Long black braids snake across the floor. Knotted webs of hair loop and bunch along the walls, tangling in lacy clumps to entrap an occasional woodchuck, bobcat, pheasant, coyote, wild turkey, or small songbird. On the floor, a tumble of straight black hair engulfs a blackbird and a garden Madonna. Petah Coyne, who first gained attention with an impressive installation of earthen lumps suspended like hornets’ nests at the Sculpture Center, and more recently showed sepulchral waxen chandeliers, is now working with hair. For the past two years, she has been dying and weaving horsehair, blind-stitching and tying it like intricate Irish lace. Thirty interns helped her during the many months. “I will never do this body of work again,” she says with vehemence.
Freud, in a lecture on femininity and penis envy, claimed that the only technique that may have been invented by women is that of plaiting and weaving. For Coyne, hair—which continues to grow after we die—is a more complex, charged material. It symbolizes soul, spirit, sacrifice, renunciation, rivers of tears, and the persistence of life. Her fragile yet monstrous “Fairy Tales” result from “a sadness that I needed to work out,” she says, after the death of a brother. They were provoked by her study of Victorian mourning jewelry—bracelets and brooches woven from the hair of deceased loved ones. They were also influenced by a stay in Japan, where she saw a thick coil of rope made of hair in the Higachi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto. Woven from the hair of women believers, it was made to haul timbers when the temple was rebuilt in 1895.
The taxidermied creatures were deaccessioned from a museum of natural history. The horsehair, a gift from Ann Hamilton, is recycled too: in its previous incarnation, it was Hamilton’s undulating carpet on the floor at Dia. Even Coyne’s materials are part of her effort to overcome mortality.