Threadbare jeans

At DOVA Temporary, a University of Chicago art gallery, thirteen individuals sat around a pedestal, each one’s head bent down, their fingers picking steadily at denim. All eyes were on Anne Elizabeth Moore, the artist responsible for the evening and a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During the discussion, Moore reflected, “At one point, my work was trashed,” she said. “How was it criticized?” someone nearby asked. “No–it actually was thrown out, in the garbage,” Moore responded, laughing.

This exchange was the crux of Moore’s informal, participatory art performance. Sitting together, Moore and the participants were literally deconstructing the garment trade and placing the remnants on a pedestal. Moore’s travels to Cambodia, learning and living with textile factory workers, opened her eyes to “people dying of starvation, making less than half of what they needed to live, working seven days a week, all day long–not knowing that there could be an improvement.” Faced with such disgusting exploitation, Moore “need[ed] time to sit down and think about everything.”

The product of her meditation was this piece–a collective systematic destruction of the very garments produced by injustice. As soon as a DOVA guest entered, a piece of torn-up jeans was thrust into his hands. Nothing was explained, one simply had to observe the group and start pulling threads from the fabric until the little threads formed a large heap. Moore encouraged the group to think about the history of Cambodia’s oppressive regime. “The field killings occurred nine kilometers away from where these jeans would have been manufactured,” she informed the group. Continuing, Moore explained the paradox of modern Cambodia, where fashion is a huge marker of status yet clothing ads are targeted at those who simply cannot afford the products.

At that moment, two middle school girls from down the street walked in before heading to a play audition next door. “Are you guys doing sewing lessons or something?” one asked. Moore smiled and said, “Sort of…” She gave the two curious visitors her seat and a scrap of denim each. “So we are just pulling these?” the other girl asked, already starting to add to the central pile.

By the end of the hour, the mound of threads had grown so large that it could cast its own shadow. In the end, though, the most lasting remnant of Moore’s art was the resonance of her message among her participants–together, even if only symbolically, we can shred abuse and injustice.