They urge me to wed, and I weave a web of deceit. For a god first inspired me to set up a great loom in the hall, and begin weaving with long fine thread.
Thus Penelope explains to Odysseus, who’s appeared in the guise of an aged and impoverished stranger, how she deals with the princes from the neighboring islands that are courting her.
Convention compels her to host them lavishly. But they’ve abused her generosity, as they camp out in her palace eating, drinking, and seducing her maids.
Penelope tells the suitors that she must complete a shroud for Odysseus’s elderly father, Laertes. She’ll choose among them when the shroud is complete.
She tells Odysseus:
Then day after day I wove the great web, but at night, by torchlight, I unmade it. So for three years I cunningly kept the Achaeans from knowing, and so tricked them.
Sitting at the loom advances the moment of reckoning. Unraveling pushes it back. In this way Penelope manipulates the fabric of time itself, as measured by the growth of the shroud, a garment of death.
The women of The Odyssey are all weavers, from Helen to Circe to Calypso. This is no coincidence: the time-consuming making of fabric was necessarily constant and ongoing. It was women’s work, invented by Athena herself.
Penelope takes control of her story through the act of weaving and undoing
Weaving is of course an ongoing metaphor for language and story-telling. Even the word text come from texere, to weave.
Though Odysseus is always acknowledged for his guile, Penelope’s ruse enables her to navigate the pressure from her family to remarry and her own desire to remain faithful to Odysseus.
This pressure to remarry is to be expected. Her son sees his resources dwindling. And there is no proof that Odysseus lives.
But Penelope wants to wait. She makes it possible by manipulating time.
An installation that embodies this subversion of time
Penelope by Tatiana Blass (Chapel of Morumbi, São Paulo, Brazil, 2011) fully acknowledges the original story and then transports the viewer further beyond.
There is the loom with woven material. The result of the weaving not only advances time, but introduces order. It is conventional. It pays obeisance to the trappings of power.
But on the other side of the loom, the unraveling threads tangle and cross. They create their own time, an inexorable “progress” of their own.
There is the inside. A sedate and orderly chamber is bisected by a red carpet that takes the viewer to the loom itself, in the place of the altar. Behind the loom, the threads go haywire and actually seep out of the building through the daub-and-wattle portholes.
That’s what happens when one plays with time.
Outside, the otherworldly landscape is wrapped in red, the yarn criss-crossing the ground and draping the plants to the point of strangling them.
Like an overgrown garden, the woven material becomes a cocoon or a spider web of neglect, reminding us of the fairy tale where the castle sleeps for a hundred years, waiting for the prince to arrive and waken Beauty with a kiss.
Is this Penelope’s wish? To sleep until she is rescued?
Penelope is besieged by suitors who wish to claim all that is hers. They’ve even conspired to murder her son. She isn’t given the chance to passively wait.
Penelope herself must somehow create time.
She does this by unraveling. Turning back the clock. Subverting the rules.
The shroud of Laertes and parasitic plants
Steven Lowenstam fascinatingly presents the different meanings of the shroud in each of three tellings of Penelope’s ruse within The Odyssey.
It is Penelope’s final obligation to the family of Odysseus before remarrying and consequently the end of her life to that point. The waxing and waning shroud also mirrors the travels of Odysseus as he gets closer to Ithaca and then is swept away. Finally, the completed shroud becomes essentially the trigger for the death of the suitors on his return.
There’s no obvious shroud in the installation by Tatiana Blass.
There’s a red carpet, straight and true on one side of the loom, followed by a chaotic jumble of fiber that leaves the building and drowns the outer walls and yard.
Is this exterior a period of stasis like the hundred-year-nap in Sleeping Beauty or is it the terrible consequence of slowing time down?
The color reminds us of the death of the suitors. The bloodbath.
Cipó-chumbo and parasites that go too far
Douglas de Freitas notes the artist’s inspiration in cipó-chumbo, a parasitic plant that spreads over its host and eventually strangles it. The suitors are parasites that overstay their welcome. Penelope’s identity in Ithaca is at risk, like the life of cipó-chumbo‘s host plant.
But their plot to murder her son is foiled and Penelope manages to postpone her choice.
Odysseus returns and, with his son, slaughters the men occupying the Ithaca palace. Blood fills the great banquet hall.
The exterior of Blass’s fabulous installation is both enchanted and obscured by unchecked growth and aftermath of a massacre.
But Blass doesn’t stop there
Six months later natural greenery starts to prevail over the snarled curtain of fibers (photos in portfolio on page 9).
Like in The Odyssey, the terrible violent act marking Odysseus’s return is eventually eased by time. Only a few remnants of the suitors’ shroud persist.
The web of yarn illustrates Penelope’s complicity in the massacre: not by taking up the sword but by sitting at her loom. Weaving to build a garment of death, then unraveling to forestall its use.