Kristina Benjocki, At sunset we retreat once again, up the hill, to where we can watch the skeins of water reflect colours we’ve never seen before, Exhibition view, 2022, IKOB – Museum of Contemporary Art. Photography: Lola Pertsowsky
The Weft of History – Kristina Benjocki at IKOB, Eupen
Kristina Benjocki grew up in Zrenjanin: once one of the largest textile-producing towns in former Yugoslavia. Lucy Cotter visits the artist’s current installation at IKOB and notices how this biographical background has increasingly become a prism through which Benjocki examines the wider intersection of human labour, technological progress, and political histories.
“To write is not to speak”, Marguerite Duras once observed; a caveat that not everything can be spoken. Writing captures some of what might otherwise not be said, yet even the presence of words marks absence; the silent spaces of what has not and may never reach the page. In history, as well as literature, much has not been put into words, and “history” is often too recent to have settled into mere history, not least in the aftermath of war and displacement. Perhaps this is one reason why Kristina Benjocki has turned to the act of weaving in her recent works – a wordless form of writing that is doubly removed from the act of speaking. A silent gesture moving through space, made up of interconnected strands that alternately resist each other and come together, like the transforming East and West European histories in these works’ underlying narratives.
At first sight, the three white hanging textiles in her installation work Ground Bindings (Nada, Gizela, Tereza) (2019) appear to be mere things, cleaning cloths perhaps, or cot blankets. One might have overlooked that something of importance could be legible on these blank slates, if Benjocki had not re-focused our attention through the adjacent inclusion of oversized photographs of the wool skeins used in the weavings, overlaid with the drawings and one-line instructions of the weaving patterns they materialize. Nearby, preciously laid out on a glass shelf, are the paper tags that once encased them. The three yarns were produced in what today are the separate nations of Macedonia, Serbia, and Croatia, all part of Yugoslavia at the time of the skein’s production. Like passing memories, these banal, almost disposable objects had been stored away and forgotten before Benjocki saw in them a materialized history of Yugoslavia, a history of women surviving war and displacement in WW2 labour camps and beyond. As the fourth generation in this familial line of weavers, the artist reclaims the practice to render absence visible; employing materiality as a placeholder for knowledge that has been silenced by the mechanisms of official memory. Human, political, economic, and material narratives that are, at best, marginally present on the fringes of European history.
[blockquote]As the fourth generation in a familial line of weavers, the artist reclaims the practice to render absence visible; employing materiality as a placeholder for knowledge that has been silenced by the mechanisms of official memory
Zrenjanin, where Benjocki grew up, was one of the largest textile-producing towns in former Yugoslavia, with the privatization and transition to a neoliberal market economy leading to the shutting down of factories, followed shortly by the nations’ fragmentation in the early 1990s. Increasingly, this biographical background has become a prism through which Benjocki examines the wider intersection of human labour, technological progress, and political histories. This is evident in her most recent installation, “At sunset we retreat once again, up the hill, to where we can watch the skeins of water reflect colours we’ve never seen before” (2022), exhibited at IKOB in Eupen. Resonating with the Belgian city’s historic role as a production center for dark blue and black cloths (swarte Laeken), Benjocki incorporates several material remnants of local dyeing operations in the first room of her exhibition. Eighteenth-century ledgers containing cloth samples and handwritten entries from regional collections appear alongside Benjocki’s vinyl wall drawing of the Isatis tinctoria, the woad plant, whose role from ancient times until the present tells a parallel layered history of European and global production and trade.
A glass case contains polished metal fabrication parts, reassembled into a utopian architecture; a silver collection whose allure is interrupted by engraved markings pointing to the utility of the objects, whose sculptural role in the exhibit suggests the redundancy of their former functions and the human labour processes they instigated. In Benjocki’s hands, the blackened scraps of cloth in the ledgers seem to re-appear as blotted out or deleted human experiences. The almost iconoclastic presence of the monochromatic dyed fabrics, both in the notebooks and in fabric bolts piled into sculptural constellations, hint at the absence of images of human labour. The absent voices of the women makers central to European and global textile production, which shifted from domestic space to the factory floor, from personal to industrial to corporatized labour.
The works hint at the absence of images of human labour. The absent voices of the women makers central to European and global textile production
The second room in the same exhibition revolves around a new series of oversized tapestries woven by Benjocki, entitled Tableaux Vi-VII, La Composition (2022). Black and white and double-sided, they contain pictogram-like images that invoke the relationship between weaving and computer coding, as well as the broader cultural significance of textile motifs. Their patterns are based on a series of drawings for rug manufacture in the Serbian Pirot kilim tradition, which have lineages to the Islamic-Ottoman rule in the Middle Ages, as well as being used in the development of a post-Communist national identity. The loom can also be seen as the first computer due to its controlling of a sequence of operations, and Benjocki pays special tribute to Ada Lovelace, the 19th century Countess who personally created the world’s first computer programme, having recognized that Barrage’s computation device could be used to pre-sequence other kinds of operations. Benjocki collaborated with the experimental musician Seamus Cater to produce an accompanying sound work whose squeeze box folk music invokes working-class life, while the lyrics pay homage to Lovelace, a woman whose labour transformed our contemporary reality.
Benjocki’s artistic choice to create material and embodied presences, like song or tapestry, invites viewers to bodily experience history, as something that is constantly made and remade by the living
Benjocki’s artistic choice to create material and embodied presences, like song or tapestry, invites viewers to bodily experience history, as something that is constantly made and remade by the living. This facet echoes an earlier work by Benjocki, Study of Focus (2014), an installation in which a series of hanging, blanket-like textiles bear text snippets and cropped images from books recording Yugoslav history from the 1950s to the present. The reading of each image or text is obfuscated by the refusal of linear or separable histories, as well as by the translation of image or word into the pixelating surface of woven wool. Closer inspection reveals yet another layer, namely the trace of other human presences; earlier readers who have left underlining marks, a fallen hair, dirty smudges. These traces render usually invisible witnesses to written accounts materially present, and thus accountable. As viewers, we too are implicated in seeing our active role in making histories that translate into contemporary urgencies in the present.
Reflecting in a recent interview on her foregrounding of textile production, Benjocki observed, “Textile materials such as clothing, blankets, and carpets are more pivotal to human history and culture than we may think. However, this highly degradable material is easily absorbed back into the soil, leaving no traces.” She sees her own practice as a kind of archaeology that acts as a counterweight to how the discipline itself has focused on iron, bronze and other non-perishable materials. Interestingly, however, other works by Benjocki delve into labour related to these impervious materials, and even in these dominant areas of labour history, she manages to expose the vulnerability and malleability of historical accounts. Sedimentation of Memory (2017), for example, revisits the dark corridors of a former limestone quarry in Maastricht, The Netherlands through Benjocki’s explorations of the once-classified personal archives of individual workers. Foregrounding little-known stories of military exercises in Cannerberg during the Cold War, Benjocki finds in this regional history inscriptions of the complex circuitous paths of Eastern and Western Europe at large. Casting this wider net, this multi-media installation poses crucial questions about disclosure. It reminds us not to think we have full access to history, or to imagine that people feel safe enough to openly share memories, regardless of time passed or their legal status. Once again, the photographic or textual image is transferred into something materially tangible as Benjocki presents inscribed and drawn-upon limestone blocks, some hollowed out by insects. The architectural realities of this cavernous work are brought home through the direct projection of line drawings onto exposed walls, offering parallel views of nameless workers undertaking their day-to-day tasks. While we appear to be shown everything, the representations pitted by the five synchronized Kodak carousel projectors leave us with the sense that we have flicked through a graphic novel at random. We are left in the end noticing just how much we don’t know and cannot make out. Indeed the slide projection itself is important, as a technology that projects an image, while all the time promising veracity.
As I write this text, millions of people are living underground in bomb shelters, basements and underground stations throughout Ukraine, as Russian shelling continues. The Ukrainian War makes us vividly aware that what we call history is more like a dormant volcano, always on the verge of reactivation in the present. At this moment, which has brought Europe closer to World War 3 than any previous instance, it is triggering to look at Benjocki’s current project exploring ‘the caves’, a complex network of underground tunnels in the borderlands of The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Entitled Portrait of a Mountain, Benjocki carried out extensive artistic research for this project in 2015-17, before setting it aside until this year, when she started to finalize its outcomes for her upcoming solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (2023). The planned multi-media installation will incorporate sound works (in collaboration with Sjoerd Leijten), sculpture, drawings, and a film (in collaboration with Stijn Verhoeff). Presenting real and fictional walks through the ‘caves’, the film will include, among other elements, material from the private archives and collections of former NATO employees, who used the location to monitor Russian operations during the Cold War. As if drawing together the many threads in Benjocki’s practice at large, the “caves” themselves are the outcome of mining operations and have hosted a range of functions that mirror the rise and fall of economies, labour demands, and political realities. This includes being a passage for Dutch Resistance smugglers, acting as a wartime hiding place for Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, a long-term home to bats, and becoming the unlikely location in which the Maastricht Treaty was ratified, laying the foundations for what would become the European Union.
Watching footage from the decimated city of Mariupol today, there is a looming sense that these European “caves” might return to use, that nothing is over, that history’s sense of pastness is a protection from the reality that everything is intertwined. The hundreds of kilometers of darkness in Benjocki’s Portrait of a Mountain are a thought-provoking and uncannily urgent site for the weaving of histories, and the fabrication of the present.
Kristina Benjocki’s exhibition At sunset we retreat once again, up the hill, to where we can watch the skeins of water reflect colours we’ve never seen before is on view at IKOB, Eupen, until the 5th of June.
Lucy Cotteris a curator and writer