At ISG Museum, ‘Common Threads’ Weaves Past and Present

Visitors to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wander around a dark room on the second floor of the museum with bright, red headphones covering their ears. Without the headphones, they hear the voices of David Lange and Sybil Kempson, the composer and libretto of the opera, true pearl: an opera, in five tapestries, respectively, as they explain the process of creating their opera on a video in a continuous loop.  

This five-act opera could be considered the highlight of the museum’s new exhibit, Common Threads: Weaving Stories Across Time. True pearl was inspired by and written about the five 16th-century Flemish tapestries from the workshop of Jan Moy that have been on display at the museum since 1914. They depict five distinct scenes from the life of Cyrus, king of Persia in the first century B.C., from his near-murder as an infant to Tomyris’ rejection of his marriage proposal and the war that ensued because of it. Each act of the opera accompanies one tapestry—not necessarily meant to be viewed chronologically, the tapestries hang around the dark, gothic room out of order.

After having performed in the tapestry room at the museum, Lange realized that he hadn’t ever really looked at the tapestries. In that moment, he decided that he would create an opera about them with the hope that he would encourage visitors to see the details in the tapestries with a musical work. The “in-ear opera” took about five years to create with the intention that it would only be heard through a headset before the tapestries. Kempson wrote the libretto for about two years. Once she finished, Lange found his inspiration from her words and the woven images to compose the music. The recording, done days before the opening of the exhibit, was conducted by Stephen Drury and performed by the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and the musical group The Callithumpian Consort.



It’s shockingly modern and contemporary. Kempson wrote the libretto about the tapestries themselves, not about the scenes explicitly. As the first act begins, the materials that make up the tapestries are listed: wool warp, wool and silk wefts. The words and the various tones and inflections of the vocal parts are minimalist, rarely including any sort of fanciful or descriptions: Both the second and fourth acts contain the stark and bare lines, “Eagle / Grass / Sky / Sky / Sky.” There are plenty of instances among all of the acts that reflect a similar austerity.

“It’s not super expansive—it’s very focused and centralized. He [Lange] was trying to create a sound that would allow the viewer to really concentrate on the tapestry,” Pieranna Cavalchini, co-curator of the exhibit, said. “So, between the words of the libretto and the way the music has been composed, hopefully our visitors will have spent a lot of time actually looking at the tapestries and seeing them with new eyes through a contemporary lens.”

The opera and tapestries are the only part of the exhibit in the old wing—in the new wing’s Hostetter Gallery, there are seven contemporary works of art that employ that same theme of weaving together the past and the present, employing threads and tapestries to embody the strength of historical acknowledgement and the recognition of culturally significant occurrences. The continuation of the exhibit through different locations within the museum just strengthens its overall message, closing the gaps between past and present, historic methods of art and modern interpretations and executions of traditional techniques.

Many of the artists whose works are displayed in the Hostetter Gallery have been in-residence at the Gardner in the past, which is how Cavalchini and Christina Nielsen, a former-curator at the museum, were able to reach out to them to contribute to the exhibit.

This part of the exhibit is “where the weaving became a contemporary catalyst for these artists,” Cavalchini said.



Themes of war, healing, and migration are depicted in various tapestries, made of metal (Many Came Back, by El Anatsui), various fabrics and animal hides as seen in Porter Series: Russie d’Europe (Man with Bed on Back), by William Kentridge; Standard Incomparable, organized by Helen Mirra; The Great Bare Matt, Raqs Media Collective), and animated digital graphics (WarCraft, by Nevet Yitzhak).

Weaving is an art, not just for art’s sake, however—it’s an art for utility’s sake, which the museum recognizes and displays with certain works included in this exhibit, like Lee Mingwei’s interactive work, The Mending Project, and the international project organized by Helen Mirra, Standard Incomparable. Most of all, however, the museum hopes that Common Threads will serve as a facilitating device that encourages visitors to acknowledge the connections between past and present, the overlapping and historical usage of certain mediums in artistic and practical ways, and the expression of personal beliefs and values through these beautiful fabrics.

Altogether, it’s not an overly extensive exhibit: there are 13 works, including the opera. But a visitor could spend hours in just those two rooms to really take in and appreciate the meaning in all of these works that weave together ideas through generations: as Cavalchini said, Common Threads is a “dialogue across centuries.”

Featured Images by Mary Wilkie / Heights Editor

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