Between Tech and Monet: The Textile Works of Aurora Passero

Maria Kjær Themsen

Between Tech and Monet: The Textile Works of Aurora Passero

Written by Maria Kjær Themsen, art critic, curator and freelance writer

1-0-1-0-1-0 is the kind of binary code used to store digital information on computers, hard disks and credit cards. The same code underlies the construction of Aurora Passero’s textile works. A sober method repeated over and over again until shapes start to emerge from the thin thread. An ancient code used by the Indian scholar Pingala before our time, the method links Sanskrit poems to mathematical formulas and digital developments.

Visually, Passero’s textile works sometimes have a metallic, almost digital sheen from the nylon thread and the singular colouration she creates. If you close your eyes and imagine Claude Monet’s Impressionist water lilies, with their light-blue, purple and pink hues, and then open your eyes again and see Passero’s installation Affections (2016), a whole wall of tapestries in shimmering white, blue, lilac and other colours, hung at different levels at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, the span of nature pictures suddenly collapses, and an abstract, synthetic version of nature appears that is every bit as sensuous and vibrant as the “real” thing.

That is the paradox of the world today. On the one hand, we are all deeply addicted to technology and screens. On the other hand, the digital reality has created a need for something sensuous, tactile and material, a longing for primeval nature. Something we can touch and feel. Something that takes longer to understand than a single glance, that requires us to move our bodies and activate all our senses. Something very deep and very old, even pre-human. There was a time when such longings were expressed in Impressionist paintings of nature. Now, we see nature expressed in a series of textiles with abstract colour motifs.

Silvery Actions

In Passero’s monumental installation, Silvery Actions, at the Vigeland Museum in Oslo, the artist works mainly with undyed nylon in textiles ranging from very tight to all but dissolving weaves. The pieces were created as a response to the museum’s collection of plaster models. In counterpoint to heavy plaster, Passero sculpts from delicate, white, undyed nylon thread and rope. The long, thin, loosely woven textiles, hanging down – almost in ribbons – from the glass ceiling, mimic the tall windows at the end of the room that, while transparent and admitting of light, also mark a boundary between two spheres. Characteristic of Passero, her works always relate very specifically to the space they are in – the architecture, colours and context. In this dark-red room, she takes it to the next level. The textiles at times are so loosely woven that they almost fall apart, even as, paradoxically, they are experienced as load-bearing forms – flexible pillars or spines, on which the other components (the body) rest and depend. In turn, her works become like a dance between solid architecture and soft body, the loose forms winding around the square exhibition space, lending curves and breath to the rigid and solid. While extremely tight and exact, Silvery Actions is also an utterly loose and light. A body of work.

This “dissolving” device is reminiscent of a trend in contemporary poetry and philosophy pertaining to the collapse of fixed concepts. As poetry morphs the status and figure of the human body into other forms and spheres, art experiments by including noble, natural materials, technology and synthetic fabrications to level out the differences. It is, essentially, a matter of contemplating how materials and bacteria are constantly being exchanged between the organic and the inorganic, the human and the non-human, and how it may not, in fact, be possible to erect such rigid boundaries, as we have done in the age of humanism, between races and genders, people and animals, culture and nature, life and none-life, the natural and the artificial. As the philosopher Timothy Morton, author of several volumes of so-called posthumanist philosophy, laconically puts it in his 2016 book Dark Ecology, “To be ‘fully human’ – what a drag.” In poetry, we find similar attempts to suss out what a “subject” is. In the poet Glenn Christian’s Atropa Belladonna (2016), the “I” is a furry, four-pawed animal. A similar collapse of both civilization and the human body is seen in the latest collection by the Danish poet Lars Skinnebach (and co-creator Goodiepal), TEOTWAWKI (2018), an acronym for The End Of The World As We Know It, an online survivalist movement preparing for the world to knuckle under. In Skinnebach’s poems, civilization has already collapsed and the last two survivors, Dana and Timo, live not in the Garden of Eden but in an “Artificial Garden,” where a dialogue unspools, while their spines collapse, their bones squeak and their surroundings extract more and more nourishment from their bodies.

A similar biological collapse is found in Passero’s work, if we view it as a kind of dissolving, fluid, non-static “organism.” The loose textiles, though made from a synthetic material, are a kind of “nature” in their own right, while the long white weavings in Silvery Actions can be seen as “squeaky bones” or unstable spines. Passero’s practice, continuing both an abstract painting tradition and a textile-based art that dissolves solid, rigid sculpture, also points straight at an ongoing discourse and a digital world. Interrogating a collapse of former binary opposites, her work erases old distinctions between being and non-being, solid and the spherical, human and object.

A Nylon Storm and Other Synthetic Nature Experiences

Passero’s works are nonfigurative but often have a vibrant play of colours. Sometimes, she dyes her tapestries in vats after she has woven them. Other times, she works with pre-dyed thread. Though nonfigurative, several of her works visually inhabit a place between sky and sea. They do not represent anything, but they evoke something, from rosy dawns to great waves or storms. Passero’s way with colour links into a historical model of the early avant-garde and artists who dissolved figuration to reach a greater recognition of being, using art to arrive at other levels of reality. Early abstract art had close ties to contemporary esoteric circles, and both Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and Sonia Delaunay’s so-called Orphism (1912) at heart were about attaining other levels of recognition through colour instead of figuration.

Passero’s works always basically link to nature via their titles. Thus, she is also referencing the early American Colour Field painters, in particular a painter like Helen Frankenthaler, who early in her career experimented by staining the canvas with liquid, almost watery oils. Though her canvases only held abstract shapes, Frankenthaler gave her paintings titles like Mountains and Sea (1952) and The Red Sea (1959), because nature was her basic inspiration.

Passero’s 2016 work Natural Scenery #2 looks like a brilliant sunrise, purple light encircling a yellow-orange centre. Calling this scenery “natural” might seem daring, since it is, properly speaking, a woven nylon tapestry with orange and purple stains of varying intensity. Another work, Victorian in Attitude(2012), resembles a furious thunderstorm, with dark nuances broken by orange light in the middle, while threads from the top hang down over the image in a layer of shiny nylon that almost creates an illusion of heavy rainfall. Employing the colour spectrum very sensuously, Passero evokes subject matter in the abstraction. This effect is more sculptural when the works are not hung on the wall like a variant of painting but are suspended on wires from the ceiling, allowing the textiles to assume more spatial and sculptural shapes, as in Combat Dance (2012), Warrior Gloss (2011) and Erosian (2012), which are all darker in tone and, as the titles indicate, express strength, battle or a kind of shift.

Some of Passero’s works express such a shift between dimensions – air, water, gravity, even the spiritual dimension. Some even seem to defy gravity, hovering in sculptural formations in mid-air. An esoteric element in Passero’s work can be perceived here amidst the fine weave, the colour scheme and the hanging, as she continues the early, abstract art-historical effort to reach beyond what the human senses can comprehend. A game of spheres, it goes beyond itself, pointing to an indefinable place that is non-figurative and nonverbal. This is not unlike the efforts of the American Minimalist Agnes Martin, who, via repeated lines on canvas, sought to eliminate all intellectualization to attain and contain a dimension without thought, a place of freedom.

At the same time, a decidedly philosophical layer creeps into the nylon. Given the titles, the abstract images still refer to something – often nature, even though, as mentioned, Passero’s preferred material is 100 percent synthetic nylon. In a painted nylon tapestry, she evokes natural scenery that is 100 percent artificial and abstract but, somewhat unsettlingly, may still be closer to the “truth” than a pretty, figurative, natural landscape on canvas.

In a world running over with water, large areas of the oceans suffer from a lack of oxygen because of pollution. The Baltic Sea today is home to the world’s largest area of chronic hypoxia, a so-called dead zone. The oceans are choked with plastic, while overexploitation of fish stocks has created an irreparable imbalance in the ecosystem. The landscape in most of the Western world today is 100 percent cultivated. In Denmark, for one, there are not many inches of natural scenery left. Our “natural scenery” at the moment may be more artificial and dead than it is “real nature.” The primeval, untouched nature that so many of us profoundly yearn for may be a thing of the past. In Skinnebach’s poetry, the Garden of Eden has become the Artificial Garden. In Passero’s work, by nylon thread and abstract shapes, it paradoxically becomes natural scenery.

Passero’s textile works pit current issues (eco-critical, digital, philosophical) against a tradition in the history of art, replacing solidity in dissolution with a more ethereal, flexible, fluid and breathable art – a place where boundaries have crumbled, and meaning is found in between what is and what isn’t.