling knitted slogans in your recent show at Gavlak Gallery. Is it actually two separate versions of the work? Did you pause midway through to take photos and then continue unraveling?
There are two versions. I kept the initial piece intact and made a new one to unravel the work completely.
Two days after the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, you shared a similar time lapse video of an unraveling work called Thoughts and Prayers. Was that a piece that you made specifically in response to the massacre there?
Yes. It was in response to the usual refrain we’ve heard repeatedly from politicians and leaders after mass shootings, though at this point the cynicism of the words have been called out repeatedly so we don’t hear it as much these days. Regardless, the words are interpreted to mean political inaction in the face of repeated senseless horrific tragedy.
When did you first learn to knit? Did you learn to knit specifically for your art practice, or was it a practical skill that you later incorporated into your art?
I learned to knit after leaving grad school. Until that point, my primary medium was photography, but when I graduated, I lost access to a darkroom, and this was prior to the ubiquitousness of digital processes. I learned to knit as a way to continue my art practice at the time. I was interested in the way text can be transformed by virtue of its physicality or its materiality and I loved the sweaters Sally Walton made for Rick Nielsen in Cheap Trick. Text knit into a sweater becomes an integral part of the garment, not an addition but the structure itself.
What was it that appealed to you about political knitting, about bringing a female-centric craft into the activist realm and into the world of fine art?
I started knitting to make sweaters with text on them, to make words into fabric, to turn what I was thinking about at a particular moment into a garment that would outlast its sentiment. I wasn’t thinking about gender or activism or politics. “Political knitting” wasn’t really a thing when I started knitting.
How have your knitting skills evolved over the past two decades? Do you create templates for each work?
Most of the work I exhibit is machine knit, and I’ve used the same machine since 2004.
How do you come up with the slogans to incorporate into the knit works?
Sometimes I start with an idea of what I want to make a work about, other times a phrase will pop into my head or I’ll hear something in a song, or read (or misread) text. At times I will use historical slogans. I try not to knit the obvious, but in some cases, it’s the obvious that makes the most sense.
Do you have a favorite knit work that you’ve made, and why?
My favorite piece is usually the one I just made, whatever that is. It’s my favorite until I make my next favorite.
That said, there are a few made over the years that I still really love, like the series of large knitted bookshelves that create portraits of book lovers through their libraries. A hand knit sweater with a big Jewish star on the back is one of my all time faves, but it’s now in the collection of the Hammer Museum [in Los Angeles] so I can’t wear it anymore, which is a bummer. A 9/11 joke sweater is another one I always liked a lot, too, but it’s also gone. “Keep abortion legal” used to be a fave, and I wore it for years as we saw reproductive rights get chipped away. Can I even wear that one now?
How often do you wear your own sweaters?
I live in Los Angeles, so I don’t wear them as much as I’d like. I keep a few in my office that I wear when it’s chilly, and during our cooler months I’ll usually take a few to rotate over the winter.
When did you start unravelling your knit works? Was it in response to a sense of impending doom for our society and the human race, or am I reading too much into it?
Your question about impending doom is accurate. In other projects, I look at far-right spaces online, so I’m thinking a lot about civic issues around cohesion and dissolution. I wanted to express this using a familiar medium.
I feel like I should also acknowledge that Steve Bannon talks a lot about a book The Fourth Turning that uses the term “unraveling” to refer to a cycle in history characterized by individualism and a decay of an old civic order, making space for a new one. I was not familiar with this theory when I began the pieces, it was a more organic process of material exploration than a literal illustration, but, again, this underscores the ubiquity of how the language of textiles and political structures are woven together.
How does it feel to undo something you’ve spent so much time on? And how long does a typical piece take to knit versus to unravel?
The pieces that are unraveling are machine knit, which certainly doesn’t make the process instantaneous, but it’s a lot quicker than hand knitting. I’m not as interested in the process as I am in what it makes. Things take as long as they need; sometimes there are technical hiccups and they can take forever, and other times everything goes smoothly.
When did you realize that if you were going to unravel these pieces, that you should film the process?
Thoughts and Prayers was the first one I photographed while I was taking it apart. I conceptualized it as a video rather than as a static work. The pieces that are in the midst of unraveling retain legibility to a degree, I wanted to see how it would look completely undone and photographed it as an animation to document the process.
Does unraveling a piece half way present any conservation challenges? How do you prevent the works from continuing to unravel?
They won’t just slip apart on their own, they really need a hard tug to come apart. It’s a low risk of further unraveling without some real effort.
Auerbach’s work Rights is for sale and is available in an edition of five plus one artist’s proof for $5,000 each. Twenty percent of all proceeds will be donated to the National Network of Abortion Funds.
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