Until October 10, a series of massive, cylindrical cloth curtains will hang in a cavernous warehouse at Municipal Pier 9 on the Delaware River, next to the Race Street Pier. Staggered throughout the space, the curtains create a constantly wavering and cloudlike atmosphere. Each can be made to spin with the pull of an adjacent rope, an intimate act that causes the fabric to float out like a billowing skirt, or a bed sheet on a clothesline. A natural breeze frequently blows through the open doors of the warehouse, allowing the work of the pulling to mix anonymously with the work of the wind. The installation is habitus, by Ann Hamilton.
Cloth is something seldom appreciated despite how central it is to the human experience. Ann Hamilton writes, “Held by cloth’s hand, we are swaddled in birth, covered in sleep, and wound in death.” Habitus forces you to consider cloth, forces you to consider the impact of textiles on every human action. At Municipal Pier 9, as you stand in the center of one of the slowly rotating curtains, you feel the role of cloth as architecture. The installation confronts you with the question of what it means to inhabit space, what it means to dress yourself. Your clothing is your most intimate dwelling; you live within the length of your sleeves, the fit of your jacket, the strength of the knot in your shoelaces.
The piece is simultaneously monumental and subtle—ephemeral. In the shifting greatness of the cloth at Municipal Pier 9, it’s easy to feel lost and small. That’s why the piece is so important. It makes you consider your place in the fabric, literally, of human existence. Ann Hamilton writes about the work, “Habitus is sitting and moving together, absorbed by words, sound, cloth, each other. We cover ourselves. It is our commonness. This is our condition.”
An exhibition at the Fabric Workshop and Museum’s galleries, which will be on view until January 8, accompanies the installation. The exhibition presents Hamilton’s selection of historical objects, including dolls, textile sample books and needlework portfolios, all borrowed from Philadelphia museums and collections. It also includes a selection of printed passages referencing the social ubiquity of textiles. The show serves to historicize the act of cloth–making, to ground its significance in tangible history. Together, the installation and the galleries pose questions of what it means to exist in proximity to cloth, and in doing so, what it means to function as a member of society.