This article titled “Hot under the collar: Venice Biennale artist uses 27,000 neckties for installation” was written by Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Venice, for The Guardian on Thursday 11th May 2017 06.00 UTC
Few items symbolise masculine pomp and power quite like a necktie – they sit around boardroom tables, witness business deals, attend interviews and are loosened in pubs.
But, at this year’s Venice Biennale, one artist has turned 27,000 of these potent strips of silk into a vast artwork which is a “silent embroidered scream” against the global patriarchy.
British-based artist Michal Cole has taken tens of thousands of used men’s ties and laboriously sewn them together to create a traditional gentlemen’s living room in this year’s Pavilion of Humanity, which is backed by the University of the Arts London. The ties line the floor, the walls and the fireplace; they cover the overstuffed sofa, the stag’s head on the wall, the mounted rifle and even the pipe on the table.
“Some ties are over 60 years old and belonged to people who have probably died now,” said Cole. “There are wedding ties, school ties, funeral ties; these ties have seen every celebration, every stage of human life. They’ve witnessed deals, they’ve been to prostitutes, they’ve been to the pub, some of them have blood and dried vomit on them. I found a tie that had earth inside the lining, like someone was buried in it.”
For Cole, who was born in Israel, the work is a direct comment on the oppression of women she feels these simple items of clothing have come to symbolise, from the pay gap in offices worldwide to the men in political office – most pointedly Donald Trump – who sign laws that affect women’s bodies and livelihoods.
The idea for using ties in her work first came to Cole when she was studying at Chelsea School of Art. A group of bankers were interested in buying some works of hers which used fragments of real money, and she met them in a nearby pub to show them some pieces.
“We had drinks and then the whole conversation just became really inappropriate on their side,” she recalled. “It got quite sexual and even though I’m not someone who gets easily offended, I just had enough that day. I had a moment where I thought: why should I have to put up with this? So I asked them to give me their ties. They thought I was just being flirtatious, so all four of them took off their ties and gave them to me. And then I just left and never spoke to them again.”
Cole took her trophies from that day and made them into an artwork, and has expanded on the idea since. The Venice piece is her largest tie work so far, involving over a year of sewing it all by hand. While Cole sourced 45kg of ties through a company that exports secondhand clothes, many were also taken from men who have harassed her or given her and female friends unwanted attention.
The message of the work coincides with a crucial moment in the women’s movement worldwide, which has galvanised in the face of Trump’s election. The American president’s presence is indicated in Cole’s room by a tie from Trump’s own brand wrapped around a rifle.
The backdrop of global protest against the oppression of women, which saw millions around the world take to the streets earlier this year, “has made this work feel more powerful, definitely”, said Cole. “It’s incredibly current and everything fell into place with this. And I honestly wish it hadn’t because women are paying a heavy price for this.
“I feel like we are going backwards in time, back to an era where misogyny was acceptable and all the efforts, all the achievements that has been made is unravelling.”
But as well as commenting on the wider issues faced by women around the world today, the piece also comes from a deeply personal place for Cole. Her grandmother was a child bride, married off at 11 and gave birth at age 12. Cole also grew up in Israel and served her mandatory time in the military, where sexual assault has long been an issue swept under the carpet: last year alone there were 802 reports of sexual assault.
Cole said sexual assault was something she had just “learned to live with throughout my whole life, just a part of being a woman” but there was a moment when she was going through her divorce where she had reached breaking point.
“It was a moment where everything I had been through – my boss kissing me, people pinching my bum or grabbing my boobs on the bus, the sexual abuse I went through when I was five – all of those things came out at that moment and I screamed,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “It was that breaking point which served as a creative surge for this work, an inspiration for me to go and make something out my frustration.”
The tie room – or padded cell, as Cole refers to it – is just one of several rooms in the Pavilion of Humanity, and Cole has collaborated with Turkish artist Ekin Onat for the project.
Unlike the pavilions that form the official exhibition of the Biennale, the Pavilion of Humanity is not rooted in, or promoted by, a single country, and the show’s curator, Gillian Fox, emphasised the significance of the collaboration between a Muslim artist and a Jewish artist – “defying, rather than honouring borders”.
Laughing, Cole noted that there was, however, a certain irony to the whole project. “Yes this might be my loudest feminist statement but all I’ve done for the last 18 months has been ironing and sewing men’s ties.”
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