“The Swedes are known to have the most beautiful belly buttons,” Sheila Hicks says. It is a few days before her show, Sheila Hicks: 50 Years opens at ICA, and we are sitting on a bench in ICA’s lobby watching Enrico Martignoni, 35 feet up in the air on a Genie, hang Raining Baby Bands from the ceiling. This work consists of clean white baby bands—pieces of cotton cloth used in Swedish hospitals to wrap the umbilical stumps of newborns—tied together in long, lovely strands. It is the use of these bands, Sheila explains, that makes the Swedes’ navals so attractive.
Sheila points to the other lobby work, Baby Time Again, which is already hung. This one is made of newborns’ white cotton shirts unsewn and then reassembled and stitched together in great sheets with gaps where the heads would have gone through, and more gaps where the body of the shirt curves into the sleeve. She takes my notebook and makes a drawing to show me, pointing out the almond-shaped spaces where “the little patches of things come through—the light, the sky.” On a sunny day like this, in our spacious glassy lobby, the two bright hangings flutter cheerfully like sails before the blue of the clear March morning.
Sheila goes on explaining things. “In the eighties, I made a series of shows, and instead of shipping materials, they shipped me!” She tells me about going to Oslo, Norway and Lund, Sweden and making work out of freshly washed hospital laundry, partly for the pleasure (and economy) of using what was to hand, and also “for the unity of it—it was white. And it was snow, it was January.” In Paris they hung the baby shirt panel in a gallery on Boulevard Saint Germain in front of a bus stop. In Jerusalem she made a similar work out of soldiers’ uniforms.
“The concept originated on the avenue of the Grande-Armée in Paris,” Sheila says. This was in the seventies, and she had applied to the Tapestry Biennial of Lausanne, which required a work made of six square meters of material. Her proposal drawing was accepted, but Sheila didn’t have time to make the piece. One day, however, she was driving down the Avenue de la Grande-Armée, and there was a laundry truck in front of her, making its round of the hotels, picking up dirty sheets and delivering clean ones. That’s when she had the idea: borrow linens from a local Lausanne hospital to make her tapestry. “That was the year I got thrown out of the Biennial!” she exclaims. “They considered it blasphème. But I got a lot of press, and it was a turning point in the Biennale Tapisseire.” People started to look at ready-mades and other new forms. “It was 1977,” she says, but her daughter, Itaka, who is standing nearby, disagrees.
“It was 1975,” Itaka says. She remembers because of what year she was in at school. They argue peaceably. Itaka says she remembers telling her mother not to do the laundry tapestry, and Sheila says this was how she knew it was a good idea. “She was very conservative,” she says of her daughter, and they smile at each other, remembering.
Itaka says, “I love the baby bands! I love the way they catch the light, and that they swaddled so many babies. And they go on, from exhibition space to exhibition space.” Take a moment to consider those babies of Lund and Lausanne, all grown up. Are the Swedes displaying their beautiful navels complacently on some sunny beach even now? Are the Swiss pondering the boundaries of art?
High in the air Enrico, who is married to Itaka, measures a distance from the high windows along the ceiling, makes a mark, drills a hole, measures again. Behind us in ICA’s auditorium, the installation crew irons and knots more baby bands for Enrico to hang. Something has shifted: baby clothes become art, readied for use by the hands of men, their new handmaidens, under the direction of women.
Not that it matters: men or women, tapestry or blasphemy, 1975 or 1977. What matters is the snowy cloth, the patches of sky coming through, and the people passing on the street who peer in, their day illuminated briefly by the light that has traveled here from that long-ago moment on the Avenue de la Grande-Armée as from a distant star.
Sheila Hicks: 50 Years is on view at ICA through August 7, but don’t wait that long!