At what point does something stop being beautiful once it becomes functional? Can something you use every day be made into art? Does art need to hang in a gallery to be recognized? And, perhaps the biggest question of all, how much can sheep really contribute to the fine arts?
In her new film, Yarn, director Una Lorenzen raises, but doesn’t necessarily want to answer, these questions. The Icelandic-Canadian director’s first feature film follows the story of several artists whose lives and work are connected only through their shared tool of expression: yarn. Lorenzen captures the versatile material’s use in subversive street art in Havana, a “painting” at a gallery, elaborate performance pieces and even a children’s gymnasium. All the while, the artists discuss their relationship to the fiber and what it means to them as makers.
I called Lorenzen to talk about Yarn, the line between art and handicrafts and what exactly about sheep’s wool makes it both timeless and trendy:
What first got you interested in yarn as an art form?
In Iceland, all Icelanders, we basically survived on the sheep and the sheep’s wool. All Icelanders are deeply connected to the wool. And then also I was sort of brought up in the art school in Iceland, because my mother was the head of the textile department in Iceland for 25 years and that’s where I grew up: all that really influenced me.
When the producer, Heather [Millard], who I’d worked with before, approached me with this project I thought it was really interesting and really was exited to learn more. They had already started gathering the characters at that point and I was excited to explore this with them because even though I had this background, I do not knit myself.
Not really, because we are shooting this everywhere, yarn is really everywhere, it’s very obvious and it’s a trendy subject. That’s actually how the film came about: the producer and the writer were talking about what’s the next big trend. That’s kind of how the ball started rolling, but I didn’t know about Olek or Toshiko [Horiuchi MacAdam Proshico, two of the artists profiled in the film].
Even though the main idea of the film is not to be a heavy political film, or anything like that, you see the struggles in the world with the craft versus the art and all that.
And what exactly is the knitting trend?
[The producers] were talking about cooking and then they were talking about knitting and it became clear that knitting is very popular today in any section: in street graffiti and just as a pastime. I think one of the reasons this is, is because of the meditational aspect of this and that we are becoming more computerized so we kind of long for something that makes us more human, more warm and cozy, so it’s kind of like we’re going back to the beginning.
At what point does yarn work stop being a craft and start being a piece of art?
Ultimately, what we hope the film does is that it shows us that creativity doesn’t have any boundaries. It’s all equally important, but I think it makes complete sense that within the fine art world of course there are some lines because that’s just how it is, and those lines go back and forth. It depends on the galleries and it depends on what’s happening in the world. A good way to kind of analyze this, for example, is within the department that my mother was the head of in Iceland. When two students would come in to the textile arts department, they would choose whether they did design or art. But in the end they all graduated as artists.
If you are a part of the art world and if that is really important for you, then it can become a struggle. I think it’s interesting. But also I think that there is a line there. You don’t hang up a wool sweater in a fine art gallery unless there’s a concept behind it, you can say. There’s a difference. That difference can be discussed in a very long conversation that I’m not going to get into, but that is very interesting. Olek mentions this in the film, and I think it is kind of clear that there are gender issues in the art world but I don’t think it’s connected to yarn as such, that’s another aspect.
Do you think the question of gender or sexism plays into the way these handicrafts are perceived at all?
Tinna [Thorudottir Thorvaldarnd] and Olek, although vastly different, they are both working with the feminine aspect of yarn, which, by the way, I think it makes sense that yarn has this feminine energy given the history. The history of handmade things, like making a crochet, it was mostly women who had been doing that throughout history, so it is a feminine material and they are both using it but in very different ways and highlighting different aspects of it that I think is kind of interesting and it creates a little bit of tension in the film. Tinna wants to take this material that is connected to the feminine aspect and basically she wants to spread it out there into the world and make the world more feminine. It’s a very clean and simple message like that, we are here and we’re doing good.
But Olek, she is using the feminine aspect to disrupt the art world, which is kind of masculine, which she talks about. Even though her art’s not about feminism or anything like that, she’s using this feminine energy to create very interesting contrasts by putting it in different contexts and creating shared messages and using her fine energy herself, her as a person.
Just that we really want as wide an audience to enjoy this film, because it’s supposed to be kind of a feel good, powerful film that’s supposed to be for both men and women to show the possibilities of yarn, which a lot of people see as this old-fashioned material thing.
We just hope it can really inspire a wide range of people. People that already do work with yarn or people that are interested in art and then people that are interested in seeing something new that’s happening; seeing yarn in a new context.
“Yarn” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center. Lorenzen will also be hosting several Q + As at the IFC Center this weekend after screenings.