Chicken Strikken

Review by Andrew Berardini

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A beautiful girl looking off into the sea, an orange peel sun creaming across the water. Her tossled rootbeer hair cascades onto a sweater, wrapping her snugly down and around her bare thighs. Knitted into the back (flanked by stripes, dancing lions, and all-seeing eyes) a knitter has stitched into the sweater the words, “Touch Me.”Just out of view, the front states  “Se men inte röra”, which for those who do not speak Swedish means, “Look but do not touch.”
 
The tattoo of a diamond on her ring finger might just mean she’s spoken for by some lucky somebody.
 
I can’t help but find the whole scene feministic, powerful, softly lascivious.
 
Then again, I’m turned on by feminists, even made a baby with one. Or you might even say, she made a baby with one.
 
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A handful of words like something off a to-do list:
 
Bodies, Desires, Politics, Art, Life.
 
As you might know, these things are rarely so neatly separated by commas.
 
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This is a review of Chicken Strikken by Lisa Anne Auerbach, a book/catalogue for her exhibition/project at the Malmö Konsthall. I’ll get to the parts where I talk about the book itself momentarily. The title is a little off-putting, angular. Those sounds are not the most melodious in English.
 
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I gave up trying to separate where art ends and craft begins. Though I tend more and more to root for the wonky handmade thing over the factory produced thing. Donald Judd wanted to remove the human hand for some conceptual reason or another, but he was just reflecting his moment in history. Most things in his time were not made by humans anymore but by machines, so I guess he felt on some level that art should be too. He wasn’t the only one of course.
 
I have a few buddies that are border guards for the whole art/craft divide. “Craft” for them can be a pejorative, especially if it’s something that in their surmise is masquerading as “art” but is not excellent enough to justify it, or more kindly, is from a different history and tradition than the one they accept as art. They feel real sensitive for all the years of hard labor and study they put in to be able to call themselves an artist.
 
All things can be art. Though not everything is. Art is human activity and perception at its highest, whether paintings or gardening, breakdancing or writing.
 
Can sweaters be art? If made with Lisa Anne Auerbach: Yes. Definitely.
 
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Here and elsewhere, Auerbach has made and displayed her sweaters as art and as sweaters, wrapped around her as she bicycles across her city and wrapped around mannequins floating on wires in galleries. Handknit and usually commenting, declaiming, or protesting a political, social, or personal response to a shifting current event. The knits last even though sometimes the issues they address might come and go. Do you remember that anti-gay Senator that got caught cruising in an airport men’s room? Auerbach does I’m sure, she made a sweater.
 
Lisa Anne Auerbach wears her politics. In Malmö, she helped others to do the same.
 
Though her statements sometimes have the simplicity of a strike chant, they just as often are complex little poems.
 
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I never wear my politics on my sleeve. I’m saying more here about my political beliefs than I’ve likely said in ten years of writing.
 
I’m an anti-authoritarian vegetarian, a social democrat, and a pacifist. I’m the tattooed son of a union factory worker and a housewife, both Roman Catholics. I practice yoga and I hate advertising. I don’t own a gun or a tv. I think people should fuck and marry whoever they want. I don’t like most drugs, but see using them as a choice or at worst a disease that shouldn’t be criminalized. I think the worst thing about the US is how we treat the weak, the sick, and the outcast, how easily we let others suffer, the depth of our selfish apathy. When I hear “Working Class Hero,” I weep.
 
I generally don’t wear these politics on my sleeve because I like my privacy and I like sharing with others only mindfully. And besides, I am a lot of things that aren’t these things. Like everyone else, I’m more complex than a slogan or even a set of beliefs or practices. My mother would love me if I were a Republican or a Democrat. I would love my daughter whether she became a Trotskyite or a Nazi.
 
When I see people marching with signs that I agree with, I cheer. Sometimes I march with signs too, but not everyday.
 
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Chicken Strikken, the book by Lisa Anne Auerbach catalogues a series of sweaters that Auerbach made with Scandinavian knitters to be worn by the staff of the Malmö Konsthall, a historic museum for contemporary art in Sweden. Documented throughout are cheerful Swedes in brightly colored sweaters going about their days, on bicycles, at a soccer field, on a dock.  The sweaters are a mix of her and them, new ideas and old motifs, with language, politics, and iconography floating between.
 
Auerbach hand knits and their possibility as a site of expression coalesces with a significant movement in Scandinavia from the 1960s. Hønsestrik, which translates to “Chicken Knits” (and thus the book’s title) was a revolution in feminism and knitting that brought a traditional Scandinavian craft to bear on the makers’ contemporary issues.
 
One essay included in the book by Annemor Sundbø, takes through a brief history of Scandinavian knits, the appearance and disappearance of Hønsestrik, and the importance of DIY in her political struggle, all written with a kind of cheerful kindness and enduring power.
 
Sundbø is simply inspiring.
 
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One sweater adorned with liquor bottles and glasses, hearts and lions, says “More than love hours can never be repaid.” A turn of phrase on the famous work by the recently suicided artist Mike Kelley, a mentor and friend to many, especially here in Los Angeles where Auerbach and I both live. A comment on working class people making rather than buying things for one another, Kelley’s work was titled “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid,” and perhaps suggests that to knit someone a blanket like the one in his piece is to give them more time/love than can ever really be given back in return.
 
Auerbach quietly suggests that there never has been anything worth more than love hours, maybe even that such gifts can never truly be repaid, only maybe regifted.
 
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Bodies, Desires, Politics, Art, Life.
 
Lisa Anne Auerbach reminds us fitfully that these things are not separate, but neither are they simple and sometimes they are even dangerous. All these things are bonded together by us altogether and individually, by our humanness, as soft and durable as a well-made sweater.
 
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Lisa Anne Auerbach, Chicken Strikken, (Malmö Konsthall, 2012-2013) 
Images: Cover and interior images from Chicken Strikken

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