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Art Review

The labor is woven into show

A rendering shows what the ICA stage will look like when a group of volunteer knitters perform Liz Collins’s “Knitting Nation.’’ A rendering shows what the ICA stage will look like when a group of volunteer knitters perform Liz Collins’s “Knitting Nation.’’ (Scot bailey; photo by PETER VANDERWARKER)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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Performance art, in its multiple, complex, and - let’s face it - occasionally head-scratching forms, can be the most direct path to an artist’s psyche. Even under the most controlled circumstances, and despite endless hours of rehearsal, there is no reliable gauge of what will happen when live art enters the public realm, before an audience that could range from erudite aficionado to well-meaning hoi polloi.

So what kind of audience energy could possibly emerge today at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston when Providence-based fashion designer, knitter, and Rhode Island School of Design associate professor Liz Collins takes the stage along with a quartet of volunteer knitters for six hours of loosely choreographed fabric creation? Beginning at 11 a.m., Collins and her army of knitters - dressed in costumes of her design - will perch themselves at manually operated looms under sharp spotlights in the museum’s theater and perform “Knitting Nation Phase 7: Darkness Descends.’’

Collins has staged a series of these performances, collected under the title “Knitting Nation,’’ since 2005. But her two performances at the ICA, intended to complement the museum’s current “Dance/Draw’’ exhibition, will be some of her most ambitious. The second, “Phase 8: Under Construction,’’ will stretch over 10 hours on Nov. 25.

“Darkness Descends’’ is a look at the physically exhausting work of manual fabric creation, but if Collins has a specific final vision of the project, she’s playing coy. On the phone from Providence, she is dramatically at ease with the artistic possibilities that lie within hundreds of cones of yarn and multiple hours on a stage.

“It’s not meant to be a political statement,’’ she says. “It’s a combination of where I want the project to go and how I respond to the space that I’m given.’’

There is a strong artistic perspective under her deceptively casual tone.

“There isn’t a very clear message,’’ she explains. “It’s not like I’m saying, ‘Hey, this is what this is about.’ It’s a multifaceted experience, and each piece has a different conceptual overarching theme, even though some of the elements are the same in both pieces.

“In general, when people experience these events, they take away different things. One person might come in and be flabbergasted that a piece of fabric is made so quickly by a person. Another person might just enjoy being around the sound of the machines and chitchatting with friends.’’

The artist’s statement on Collins’s website pinpoints her goals for “Knitting Nation’’ a bit more concisely: “The project functions as a commentary on how humans interact with machines, global manufacturing, trade and labor, brand iconography, and fashion.’’

This ability to step back and analyze is miles from where Collins’s life stood a decade ago. She was on the verge of becoming a nationally recognized fashion designer. Her creations, which consisted of meticulously crafted knitwear and fabric artfully seamed with yarn, were being worn by Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, and Emma Thompson. Her pieces were sold at Barneys New York, and she was showing in the tents in New York’s Bryant Park during Fashion Week.

Beginning in 2000, she created collections for eight seasons, or four years, but the now 43-year-old Collins quickly became frustrated with the business aspect of running a burgeoning fashion line.

“The level of creative satisfaction was through the roof,’’ she says. “But a business can only survive so long without a real practical grounding and a vision of how money is spent. It was too much for me. I wanted to focus more on the problem-solving of design and to focus my energy on the collections.’’

As she was exploring jobs at different design companies, hoping to find a work environment where she could start learning about the business end of the industry, she happened across a teaching job at RISD. Entering academia, initially she hoped to continue her eponymous label, but she realized that the demands of teaching full time made the task impossible.

She did, however, find a new world of expression in performance art. Collins, who had learned to knit from a friend while in college, says she was inspired by textile-related performance art she had seen. She subsequently staged her first “Knitting Nation’’ performance in 2005.

It took place on Governors Island in New York. Called “Knitting Nation Phase 1: Knitting During Wartime,’’ the performance was inspired by Civil War reenactments. Her knitters created an American flag, which was then walked on and defaced on the ground as a way to express Collins’s pain about the war in Iraq.

Her most recent “Knitting Nation’’ performance centered around the creation of a mammoth rainbow flag. The ICA iterations will be the project’s first in a theater setting.

Collins’s work might appear to be an unlikely fit with the museum’s “Dance/Draw’’ exhibition. But for ICA chief curator Helen Molesworth, the bond between “Knitting Nation’’ and dance is the unexpected moments that both create.

“To me, it’s a lot like life,’’ she says. “You set up parameters as best you can, and stuff happens. You have to grapple with what that means.’’

Also like dance, the memory of “Knitting Nation’’ is fleeting. After Collins and her knitting tribe have departed, there will be no remainder of the work. The yards and yards of fabric created will not remain at the museum.

For both Molesworth and Collins, the importance of the show lies in the education involved. Watching the knitters and their repetitive motions may be oddly enthralling, but it also allows the public to witness the effort involved in a process that is seldom analyzed or seen.

“There is an endurance and an examination of labor,’’ Collins says. “What the body can handle. I’m trying to not only show how the fabric is made, or the technical details. But I want to show what it requires from a person to make something. The toil. The hours of labor. What people are really doing behind the scenes all over the world.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the year Collins began "Knitting Nation." The correct year is 2005.

KNITTING NATION At: Institute of Contemporary Art, today, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Nov. 25, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tickets: free with museum admission ($15, $13 seniors, $10 students, 17 and under free). 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org