PRINT January 2020


Hana Miletić, Materials, 2019, handwoven raw wool and metal yarn, 9 × 7 1⁄2”. From the series “Materials,” 2015–.

IN 1804, French weaver Joseph Marie Jacquard unveiled an invention that would revolutionize the textile industry: an apparatus that automatically controlled which threads were pulled on a loom, based on information stored on a looping series of punch cards. Intricate fabric patterns previously requiring hours of tedious manual labor could now be produced quickly, efficiently, and at scales capable of meeting the demands of the burgeoning global market. But the Jacquard loom would affect more than just brocade. Famously, the invention also inspired the Analytical Engine, a nineteenth-century prototype of a rudimentary computer developed by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage. (Noting the similarity of the punch cards used to relay instructions to both machines, Lovelace mused, “We may say aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”)

Within Western culture, weaving has traditionally been relegated to the realm of “women’s work.” (Freud linked it to something about pubic hair and nature’s need to cover that terrible void between a woman’s legs.) And yet the origins of computation lie in warp and weft, a precursor to the binaries that compose the digital world.

Hana Miletić, Materials, 2019, handwoven cotton and raw wool, 7 7⁄8 × 9 1⁄2". From the series “Materials,” 2015–.

Hana Miletić mobilizes the gendered associations of weaving to give materiality to processes of care and repair while still attending to the textile’s specific affiliation with the digital. Born in Zagreb, in what is now Croatia, Miletić studied archaeology and art history before taking up street photography. In 2001, she relocated to Brussels, where, on a whim, she enrolled in workshops at a collective weaving atelier. She soon discovered that weaving—which, as the artist points out, essentially shares a “back office” with digital photography, in that both systems are predicated on grids—allows for manual manipulations in ways the photographic image does not.

Miletić discovered that weaving—which, as the artist points out, essentially shares a “back office” with digital photography—allows for manual manipulations in ways the photographic image does not.

Today’s automated looms no longer use cards, drawing instead on the digital input of rasterized images. Miletić works on a 1970s-era loom, which repeats specified patterns four times horizontally, generating a kind of contact sheet. While her textiles tend to stay quite small, concealing this effect, the artist has also parlayed the repetition into a series of larger tapestries titled “Softwares,” 2018–. To introduce variations and distortions into each copy of the source image, the artist will tug at a random thread, much the same way that Wade Guyton might yank at a canvas as it runs through the printer. Given the high speeds at which the loom operates, this technique allows Miletić to set constraints on the degree of variation, though the actual outcome remains beyond her immediate control.

View of “Hana Miletić: Dependencies,” 2018, Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels. Hanging: Softwares, 2018. Photo: Kristien Daem.

Miletić finds a different way to undermine subjective intention in the series “Materials,” 2015–, which has made appearances at many of her recent exhibitions, from the Sharjah Biennial in 2017 and her solo exhibition at Wiels Contemporary Art Centre in Brussels in 2018 to gallery shows at the Approach in London and LambdaLambdaLambda in Pristina, Kosovo, both in 2019. To make these understated collages—often composed of oddly shaped scraps of woven fabric—the artist begins with a photograph. Over the years, Miletić has built up an archive of digital snapshots of makeshift repairs she’s encountered in her day-to-day life, from duct tape sutured over broken taillights to ad hoc windowpanes fashioned from used cardboard. She lifts the irregular shapes of these patch-up jobs as ready-made models for her weavings and siphons her color palettes from the overall compositions of the original images; the result are the decidedly non-duct-tape shades of forest green, bleached strawberry, and Jaffa orange. In one 2019 work from the series, a strap of green and teal surges up in a stubby vertical, then careens horizontally, before swooping down and back to the vertical axis to inscribe an oblong P. Another from the same year suggests the mark of Zorro, fattened up and smushed onto a thick kebab skewer. Here, the fabric is tightly woven in silvery tones and reads like the surface of a metal colander.

Hana Miletić’s felt workshop, Kunstenfestivaldesarts, Wiels Contemporary Art Centre, Brussels, May 12, 2018. Photo: Anna Van Waeg.

If in “Materials” Miletić brings images of the street into the studio, in other works she takes the studio to the streets. In 2018, the artist contributed to “The New Local,” a joint project by the curatorial platform Precarious Pavilions and the performing-arts center Kaaitheater sited on the open square of Brussels’s Muntplein/Place de la Monnaie. Participants were urged to reflect on the cut-and-paste character of public art. Miletić’s piece took the form of soft architecture, consisting of a fabric woven with a checkerboard pattern suspended from a simple metal frame. At first glance, the structure looks like a portable voting booth or one of those changing rooms on tony beaches. Inspecting it more closely, one sees that Miletić has left the internal sections of each square partially unbound. The threads hang in gauzy, anchored curtains, neither on nor off.

Hana Miletić, Softwares (Precarious Pavilion), 2018–, Jacquard-woven textiles. Installation view, Muntplein/Place de la Monnaie, Brussels. Photo: Cillian O’Neill and Stine Sampers.

Though emphatically situated in real space, the object, titled Softwares (Precarious Pavilion), 2018–, also points toward the virtual realm of the digital. The checkerboard pattern, woven from white polyester and gray cotton, implies a grid—high modernism’s tabula rasa of utopian possibility—while the grayscale patterning specifically evokes Adobe’s “transparency grid,” the sapless flesh underlying the skin of PSDs, PNGs, and TIFs. Cut something out and you will find this grid filling the hole. Its presence signals not only absence but also possibility, an indiscriminate invitation to patch in the cover of new content.

View of “Hana Miletić: Incompatibilities,” 2019, Approach, London. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

Softwares (Precarious Pavilions) actualized this invitation by readily hosting poetry readings and sound performances by other artists. Miletić had previously experimented with other forms of production that encourage collectivity. In 2017, she was tapped to lead a yearlong workshop at Globe Aroma, a cultural center in Brussels aimed at integrating new arrivals into the city. Noting a gender disparity in previous years’ programming, Miletić oriented her workshop specifically toward women. She first formulated a series of collaborative poetry-writing sessions, but they were quickly bogged down by language barriers. One participant, Salome Grdzelishvili, a Georgian émigré, proposed convening through another format: felting. Thought to be one of the oldest (if not the oldest) textile, felt requires community—demands it, even—as multiple hands lather and knead wet raw wool into a solidified mass. Workshop participants started to anchor their poetry compositions in conversations about the colors they were using. The resulting multilingual poem, “txt, Is Not Written Plain,” conjures a palette of “yellow white / like the hair of my grandmother / who smokes,” “dirty pink colours” of “Indian old roses,” and “Earth brown like your hands today, / in small contrast with the brown / dotted, Merino wool shirt you / wear.”

The experience and its immersion in color connected the artist to the legacy of her grandmother, who was a weaver. (Miletić harbored warm childhood memories of learning to knit and of dipping Easter eggs in dyes distilled from onion skins.) For the past two years, the artist has experimented with making her own dyes from red beets, berries, and even avocados, whose pits beget an unlikely pink hue, akin to red-wine stains after one cycle in the wash. The emphasis on color has begun to announce itself in Miletić’s captions, where the very specific titles of her materials—“ash grey elastic mohair,” “platinum mercerised cotton,” “indigo coloured polyester,” “cream cottolin”—hint at textile-trade histories.

Hana Miletić, txt, Is Not Written Plain (Draft IV), 2018–19, mixed media. Installation view, 2019, TextielMuseum, Tilburg, the Netherlands. Photo: Josefina Eikenaar.

Miletić would focus on one particular case study for “Incompatibilities,” a series that debuted at her eponymous 2019 solo show at the Approach in London. As part of Yugoslavia, the artist’s hometown of Zagreb had once been the seat of a thriving textile industry. Today, the few factories that survived the general bungling of postwar privatization angle their wares toward the export market, offering only an extremely limited selection of their colors locally. However, yarn whose pigments are, for whatever reason, deemed “incompatible” with the standard is bundled up in bags and peddled at discounted prices. Miletić collects these bags and systematically empties their contents, weaving monochrome patches of each of these deviant hues, which she then pieces together in a kind of color-block collage. The artist purposefully leaves the seams of each section rough, so that the sutures take on a sculptural presence.

Her London show opened the day before Brexit’s intended October deadline (which promised to wreak havoc on markets both home and abroad), and the significance of this timing was not lost on the artist. After all, Miletić’s work springs from the ferment that led to Brexit: a world in which the local and the global have collapsed irrecoverably. Yet as Miletić demonstrates, these conditions need not lead to crisis. Instead, by proactively finding moments of productive intersection—the points where a grandmother’s homemade-dye recipe meets the hypermobile abstraction of the grid—we can tease out moments of communion, care, and collective possibility. 

Kate Sutton is coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.