Published in Wall to Wall: Carpets by Artists, ed. Cornelia Lauf
Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2016
The oldest hand-knotted carpet in existence is the Pazyryk Carpet. It was excavated from one of several burial tombs in the Altai Mountains of Siberia in 1949 along with mummified human bodies, a funerary chariot, decorated horses, wooden furniture, and Chinese silks. All of the objects were discovered frozen and remarkably intact in spite of the fact that they had been buried for more than 2,300 years.1 Evident from the array of objects excavated was the importance of the horse to the nomadic Pazyryk in their movement over large areas of the Eurasian Steppe during the Iron Age. The carpet itself features rows of horsemen and horses in the outer friezes. Their style is similar to that of the horsemen and horses represented in reliefs at the ruins of Persepolis in present-day Iran. But unlike those reliefs, the carpet was physically mobile and therefore capable of addressing strangers during times of encounter.
The centre of the Pazyryk Carpet is comprised of twenty-four squares, each of which frames stylized lotus buds. Such references to the botanical world are ubiquitous in later examples of carpets produced throughout the Asian world that depict gardens in highly abstract ways. Michel Foucault notes how Persian carpets in particular sought to replicate the sacred space of the garden within their frame. He writes:
We must not forget that in the Orient the garden, an astonishing creation that is now a thousand years old, had very deep and seemingly superimposed meanings. The traditional garden of the Persian was a sacred space that was supposed to bring together inside its rectangle four parts representing the four parts of the world, with a space still more sacred than the others that were like an umbilicus, the navel of the world at its centre (the basin and water fountain would be located there); and all the vegetation of the garden was supposed to come together in this space, in this sort of microcosm. As for carpets, they were originally reproductions of gardens (the garden is a rug onto which the whole world comes to enact its symbolic perfection, and the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space). The garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world.2
The idea that “the rug is a sort of garden that can move across space” calls to mind one of the ways that the Pazyryk Carpet functioned as an object simultaneously physical and symbolic. Its existence today in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has made it possible for the Pazyryk to speak from beyond the confines of their burial tombs.
In the sixteenth-century poem “Ode to a Garden Carpet,” its anonymous Sufi poet describes a particular carpet in terms of the natural world:
Here in this carpet lives an ever-lovely spring;
Unscorched by summer’s ardent flame,
Safe too from autumn’s boisterous gales,
Mid winter’s cruel ice and snow,
’Tis gaily blooming still.
Eyes hot-seared by desert glare find healing in its velvet shade.
Splashing foundations and rippling pools,
In cool retreats sore-wearied limbs restore,
And tired hearts awake with joy once more.
The way was cruel.3
In this poem the carpet is that which not only represents but also protects through its very representing. The “blooming,” “splashing,” and “rippling” will never end because they will always be present in the carpet itself.
To defy death was one trait attributed to carpets. Another was to defy gravity. The trope of the flying carpet has been a part of Asian literary traditions for thousands of years. There is reference to such a carpet in the Quran when Allah gives Solomon command over the winds so that he can travel a two-month journey in less than a day:
He [Solomon] had a mat made of wood on which he would place all the equipment of his kingship; horses, camels, tents and troops, then he would command the wind to carry it, and he would go underneath it and it would carry him aloft, shading him and protecting him from the heat, until it reached wherever he wanted to go in the land.4
The immensity of the carpet, at sixty miles long and sixty miles wide, meant that Solomon was able to travel with “all the equipment of his kingship.” He could survey his vast territory and his many subjects from the perspective of the sky, casting an enormous shadow “wherever he wanted to go in the land.” This land was presumably his.
The military tactic of carpet-bombing involves the indiscriminate destruction of territory belonging to and inhabited by others in a wartime context. Think of how terrifying the shadows cast by the airplanes would be for those below on the ground. The association of the term carpet with total annihilation is in marked contrast to its association in examples such as the Pazyryk Carpet and “Ode to a Garden Carpet” where it is life itself celebrated in symbolic form.
Perhaps the most prevalently referenced relationship between carpets and death is the hiding and transporting of a murder victim in a rolled-up carpet. Similarly, there is a device in theatre whereby the body of a murdered character is removed from the stage in a rolled-up carpet. The murdered body rolled up in a carpet is a useful theatrical means to facilitate the removal of a dead character from the stage with minimal intrusion. Bodies and carpets are also entwined terms in murder mystery novels. In several Sherlock Holmes short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, including “The Adventure of the Second Stain” (1904) and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” (1893), Holmes discovers bloodstains in carpets or notices a discarded, rolled-up carpet as a possible site of a human body.
The association of dead bodies with carpets was also applied in a literary dialogue between authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James. The debate centred on the issue of truth telling in fiction writing. In a precursor essay to The Scarlet Letter (1850), Hawthorne analogized the writing of romance to:
Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showcasing all its figures so distinctly—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests.5
According to Hawthorne, the figures that appear out of the patterns of the carpet are what matter since they occupy a realm between poetry and prose, where continuity and realism are tempered by subjective narrative.
Henry James’s response to this assertion was to demand that fiction project the deepest truths about life through art. In 1896, James wrote a short story that takes as its title the Hawthorne metaphor. “The Figure in the Carpet” is about the inextricable and complex intertwining of interpretation with truth telling. At one point he writes: “The thing we were all so blank about was vividly there. It was something, I guessed, in the primal plan, something like a complex figure in a Persian carpet.”6 Here the carpet is described in terms of a relationship between the visible and invisible. Not everyone could make out the “complex figure” when looking at the carpet. It was a matter of perspective.
The perspective from a carpet is a grounded one—unless, of course, the carpet in question happens to be flying. But regardless of whether the carpet is on the ground or in the sky, the body is implicated in certain ways. In Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines embodiment as both the shape and innate capacities of the human body and its relationship to the world:
The body is our general medium for having a world. Sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world: at other times, elaborating upon those primary actions and moving from their literal to a figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing. Sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world.7
The projection of a cultural world is a theme of a 1657 painting by Johannes Vermeer titled A Maid Asleep. Included in the painting is an oriental carpet crumpled on a table rather than stretched on the floor. It occupies the entire foreground of the painting. Atop the rug are symbols of nature and alterity in the form of fruit placed in a Chinese ceramic bowl. The labouring body of the sleeping woman who has been identified as simply a generic “maid” is as much an object in that space as the objects that surround her. In her sleep, the objects assume totemic qualities in surprising union with the disparate spatial composition. The physical room inhabited by the maid is modest, but her unconscious state implies abundant imaginative space. The sparseness of the adjoining room espied through an ajar door is in contrast to the rhythmic patterns of the carpet and objects, saturated that they are with alterity, that adorn the maid’s own space. It is the carpet that sets everything into motion.
Henri Matisse designed limited-edition carpets late in his life, but carpets and decorative textiles appeared in many of his earlier prints and paintings. His Statuette and Vases on an Oriental Carpet (1908) and Still Life with Jacinthe (1910) are both paintings that can be classified in the category of nature morte, with carpets an important element contributing to a meditation on life and death, a vanitas. Matisse would continue to integrate images of carpets, tablecloths, wallpaper, and fabrics in complex ways in his work. Patterns would often fill the space of the painting; a rug, perhaps, would often extend from the ground to fill up an adjoining wall, such as in Still Life on a Blue Table (1911). In Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Ground (1926), the effusive, decorative logic of the oriental carpet in particular took on an increasingly symbolic charge to communicate a dreamlike world of arabesque forms in which a human presence coalesced into the allusive patterning.
To reference the female nude as merely a “decorative figure” in an “ornamental ground” as the painting above does is to contribute to the production of images of the “other” in terms of gender and race. This is a problem endemic to paintings of the so-called odalisque. In her Odalisque: Hey, Hey Frankenthaler (1969), Lynda Benglis makes reference to the reclining nude female figures depicted by artists such as Matisse. The river of paint created by Benglis recalls bodily functions such as spitting, shitting, vomiting, pissing, and bleeding in the bright-red latex that she used to pour onto the ground. Spill sculptures such as this one draw attention to the ground as a site for the insertion of an alternative narrative to a “male-dominated Color Field painting into something that breathed, embodying the more feminine notion of flow in its seeping, sensuous drips.”8
Carpets occupy a liminal realm between figure and ground. Minimalist artists famously sought to capture this liminality by aiming for a sculptural condition that artist Tony Smith referred to as neither object nor monument. Carl Andre, for instance, covered exhibition space floors with pieces of tiled industrial materials, which displaced sculpture’s traditional alignment with the condition of verticality and its identification with a standing human figure with art that emphasizes the condition of horizontality and the human sitting or lying prone. Paradoxically, the expressiveness of minimal art was owed to its asocial character, which masked a repressed evocation of domesticity through its alignment of art with the floor. In the work of Andre, repression extends to the evocation of a human labour that works on its knees and is not acknowledged except in terms of a phenomenology of presence.
The elision of figure with ground, such that either term dissolves into the other à la Benglis, was explored by the Italian artist Rudolf Stingel in an ambitious 2013 project for the Venice Biennale. Stingel covered the floors and walls of the Palazzo Grassi with oriental rugs. The carpets appeared to extend outward from the floors and upward onto the walls, pushing the logic of the blurring of the division between painting and sculpture in extremis. Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings and John McCracken’s slab sculptures are famous examples of art that exists in the fused space of wall and ground while retaining their object status. McCracken has stated that his work exists “‘between worlds,’ not only linking floor (the realm of sculpture) and wall (painting), but also matter and spirit, and body and mind.”9
A semantic play on the term “wall to wall carpeting,” Stingel’s Venice project pays reference to artists such as Rauschenberg and McCracken, but also to the originators of the carpets he quotes: the Turkic, Kochi, and Mongolian nomads of the Eurasian Steppe, who dwell in yurts with their carpet- and woven-textile-laden interiors. Eurasian nomads regularly produce rugs, tents, and clothing for their needs, much of it in highly decorative patterns. There is little material distinction between what one wore on the body and what one slept on and dwelled in. The body is blended as one within material culture. The chasm between the people of the yurt and the art goers of the Palazzo Grassi is immense. It is this cultural chasm that Stingel attempts to bridge by pointing out the separateness of one world to another.
Stingel’s project also referenced the importance of Venice as a trading city, including its historical connections to the Silk Road, the trading route through Central Asia to China, and the travels of the Venetian merchant, explorer, and writer Marco Polo. Carpets serve as backdrops for the display of Stingel’s paintings, which are painted almost entirely in black and white. The paintings allude to Western art and culture. They are contemplative for the mind and eye, and rigid in their interpellation of a viewer who stands immobile front-and-centre while viewing each painting. The paintings contrast with the suggestion of spirit and movement as embodied in the complicated patterns of the carpets. The carpets call attention to Otherness, as well as to the problem of unidirectional historical memory and the traumas visited upon colonized peoples. To tour Stingel’s installation is to go on an embodied journey of retrieval of love for one’s own body and love for the body of the Other.
The relationship or distance of art to craft was also underlined by Stingel’s project. Craft is often defined as being tied to practical function while art is seen in more elevated terms, as operating independently of the requirement of function. One version of art sees art as having a purpose aimed at achieving an affect derived from aesthetic experiences, which allows art to exist free from the criteria of utility. Another version of art defines art in terms of its functionality, be it a social function or a form that ever follows function, much as the forms and functions found in nature. Contemporary art tends to favour the former version over the latter, but the debate between aesthetic value and practical function is also a debate over a culturally constructed divide, which suppresses the value of craft for so-called non-aesthetic purpose and, therefore, non-artistic practice.
But just as modernity hid within its terms the feature of coloniality, so does the argument distancing art from craft conceal the presence and alternative histories of subaltern lives, including those of nomadic peoples, the abjectly poor, indentured labourers, and Indigenous peoples. Women, historically denied from art practice by men, were consigned to traditional craft practices that were linked to the spaces of domesticity or cooperative work. Women and children became identified with so-called “women’s work,” which included the manufacture of objects for the home such as baskets, quilts, clothing, and anything involving needlepoint, as well as carpet design and production. As societies modernized along a monetized stratum, the ground also became the site of subaltern labour, the migrant worker, and the housecleaner (who was most often a woman).
The feminist art movement of the 1960s and ’70s challenged the assumptions underpinning the secondary status of craft activities, analyzing the relegation as patriarchically engendered, and demanded the opening-up of the study and practice of art to include the perspective of women. Fibre and textile art involving weaving, knitting, crochet, felting, tapestry design, and rug hooking became increasingly incorporated into high art by feminist women artists, practices that are now availed to both male and female artists.
Such practices have also become more conceptual, as the status of the artist has increasingly come to resemble more the global jet traveller than the nomad. The contemporary artist of today will often contract out production of artefactual objects to craftsperson artists, including subaltern object makers, to communicate concepts of difference and authenticity.
Traditionally, the ground or floor is an area devalued in art. Paintings would be associated with walls while ceilings could be adorned to suggest a celestial realm. By contrast, the most important part of a sculpture would often be elevated for upcast eyes, both gaze and sculpture separated from the ground by the base or plinth. In such an ordering, ceilings would be linked to the sacred and floors to the profane (the last stop before purgatory).
The lesson that a carpet offers is the lesson of taking in the world from the perspective of the ground and of the many ancestral and communitarian memories associated with such a perspective. I have tried to argue the many parallels between the work of art and the carpet. They include the modernist ideal of the sublimation of art into life and the retrieval of a will toward a world of enchantment through difference. As in any encounter with difference, it is the knowledge gained by opening oneself to another that is important, for such knowledge serves to prepare us for a world of mutability and change.
Carpets form a connection to the body, but from underneath and therefore some distance from mind and sight. Despite their ubiquity, they are liminal in terms of their presence. They occupy a liminal space between nature and culture. They are liminal to figure and ground. The architect Le Corbusier designed for the High Court at Chandigarh, India, heavy woven tapestries that he called “muralnomads.” He saw them as woolen walls that could be “detached, rolled, carried in one’s arm, travel to be hung elsewhere.”10 The carpets represented for Le Corbusier the freedom to wander and to gain knowledge through travel. Carpets are like a skin to the ground, the substrate on which all organic life and knowledge emerges and grows.
1 Karen S. Rubinson, “The Textiles from Pazyryk: A Study in the Transfer and Transformation of Artistic Motifs,” Expedition Magazine (Penn Museum, Philadelphia), March 1990, http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=2921 (accessed 1 May 2016).
2 Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (spring 1986), 24.
3 Unknown, “Ode to a Garden Carpet,” sixteenth century, in Nader Ardalan and Laleh Baktiar, The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture (London and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 135.
4 Shaykh Safiur Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri, ed., Tafsir Ibn Kathir (abridged), volume 6, Surah Al-Isra, verse 39 to the End of Surah Al-Mu’minun, 1st edition (Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers, 2000), 476–77.
5 Nathanial Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Penguin, 1970), 34.
6 Henry James, “The Figure in the Carpet,” in The Complete Tales of Henry James, ed. Leon Edel (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 289.
7 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 164.
8 Emily Nathan, “Linda Benglis: Top Form,” Artnet, http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/nathan/lynda-benglis-new-museum-2-11-11.asp (accessed 1 August 2019).
9 Roberta Smith, “John McCracken, Sculptor of Geometric Forms, Dies at 76,” New York Times, 10 April 2011.
10 Remy Golan, Muralnomad: The Paradox of Wall Painting, Europe 1927–1957 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 236.