Belle Shafir’s new wall pieces weave together horsetail hairs with needles to produce delicate linear objects suspended on the wall. The acts of twining and knotting, the craft of crochet, generate little linear “insects,” or possibly “ponies,” with manes sticking out or webs and threads hanging from them.
These linear objects, like fine drawings in matter, introduce a new, additional expression of the themes ordinarily addressed by Shafir. Embryos and aborted fetuses, worms and caterpillars, hybrid creatures and cloned animals have frequently emerged in her work in recent years. These images, often combined with structures of fake laboratories, have replaced the natural materials, such as tree trunks, fruits, soil and dry leaves which starred in her early works.
Shafir’s is essentially female art, which corresponds with the work of renowned feminist artists in the 1970s. The work’s dimensions are always on a human scale; in recent years they have become truly miniature at times, posing questions about fertility and vegetativeness. The multiple hybrid bodies she concocts oscillate in the realm between science fiction and the anxieties of an ecological cataclysm, introducing images which convey sorrow for a world preoccupied with futile mechanical reproduction instead of real processes of birth and fertility.
The minimalist works in question call to mind hundreds of drawings scribbled by Shafir over the years. The unique material (horse hair), however, infuses them with power and dynamism beyond that of the pen or pencil. Shafir’s use of this charged material is all but accidental. Her parents, Holocaust survivors from Poland, immigrated to Germany after World War II, where they set up a horse farm, still managed today by her brother. Life on the farm amidst the horses, the care-giving routine, were a major part of her life as a teen. As a young woman, however, she rebelled against her parents and their way of life, immigrated from Germany to Israel, developed an artist’s career, and cut her ties with her past. The choice of horsetail hair, forty years later, after her parents had passed away, embodies a type of reconciliation with her past and a newly formed connection with the childhood origins which she had denied.
Shafir’s knotted-knitted images resemble, as aforesaid, little horses or tiny arthropods produced by delicate women’s craft. They are akin to small, light toys. The fact that some of the images rest on a web of threads-hairs, and some are combined with needles, calls to mind Louise Bourgeois’s spider images (Maman), which symbolized her mother who was a weaver and a tapestry restorer. For Shafir, the knotted “pony” conjures up her father’s home, forming a reference to and a late insight concerning her past.
The “knitting” of the images, gradually built up in the space as a system of cells which connect and split infinitely, is also reminiscent of scientific diagrams of cell division or internal systems growing out of control during illness. The current works are linked to large-scale knitting works which were at the core of Shafir’s art in the last two years: large pieces, resembling ropes or alternatively oversized intestines or enlarged ovaries, suspended from the ceiling and pulled downward by built-in weights.
The linking between industrious Sisyphean women’s work and natural, physiological systems has been a distinctive characteristic in Shafir’s oeuvre. Now, more than in the past, however, the hidden autobiographical element has a key role in deciphering the implied text of this delicate work.