Joan Key reviews Hana Miletić’s work from the artist’s ‘Materials’ series at The Approach, London, 7 May –19 June 2021
17 August 2021
Hana Miletić, ‘Patterns of Thrift’, The Approach, London, 7 May – 19 June 2021
When a girl is born, her mother puts a spider in her hand to teach her how to weave
Cecilia Vicuña 
Hana Miletić, ‘Patterns of Thrift’, installation view, The Approach, London, June 2021, photo by Eva Herzog, courtesy the artist and The Approach
Entering Miletić’s installation of recent works from the ‘Materials’ series, the works appear as if ex nihilo, like the spider’s web.  The woven collages are spun from thread, a medium that allows experimental form but retains innate characteristics and histories of use. Looking closer the works become object-like, discreetly occupying their own space, in dimensionally stable relation to the wall beneath. The result is lightness of presence, each work existing on its own terms, resisting shared identity. Without understanding any reason, there is an air of loss or damage. Thematic use of layering, binding and securing suggests reparations: as if evidence of preliminary breakage or violence quietly remains.
In an interview with Diana Betancourt Campbell, the politics of this work are made explicit. Miletić’s awareness of feminist identitarian issues in representation, the impact of global capitalism on ecology and immigration, and care for a wider communality of thinking and practising as worker-artist, is clearly articulated. The use of textiles in Fine Art has, historically, addressed these questions but Miletić’s emphasis is on collaborative sharing of memories and histories. Walter Benjamin’s ontological view of woven thread as symbolising continuity of remembrance is relevant. Miletić uses contact with thread and weaving process, a haptic memory of touch acquired through skilled craft-awareness, to evoke accretions of stories, meanings, memories and their change through time. 
Memory operates in different ways in Benjamin’s texts. Writing on Proust he considers a ‘Penelope’ activity, a mythological weaving and unweaving that links undoing the weft with a process of defensive forgetting. The mind unravels threads of memory as a creative delay to manage fears. There is also recall, ‘involuntary memory’: Miletić notes how working materials and using the loom engages muscle memory and processual rhythms that create personal associations of a liminal and spontaneous character. This potential for something repressed, almost not worth remembering, to be hidden but triggered intermittently to mind, has bearing on the use and displacement of street-photography as a resource in Miletić’s weaving practice.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2020, handwoven textile (copper metal yarn, gold eri silk, gold metal yarn, gold painted recycled wood fibre, old gold metal yarn, organic hemp, pale gold recycled polyamide, variegated gold organic cotton cord), 101 x 147 x 2.5 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Benjamin’s writing on, and photographs of, homemade Russian toys around 1927, are relevant to Miletić’s use of photography. The point is to witness, in Miletić’s case, small-scale destructions that presage imminent renewal. This connects to fears of change affecting traditional weaving communities, threatened by modern methods developing in globalised textile industries. A similar threat of losing traditions underlies Benjamin’s effort to capture a primitive cottage industry of making toys, evolved over time but felt to be on the verge of extinction.  The toys, found in Moscow’s flea markets are homemade, carved or constructed replicas of everyday objects. For Benjamin they refer to community, skills on the verge of loss. These images of toys are not simply records; they bring the viewer’s own involuntary memories of what a toy might mean. Miletić’s photographs of small incidents of damage mended with tape produce a similar effect, of something almost lost. Benjamin’s writing about the toys occurs at a defining moment: the high-modernist progressive ‘age of mechanical reproduction’. The substitution of factory-made toys taking place in this period is problematic for Benjamin because it cancels the child’s familiarity with an internalised logic of how their toy was made. The logic of weaving, present within Miletić’s care-full textile work, also reflects customs surrounding weaving, internalised in textile imagery and fabrication.
Benjamin fears that values of connection to specific places and their traditions may be felt not only as lost but destroyed, misunderstood, abandoned without credible record. Miletić seems to share this fear of catastrophic breakdowns traced through histories of textile production. In the interview with Betancourt Campbell the finely misted quality of Bangladeshi muslin, requiring highly specialised weaving techniques, is discussed as a form of weaving once prized but now tragically gone, its products kept in museum textile collections. Miletić regrets such deskilling with the accompanying devastation of codes of agriculture and communal structures of production.
A desire to acknowledge weaving’s historic value, even as already lost in a contemporary context, is strongly marked in this exhibition. Miletić’s awareness of the history of Huguenot weaving in the gallery’s locale, the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch areas of London, runs deep into the contemplation of weaving’s belonging ‘in a place’ but now ‘displaced’ by technological change. There is clearly empathy for the Huguenot asylum seekers and the part played in their economic survival by the production of sumptuary fabrics: ‘half-silks’ made on the Jaquard loom. Miletić’s choices of materials and processes for the exhibition at the Approach refer to that history of the fabrication of complex patterns of weave embellished with metallic thread and silks.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2020 (detail), handwoven textile (copper metal yarn, gold eri silk, gold metal yarn, gold painted recycled wood fibre, old gold metal yarn, organic hemp, pale gold recycled polyamide, variegated gold organic cotton cord), 101 x 147 x 2.5 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Social determinants that influence the history of textiles in Bethnal Green make connections with wider political themes. Miletić’s reference to ‘half-silks’ mentions the proximity to London’s Docklands.  The City of London dominated colonial histories of trade, not only through imports of textiles, materials and dyes, but in the nineteenth-century standardised description of products, records, weights and measures. Increasingly detailed trade legislation and accountancy brought legal extinction to the expression ‘half-silks’ as an inexact description of the contents of the cloth. The contemporary fast-fashion wholesale clothing industry in London’s East End, much of it conducted by immigrant workers, is evidence of such globalised changes in textile production in the Far East that concerns Miletić.
Mechanised textile production and the use of synthetic thread are used as quotations by Miletić in a gesture that reclaims patterns and qualities of industrialised textiles for the durational quality of the handwoven. Recreating industrial qualities and patterns of weave on a Jaquard loom creates ironies of scale that become part of the ambivalence that informs Miletić’s resistant commentary. The linearity of the modern production line runs counter to the sequenced structures of working practice the loom creates. This shift is not just of aesthetic concern; Miletić relates these structures to the cyclical relations of soil, water, animals, plants, to principles of farming and ecological forms of land management developed over generations. Materials are chosen by Miletić to represent those values of organic sourcing, recycling, care for animals, and ethical dealings with textile labour conditions.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2021, handwoven and Jaquard-woven textile (black eri silk, dark silver recycled polyamide, gold eri silk, gold metal yarn, gold upcycled silk ribbon, neutral grey handspun organic wool, old gold metal yarn, organic hemp, pale gold upcycled polyamide, platinum mercerised cotton, rust black mercerised cotton, silver metal yarn, silver painted recycled wood fibre, soft white eri silk, white polyester), 250 x 150 x 3 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
The comparison introduces questions of high and low value, marked by choices of thread and types of weaves. The patterning of tape across a door-window is based on a photographic record of an activity of mending the door with commercial tape. Miletić remakes a door in textile to emphasise historic damage cheaply mended with tape, then recreated as valuable weaving of that mending. This woven tape now contains other specifically textile reference, for example to the functional hemp straps used in upholstery. Mixed into the traditional hemp weave are silks and decorative gold or silver yarn that refer not to use but to the sumptuary value of Huguenot weaving as display of wealth.
These differentiated use-values of kinds of tapes become enmeshed with the image of the door’s broken window. Layers of reference to work accumulate but become ghosted within Miletić’s tapestry door, including those incidental labours of manufacturing materials, commercial photography, as well as the making of the original image of the door. Complex references to labour occurred throughout the works in the exhibition as differentiations of values of work continually shift from high to low, from hand-made to machine-made. At times, the weaving refers to hidden textile skills of millinery or couture, in which poorer, functional materials, like hessian or calico, add sub-structural form to the appearance of more valuable materials. Miletić reveals such hierarchies in the layering of the works.
The theme of labour refers to personal experience. The privatisation and closure of state-owned textile factories in Zagreb during the post-Soviet era affected Miletić’s family, especially female relatives who lost work.  This memory relates to the inclusion of commercial references in the ‘Materials’ works seen at the Approach. For an exhibition of earlier works from the series, Miletić worked with the reading and writing group ‘Knowledge is a Does’, producing documentation of interviews with a group of former textile factory workers from Zagreb who had organised a communal training facility, to remember and perpetuate their acquired expertise. 
As a child in Croatia, Miletić’s family experienced displacement because of war. The collection of more contemporary narratives of displacement shared with others during a residency in Brussels also relates to the memories woven into the ‘Materials’ series. Wider issues of identity were engaged through collaborative working on text with other first-generation immigrant artists and hip-hop musicians. Miletić’s own immigrant status in that city becomes entwined in this process.  Threads of text and music become analogous with interwoven threads of concerns with race, crossing territorial boundaries and experience of politicised acts of violence. These texts form a collaborative performance work that resonated with the subtext of violence in the Approach installation.  A linear star-shape of soft white-on-white textile copies the linear form of broken glass with a point of sharp impact at the centre. These lines could map pathways meeting but the work’s pale extended form creates a fragile visuality.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2021, handwoven and Jaquard-woven textile (polar white silk raffia, shell white organic flax, soft white eri silk, white polyester, white recycled silk laps) 115 x 77 x 5cm (right: detail), courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Participation in ‘Thread’, the Josef & Anni Albers Foundation’s international artistic exchange programme based in Sinthian, Senegal, also influenced the ‘Materials’ series.  Miletić experiences at firsthand a neocolonial Western institution working philanthropically in a remote African village. The American foundation acquired land and built property from the proceeds of the sale of a single Albers painting, a cultural exchange Miletić comments on. Participating in the exchange deepens and confirms respect for woven imagery developed in a close-knit communal setting. Handwoven forms are close to everyday life in Sinthian: traditional textiles, basketry, architectural uses of weave. Miletić is aware that memories of Modernist reinterpretations and appropriations of African cultural artefacts within the context of Western Art remain problematic. Similarly, Miletić’s knowledge of Anni Albers’s experimental and abstract woven fragments, mixing colours, threads and textures, brings ambivalent thoughts about the Bauhaus projection of Modernism’s progressive aesthetics into large-scale industrialised production.
Ethical tensions felt in Sinthian reinforce the thematic concerns of the ‘Materials’ series. The ‘thrift’ in the title of The Approach exhibition, mentions the conflicting economies of necessary usage and excess consumption. Fetishised exchange-values that textile as artwork is subject to, and the practical, understood as more ethical, concern with use-value, co-exist dialogically in Miletić’s work. The construction of a green roller blind, positioned across a gallery window is an example. The everyday use of this ordinary blind can be imagined, but a similar, now carefully woven form of the blind, with additional grey mending tapes was presented in The Approach, as if to shade the gallery window. This ruined blind, whose functionality was reinstated with tape but reinterpreted with weaving, has a different episteme of function. Now translucent, recreated in fine, semi-transparent weave using harmonic combinations of green thread in graded proportions, the work produced an ambience of green light. The plant-based sources of the colour were cited by Miletić in the list of materials. The balance of tensions, natural–synthetic, industrial–homely, functional–uselessness, inform the fabrication of the work.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2021, handwoven textile (apple green organic cotton, basil green organic linen, dark green flax cord, dark green recycled plastic raffia, dark silver recycled polyamide, emerald green eri silk, fern green organic linen, moss green organic silk, neutral grey hand spun organic cotton, seaweed green eri silk, silver metallic yarn), 156 x 260 x 1 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
The point of Miletic’s photographs is to capture small-scale, everyday images of ruins which have been partially repaired. Benjamin considers the fascination with ruins as sites of projection, marked by the imagination of destruction and its aftermath.  The fragmented structure of the ruin holds an apotropaic function, another form of memory, holding messages to be learned from catastrophe in the past. The fragmentary nature of Miletic’s woven shapes is extracted from the totality of the overall automatic capture of the photographic framing. This produces a selective attention to an activity of binding or mending the ‘found’ ruins. There is an emphasis on protection of the fragmented part and on a material use rather than an image. The use of lists of itemised materials rather than titles that would encompass an overall meaning of the work similarly foregrounds a fragmentary structure embedded within the memorial functions of Miletic’s work.
Benjamin writes about the distorting function of the movie camera's mechanical frame which imposes editing and focus on the viewer who may not be aware of the internalised politics of the resulting image.  The keeping-apart of the woven repetitions from photographic framing appears to be a critical device used by Miletić to deregulate representational authority. The strategy also excludes the optical framing of algorithmic formulations of digital photography that are now integral to industrialised photography, calibrated commercially to render a normative account of visual experience.  In Miletić’s comparison of the textile structure to the pixellation of the digital screen, what appears as a symbolic rejection of representational photographs in the woven work becomes accepted on different terms at the micro-level of textural comparison.  Technology is understood as not only as used by humans, but now constituting the human. The factual imagery of breakages now isolated from photography becomes reassimilated into the technology and tactility of the weave.
During the interview with Betancourt Campbell a photograph of Mahatma Ghandi, the master of resistant strategy, is referred to in order to mention that Ghandi, pictured spinning thread, recommended weaving as a social therapy to heal the disturbances of the postcolonial history of divisions within Indian society. Another of Miletić’s photographs, of tape applied to a broken car mirror, binds the wound of that object. The woven reference to this image looks like a commercially woven bandage, a metaphor for a small act of healing.  Seeing the resulting work in the gallery, without the photograph, the original plastic tape becomes a cloth tape that could have been used on a wrist or elbow in a healing process but reflects on the mechanical ‘wrist’ of the mirror. The first somatic response to the disturbance of the broken mirror is answered by the secondary somatic transformation into weaving. Both images appear as part-objects, the first as traumatic sign, the second a gentle reparative ring of fabric.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2020, handwoven and Jaquard-woven textile (grey eri silk, recycled nylon, recycled plastic thread, shell white organic flax, white polyester, white recycled silk laps), 32 x23 x 5 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Writing more specifically about Miletić’s withholding of photographic sources, E C Feiss offers a comparison of a photograph and the choices implied by the woven outcome: ‘…the photograph of the broken car window on its own offers a [coherent] surface reading of class difference, without the capacity to speak of its production under capital. In contrast, textile preserves some of this detail (the car owners’ reparative handiwork) but refuses to offer any such coherent image’. Feiss is critical of Miletić’s failure to image the social-economic dimension of the photographic reference by offering instead ‘an aesthetic enaction of political materialism’. If Miletić counters the low-class difference of the assembly line car and manufactured tape with a highly specialised fragment of weaving: how to assume a political position in that gap? Or the gap between cheap tape and precious woven tape flecked with gold and silken thread? How to read the focus on the break as reference to class difference?
The impossibility of presenting the ordinary snapshot evidence of the photographic document of loss or damage, in Feiss’s terms, indicates a preference for an incoherent, mystifying discursive practice in which the image is materialised as an elegant and refined reconstruction of a low-class object that, having been historically broken, has been rendered even lower. Benjamin’s photographs of toys also adopted a low-class object to resist the cultural loss of their continuing memory. In Miletić’s case, restitution of the devalued object is vested in an involuntary, fleeting form of memory whose value is uncertain. It is the exclusion from the value of recorded memorial that is significant to Miletić’s class politics.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2020, handwoven textile (ash grey textured metal yarn, chestnut wood and silk, dark neutral grey hand spun organic wool, dark recycled polyamide, silver metal yarn, white gold textured metal yarn) 56 x 71 x 2 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
Feiss misses Miletić’s resistant proposition: that Ghandi’s unassailability was achieved by positing, in estranged or unrecognised form, that dangerous factor that reifies distinctions based on identity and hierarchies in such a way that the distinction goes unrecognised or appears in a less provocative manner. Undermining the status quo brings another question: of how we find each other as community in recognising or accepting such resistant strategy. The reappearance of the photograph in a roundabout woven form avoids the defeat of a negative or aggressive counter-recognition towards the representation of violence, reflecting Ghandi’s strategy of small resistances to the aggressivity of globalised capitalism that underlie a heritage of colonial ordering.
Feiss wants clarification of political intentions, but Miletić’s work positions potential usability and practical references to work in this vacuum, cutting down the divisive aspect of defining oppositional positions along the lines Feiss proposes. Miletić may follow Benjamin’s analogy of threads preserving memories, but ambivalence disturbs this resolution, forcing the viewer to consider variations in their own fleeting grasp of image or attention to the work of interpretation. The viewer can find gaps in the woven structures that reflect real possibilities of fragmentation or dislocation, of functionality or its lack, of connections to reparations not carried through, and to charged empty spaces left out of the account. The pleasurable appreciation of the weaving entwines with a precarious sense of what might be missed.
The lightness of these works refuses gravity in relation to the wall to establish a different metaphysic of correct being in place, with justification. The intensity of the processes leading to this placement stabilise the work’s presence in the gallery, allowing the viewer’s absorption in the work. In the Ghandi reference shared with Betancourt Campbell in the final words of the interview, Miletić reveals a vision of a gentler form of political action that avoids divisive position-taking: the need to find ways of making work that confronts memory of violence without contributing to further conflict. The traumatic experience of the Balkan wars would inform this position. The narrow sectarian and ethnic divides within a confined geographical setting remain to this day. Finding means of co-existence between the cultural differences at play requires respect for the careful avoidance of reopening everyday small-scale sensitivities. This fits Miletić’s precise strategies designed to indicate questions about feminist, colonial, anti-capitalist issues but through collaborative working, discrete formal and presentational gestures, or mobilising small-scale historical references.
Feiss criticises the woven outcomes of this strategy as avoidance of the more direct political messages of the photo references. The narrow class basis for this judgement oversimplifies the non-confrontational position on which Miletić bases an ideal activism of protecting communities and valuing traditions. The kind of Marxism operative in Miletić’s work is closest to Benjamin’s concern about the fragility of cultural memory, the need to bear witness to what is lost, and the dangerous disruption wrought by inorganic change: for example, the ‘destructive character’ who ruthlessly ‘makes room’. 
Despite the appearance of compromise with problems associated with Modernist progress, or its distorting or insensitive appropriations of archaic forms, Miletić accepts technological achievements but with a mitigation that breaks the logic of mechanical reproduction and reinstates a real-time dimension to the timing of productivity, without distorting the body through machinic rhythms of work or the cohesion of society through the activity of production. The scale of interconnection between near and distant consequences of globalisation are traceable through the material connections and the collaborative models Miletić finds and mobilises; in a gently indicative micro-political practice, detail is important.
Hana Miletić, Materials, 2021 (detail), handwoven and Jaquard-woven textile (black eri silk, dark silver recycled polyamide, gold eri silk, gold metal yarn, gold upcycled silk ribbon, neutral grey handspun organic wool, old gold metal yarn, organic hemp, pale gold upcycled polyamide, platinum mercerised cotton, rust black mercerised cotton, silver metal yarn, silver painted recycled wood fibre, soft white eri silk, white polyester), 250 x 150 x 3 cm, courtesy the artist and The Approach, London
 This line from Cecilia Vicuña’s poem ‘Guante’ [The Glove] was quoted by Hana Miletić in an interview with Diana Betancourt Campbell: ‘Hana Miletić and Diana Betancourt Campbell in conversation’, courtesy the artist and the speakers, and The Approach, London; other comments by Miletić have been taken from this source
 ‘Materials’ series, 2015–ongoing.
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust’, in Illuminations, Harry Zohn, trans, Fontana/Collins, London, 1982, p 204
 Walter Benjamin, ‘Russian Toys’, in Moscow Diary, Gary Smith, trans, issued as October 35, Winter 1985, pp 122–124
 See The Approach gallery's press release for the exhibition: ‘Using this concept [of half-silk] as her departure point, all the works in the exhibition have been made with different silk fibres entangled with other organic materials such as hemp, raffia and wool, as well as artificial fibres including recycled nylons, plastics and gold silver and metal yarns (the latter referring to the half-silk ribbons typical of the area).’
 See Romuald Demidenko, ‘From Automation to Households, and Back: Hana Miletić in Conversation’, BLOK Magazine, 5 September 2019, accessed 14 July 2021, np. Miletić says: ‘the closedowns resulted in many people, mostly women in their 40s and 50s years of age, losing their jobs, left with little opportunities on the job market’.
 Ibid. ‘Knowledge is a Does’ is a reading group, in part initiated by Miletić, exploring collaborative work from a feminist perspective, 2014 to the present day. Collaborative text for ‘Materials’, Beursschouwburg Arts Centre, Brussels/Sharjah Biennial, 2017.
 Belgian Art Prize exhibition, BOZAR, 2015: Readings of poetry and collaboration with hip-hop musicians La Frénétick; see E C Feiss, ‘Photography as Support System’, Camera Austria, no 144, 2018. Feiss remarks that although the basis of this collaboration began as a photographic workshop the outcome was an unillustrated book of poetry and an album of the group’s music. This displacement of photographic record ‘utilised performance and text to unravel the security of the photographic frame’, signalling Miletić’s evasive approach to photographic documentation and the function of the frame.
 Global politics of textile manufacture became entwined with a discussion of personal feminist politics apparent in Miletić’s engagement with the collectivity of women working on felted textiles during a residency in Brussels. See Miletić's ‘txt, is Not Written Plain (draft lll)’, with Globe Aroma, Brussels, 2017, audio installation with twelve handmade felts on metal backdrop stands.
 The Thread residency in Sinthian in 2019 is discussed in Betancourt Campbell’s interview with Miletić. There are a number of online references to Sinthian and Thread; see, for example:
The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation
New Artist Residency in Senegal / Toshiko Mori, ArchDaily.com
 See Walter Benjamin on ruins: ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, John Osborne, trans, Verso 1985, p 178: ‘That which lies here in ruins, the highly significant fragment, is, in fact, the finest material in Baroque creation’
 Walter Benjamin discussed the differentiation of camera framings with cultic framing in relation to the film camera, see ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, op cit, pp 230–239
 See Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Presenting the Unpresentable: the Sublime’, Artforum, April 1982, pp 64–69, for a discussion of the interplay of industrialised photography and painting which has been influential on this text: ‘We are past deploring “mechanical reproducibility” in works of art; we know that industry doesn’t mean the end of arts, only their mutation’
 See BLOK, op cit: ‘With industrialisation, looms became automated and moved from homes to factories. The loom is not only the fore-runner of a computer (hardware), but writing code (software) was also developed through the experience of weaving… When I work with an automated or Jaquard loom, I translate the pixels of the photographic image into binds of horizontal and vertical threads. This is a different way of approaching reproduction. Here it doesn’t happen by hand but it is transmitted through coding. The Jaquard loom I use…repeats an image, or a rapport in more technical terms, four times…These recent works depict repeated and automated images but also show their irregularities.’ For more detail, see ‘Openings: Hana Miletić’, Kate Sutton on Hana Miletić, Artforum, January 2020, accessed 14 July 2021.
 For example images of Miletić’s photographs, see Feiss, ‘Photography as Support System’, op cit
 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Destructive Character’, in One Way Street, E Jephcott and K Shorter, trans, Verso, New Left Books, London, 1979, pp 157–159
Joan Key is a painter, writer and teacher who lives and works in London. Currently an Associate Lecturer in the undergraduate department at the University for the Creative Arts, Canterbury, Kent, Key has published extensively on contemporary practice and is currently part of the [ ] Interval Research Group looking at themes around painting and its relation to the moving image. www.joankey.com