To Ply

Janine Antoni was born in Freeport, Bahamas, in 1964; she lives in New York. Antoni participated in The Quiet in the Land’s first project, a collaboration with the only active Shaker community in the world, in Sabbathday Lake, Maine, and its second, a collaboration with Projeto Axé, a nongovernmental organization that works with former street children, in Salvador, Brazil. To Ply consists of five pairs of stitched works Antoni made in collaboration with Mo Ly and her mother Xia Song, two White Hmong women who made and sold needlework crafts at Luang Prabang’s Handicrafts Market. 

The works Antoni has produced during her long affiliation with The Quiet in the Land address how the process of making art has the potential to connect individuals from diverse backgrounds and to transform one’s understanding of one’s relationship to others—a dynamic fundamental to the organization’s mission. For the first project, one of the works she made is the sculpture and (1996–99). She transported two 600-pound limestone boulders to Sabbathday Lake, placed one on top of the other, inserted a pole horizontally into the top one, and pushed the pole in a circle for five hours a day during her residency. Through her labor, the boulders sculpted one another until they became interconnected—a metaphor of the arduous process by which two objects, individuals, or communities transform one another through the friction of mutual interaction. For the second, she developed, among other works, the performance Mary Star of the Sea (1999). This performance explored the syncretic identity of Yemanjá, an orixá (deity) in the Brazilian religion of Candomblé, a fusion of a Yoruba deity and the Christian Virgin Mary. Antoni and a performing partner from Projeto Axé put on a garment consisting of two dresses sewn together, imitating a topsy-turvy doll—one, Yemanjá’s; the other, the Virgin’s—and slowly transformed back and forth from Yemanjá into the Virgin. At the moment of transformation, a sculpturally complex form, half Yemanjá and half the Virgin, emerged. 

Reflecting her longstanding interest in women’s work in general and needlework in particular, Antoni proposed to develop for the present project a work in collaboration with the women of Luang Prabang’s Handicrafts Market. The Lao government established this outdoor market as a place where local artisans, including the Hmong, could sell their crafts. In January 2006, Francis Engelmann took her to the market and introduced her to Mo Ly and Xia Song. Most of the approximately 250,000 Hmong in Laos live in remote villages in the highlands in extreme poverty. A village typically consists of several families, organized into clans. Each family is led by the eldest male. Hmong women maintain the home, prepare the meals, work in the fields, tend the animals, and raise the children. A growing number support their families by making and selling needlework, primarily to tourists. One of the most distinctive forms of Hmong cultural expression, needlework is known in Hmong as paj ntaub (“flower cloth”). Hmong needlework uses a repertoire of distinctive motifs—including spirals, squares, triangles, and crosses, often enclosed in frames—in various combinations. Although the original symbolic meanings of these motifs have been lost, they can express distinctive dialect, regional, and clan identities, as well as the individual creativity of their makers. In the 1970s, a new genre developed: the story cloth, in which the needleworker embroiders figurative scenes representing her life and culture. 

One precedent in Antoni’s oeuvre for the work that would emerge from her collaboration with Mo Ly and Xia Song is Slumber (1994), a performance that she originally presented in various museum galleries in the mid-1990s. For this performance, during the night, she would sleep in the gallery while connected to a polysomnograph machine that recorded the pattern of her rapid eye movements while she dreamed; during the day, she would sit in the same gallery at a loom she designed, weave this pattern into a blanket, and engage with visitors. Creating the work in the gallery gave her the opportunity to develop meaningful dialogues with the public—a process that not only revealed the artistry of so-called women’s work but that also revealed the potential of art as a tool for initiating and facilitating social communication. These concepts would become central to To Ply.  

Indeed, if Antoni had conceived and as a soliloquy and Mary Star of the Sea as a work in which she directed her performing partner, To Ply is a dialogue. She developed the work’s framework, but she avoided a division of labor that might have reinforced a hierarchical relationship between herself, as artist, and Mo Ly and Xia Song as artisans whose primary role would be to execute her vision. Instead, Antoni (or Mo Ly or Xia Song) would make a work, to which Mo Ly or Xia Song (or Antoni) would respond by making a work in turn. During the project’s first month, Antoni resided in Luang Prabang and, sometimes accompanied by her daughter Indra, sat each day with Mo Ly and Xia Song in their market stall. She then returned to her home in New York, and the collaboration continued remotely. Making the five pairs of works, which took place over the span of several months, offered the three women the opportunity to reflect on and share deeply personal aspects of their lives. Antoni’s vinyl pillow, for example, is embroidered with abstracted images of all the scars on her body, including those remaining after a procedure to remove a lump from her breast; and Xia Song’s story cloth is sewn with vignettes portraying her life of back-breaking labor. Exhibited at the Luang Prabang National Museum from October 2006 to July 2007, the works were displayed flat on a table, accompanied by descriptive texts.  

Antoni has described To Ply as “a conversation in thread—a dialogue across cultures and generations,” in which she “followed the thread and found that through its many articulations, several lives were plied together.” As she suggests, this dialogue materialized the connections between the participants—as women, as makers, as citizens of the world (a map of the world is sewn into one of Antoni’s works)—without eliding their differences. Within the shared history of Laos and the United States, the lives of countless Lao, Hmong, and Americans have been plied together through violence—a legacy that persists today in the economic violence of globalization. To Ply, by contrast, reveals how three lives, and an extended network of family members, friends, and colleagues, could be plied together differently.  

Although the historical conditions that underlie To Ply may ultimately be rooted in the Vietnam War era, whose legacy continues to shape the contemporary relationship between Lao, Hmong, and Americans, it is very much a work of the post-9/11 era. Specifically, it responds to the fractures created by language, ethnicity, and innumerable other categories, which impede communication and produce misunderstanding between individuals, communities, and nations. As such, it functions as a counterpoint to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Babel, which was released in the same year that To Ply was made. As in the film, To Ply unveils the connections between a group of seemingly disconnected individuals who live on different continents. But while the film darkly emphasizes the impossibility of communication, To Ply envisions how actively listening to one another has the potential to forge positive connections that cut through the schisms that divide us. Through the process of making art together, three women from vastly different backgrounds transcended the legacy of violence that has shaped the encounter between their respective cultures by forging a relationship based on mutual understanding, respect, and empathy. This process did not lift Mo Ly or Xia Song from their poverty. Instead, it imagined the moral foundation upon which a new social configuration might ultimately be forged. In this respect, To Ply sensitively recognizes both the limitations and the possibilities of art as an agent of social change.