A Conversation About The Red Sweater Project – A Sweater Is Not Enough
Trevor Fairbrother, Beal Curator of Contemporary Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Lillian Hsu has produced a distinctive body of work for Boston-area exhibitions in recent years: rapidly executed charcoal drawings whose marks are spare and urgent; installations featuring ordered accumulations of simple elements such as boxes or saclike forms that hang, collapse, or lie prone on the floor. She has imagined visceral abstractions from the cycle of life and death: ambiguous biomorphic imagery, quiet, natural colors, and hairy or roughly textured fragile structures. For this special project with Real Art Ways the artist has taken a bold conceptual approach to inject a degree of political and humanitarian effectiveness into her art. She enlisted dozens of knitters to help her make the key part of this installation. The sweaters and boxes that she and her circle of collaborators have produced possess an offbeat haunting beauty and a touching, personal quality. However, Hsu has destined this multi-part installation piece to transcend its hallowed status as art and to become a valuable stockpile of workaday items and utilitarian products. After the exhibition phase the sweaters will be distributed by Real Art Ways to local shelters and day-care centers, which in turn will make them available to children. The following text was edited and amended from an interview with the artist on December 2, 1992.
TF: How did your ideas evolve? What is the history of the project?
LH: Originally, I came up with the idea of using the mail system. Anybody can send pretty much anything through the mail. And I wanted to do something about children’s issues and needs. I had been doing projects using different forms of wool, and I had been thinking about knitting as one of the traditional activities of women. I gelled all these thoughts together and came up with the idea of having people knit children’s sweaters. I would then make a sculptural package with each sweater and mail one to every official in the Connecticut legislature. I would have needed about a hundred and forty. In the package they would receive all the things necessary for them to forward the sweater to one of the shelters or day-care centers that I would have chosen in Hartford.
TF: You wanted the legislators to deal with the political issue in a direct and rather ordinary way?
LH: Yes. I would send it to their home. The officials would have to be the medium for sending them on to shelters. I feel that my gesture, whatever it is, is a symbolic one, and it is just a gesture. I don’t feel that I’m accomplishing anything in terms of giving people in need a significant amount of what they need. I don’t feel that I can do that with art, but I think that the gesture is meaningful to me and to other people.
TF: That first version would not have been exhibited in a gallery?
LH: Right. So I changed the proposal, and I eliminated the idea of sending it to the politicians, and decided to have an installation in a public space. I wanted it to be a government building to maintain that association with people who make decisions about child-care, education, and all those other issues. That is the final version of the project. The sixty-six knitters have knitted eight-five sweaters and they will be shown together in an installation at City Hall in Hartford. Each sweater will be alone in a cardboard box lined with wallpaper for children’s rooms. From there they will be given to five places that were selected to receive these sweaters. It’s not a matter of me giving a gift to an individual child. The sweaters go to centers where they will be used as a resource for the kids who come through.
TF: Did you specify a size or anything for the knitters?
LH: Yes, I gave them a basic pattern, and I said you can vary it however much you want. And I said make it size 2, 4, or 6, and made sure the neck is big enough so that it will get over the chilren’s heads. I wanted to give a pattern because I didn’t know whether Id get beginning knitters or very fast knitters. I realize now that I got mostly very good knitters. For these “pros” this was something different from what they normally do. So they came back with an incredible variety of sweaters, all shapes, sizes, and patters.
TF: Did you fin d the knitters through a network? Was it word of mouth?
LH: Word of mouth, basically. I thought of variouys places where they might congregate: weavers guilds; senior centers where they have knitters groups; I put up a sign in a wool ship.
RF: Why did you use the cardboard boxes with plain wooden knobs that make them look like drawers?
LH: I asked myself what kind of context I could give these sweaters. I imagined them on a wall in some form of arrangement. But when I chose the site – a stone building – the wall and the floor seemed so impenetrable, and that made me want to house these sweaters in some kind of a form. The cardboard box has a temporary nature, and the children’s wallpaper evokes domesticity and the feeling of home that’s absent. The feeling I am trying to convey is an emptiness that contrasts with the richness and the newness of the red sweaters. In general, drawers are where we keep our personal things. A Growing population of the homeless shelters is women with children. And I saw that they were often in large rooms with bed after bed after bed, very close together. Most of the beds didn’t really have any kind of adornment, or any gathering of possessions to make it personal. But occasionally you’d see a little cluster or a little pile of stuff, and it really made a visual and emotional difference when your eyes landed upon that bed. For some people all their possessions were reduced to what they could fit into a grocery bag. What makes them fell like they have a special place in the world are these little bits of personal possessions, and the ability to have that sort of independence.
TF: The project moves through several different phases and does different kinds of work, from the aesthetic to the social.
LF: I’ve always liked the idea of a large installation, this collection of objects, dispersing after I do it. It has a continuing live. Other people will use the objects. The project starts out as a utilitarian effort: the knitters knitting the sweaters. And then it goes into the conceptual phase, but it ends up being very utilitarian. There would be something deadening about me ending up with these objects. I like the fact that they’re going on to be used. Anyway, I don’t have any storage space, and I have a very tiny studio.
TF: I’m curious about the politicians. Will you invite them?
LH: I’d like to send invitations to the entire state legislature and all city officials. You were also asking about the names of the knitters. At first I wanted them to be fairly prominent, but then I realized that I didn’t, because I was not highlighting their skill and their creativity. That wasn’t the point. Now I want their names shown prominently in the documentation of this piece because they were the makers. There will be labels in the sweaters that will say “The Red Sweater Project: A Sweater Is Not Enough.” And I will write in the names of the knitter of each sweater. The label will also say “one-hundred percent machine-washable wool.” That was really important to me. I wanted the fiber to be wool, because it’s warm, but this particular wool can also be thrown into washing machines. It would have been obscene if it had to be hand-washed and laid flat to dry.
TF: Were there any men knitting?
LH: I really wanted men. I know one man who knits, but now he’s just doing needlepoint. So, unfortunately there were no men. If this had been a more extensive search, I probably could have come up with some men.
TF: But clearly this is a craft that is traditionally associated with women.
LH: Yes, outside of fisherman.
TF: Do you see yourself in that feminist tradition of referencing women’s crafts?
LH: Well, I think of the time during the war when women knitted socks for the men who were going off to war. They just knitted and knitted and knitted. Women don’t really think, “Oh this is a real effort, and I’m spending all these hours.” But it is a labor-intensive thing to do, and there’s no way that you can get paid in any adequate way for the hours spent. It’s just something that’s in the heart of these knitters. Knitters always are knitting for somebody else. I can’t think of any knitter who only knits for herself. The sprit of the task is knitting for other people.
TF: It feels to me that you’re helping children and you’re thanking knitters for their work and devotion, and that somehow you are stepping down a little bit as the artist. It’s your project, but you’re also not privileging the art as your precious object to stay around forever..
LH: Right. I asked myself what I could do that would really live up to all the effort the knitters have put into this, and that would convey something meaningful about the lives of the children. What I contribute suddenly seems almost trivial. I’ve never done a project with the collective effort of many people. Usually when I make an object I feel that it has to hold its own visually.
TF: But that’s where the red comes in. I think it’s so clear that it’s the color of love and life and blood. And it is also an alert – I think of The Red Cross.
LH: It’s a warning, and originally the color was part of the message I intended when I was going to send the sweaters to the senators. I worked on this project a little bit backwards; usually, if I do an installation, I see the site before I decide what kind of work I’m going to make. But in this case I had the idea first, and then I chose the building. And the space – City Hall, with the stone interior – wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, so I’m adapting to it.
TF: There will be a continuous line of sweaters in boxes around the large atrium, breaking a little bit for the furniture and stuff that can’t be moved. That notion of ringing the space reminds me of the activists tradition of ringing a site like the Pentagon, or the British women protesting at the Greenham Common nuclear site.
LH: All gigantic official buildings are built so that you walk in and you have to look up in reverence. It’s either reverence to God if it’s a church or it’s reverence to government. My project is about individual suffering and individual lives and their complexity. It begins with one individual caring about another. I wanted it to communicate on a human level, and I also wanted it literally on a child’s level, near the floor. The space where the wall and the floor meet is where dust collects. It’s where people sit when they beg on the street. And the floor is normally the area where people have associations with contamination – you don’t let the flag touch the floor. And yet the floor is close to the earth. I’m sure some people will touch the boxes. I want to keep it really direct and human in scale and level.
TF: It is provocative to say in your title that a sweater is not enough. It begs the question what is enough.
LH: Well the issue revolves around the fact that in our culture we think of children as another species. We don’t think of them as just a younger version of what we are. We usually deal with their problems after they have become adults. It’s about the absence of a longer vision. I see it as an alarming issue in our society, particularly because this country is so wealthy, and there’s this emphasis on the superficial aspects of youth – everything needs to be “young”. And yet we are guilty of tremendous neglect of the needs of young children. Also there’s something I can’t articulate clearly. It’s about this beautiful red thing, and all the glorious effort that’s been put into each wonderful sweater. But still it’s not enough. And yet it’s enough in the sense that it is a special thing, and it makes a special communication, and it is a meaningful gesture.
TF: The stance that you’ve taken reminds me of Joseph Beuys. However, you are different because you do not take on a charismatic or heroic role.
LH: Not at all. In fact it is unusual for me to be in contact with so many people.
TF: but this concept of art that can help society by stimulating insight and discussion is relevant.
LH: Well I ask myself what would be the difference in total effect if I didn’t do the installation. What if I had the knitters send the sweaters directly to the children. What’s the difference? What is my impact other than to get it going?
TF: You chose an art form that can function as public address.
LH: Perhaps it moves people to think in ways they wouldn’t otherwise. Still, I wonder what can art really do? But I have to do it because I have to do something. This is one thing that I can do. And maybe this is the way knitting helps all those millions of women in the world who have found solace in the activity and creativity of knitting, especially when one is overwhelmed emotionally. I’m not the kind of person who can go out on the street and raise money. But I can do certain other things. In spite of all my skepticism I know that my work can do something.
Almost one of every two children in Hartford lives in poverty.
A child born in Hartford is six times more likely to die before the age of one than a child born in West Hartford, an adjoining suburb.
In Hartford’s suburbs almost all Kindergarten children are fully immunized for childhood diseases. Nearly half the children in Hartford are not.
The Red Sweater Project – A Sweater Is Not Enough was sponsored by Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut