The Corning Museum of Glass has acquired Continuous Mile, an ambitious large-scale sculpture by contemporary artist Liza Lou (American, b. 1969), to be installed in the Museum’s North Wing contemporary galleries, which will open later this year.
Continuous Mile (2006–08) is a monumental sculpture composed of 4.5 million, glossy, black glass beads woven onto a mile-long cotton rope that is coiled and stacked. Standing about 3 feet high and stretching nearly 5 feet in diameter, the sculpture took Lou two years to make with a team of beadworkers from several townships in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Conceived as a work about work, Continuous Mile is exquisitely made and manifests the social concerns that run throughout the artist’s work.
“We look forward to inaugurating our new North Wing galleries with Liza Lou’s large-scale work,” said Karol Wight, the Museum’s executive director. “The new galleries will be devoted to the display and interpretation of contemporary art in glass and we look forward to highlighting artists like Liza Lou, who are pushing the boundaries of how glass is used in art today.”
“Liza Lou has redefined beading by removing it from a decorative context,” said Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass. “Trained as a painter, Lou used colored lines of beads like brushstrokes to decorate the surfaces of her early sculptures and installations. In her more recent work, such as Continuous Mile, the bead no longer decorates the surface, but actually creates sculptural form.”
Lou creates meticulously beaded works that reference recurring themes, such as labor, confinement, wonder, and human endurance. Lou emerged as a presence in the art world in 1996 with Kitchen (1991–96), a nearly life-size reproduction of a kitchen entirely covered in beads, which was featured in an exhibition at the New Museum in New York. The work is an over-the-top commentary on women’s work, popular culture and nostalgia, complete with a perfectly beaded crumpled bag of potato chips, a spilled soft drink, and a sink full of dishes in water. Lou has gone on to explore diverse subjects through the course of her prolific career. Examples of her other work include Security Fence (2005) is a full-scale, silver beaded enclosure of chain-link and razor wire that can neither be entered nor exited. Untitled 10 (2011–2012) is one of a series of monochromatic beaded paintings in the tradition of American minimalist painters such as Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Ryman.
Tina Oldknow: I thought we would begin our conversation by discussing one sculpture in particular: Continuous Mile. How did the idea for this work come about?
Liza Lou: Continuous Mile is a meditation on process. It’s a project that is spread across seven different townships in KwaZulu-Natal. The idea for me was a way of holding hands across a community, and the way in which an art process can be a kind of lifeline for everyone involved. I could not have woven a mile-long rope on my own. When I install Continuous Mile, I often feel as though I am holding the hands of so many people: the factory that made the beads in the Czech Republic, Thandazile and Zanele, Nomalungisa and Nonhlanhla, Buhle, S’bonelo and Nomusa and all of my friends in South Africa who wove the piece with so much care. Installing it, I’m on my hands and knees for a mile and I’m thinking of them.
Oldknow: How long did it take you and your assistants to make Continuous Mile?
Lou: Over 50 people worked on Continuous Mile for a period of over a year. The process was integral to the piece. There wasn’t a rush for completion. The idea was to employ as many people as possible, using the slowest possible technique in order to engage a community, and to build homes in the process of making an art work.
Oldknow: What has been the influence of South Africa on your work and process?
Lou: I’d been using glass beads in my sculpture for many years prior to being in South Africa. But since my time there, I have developed a deeper respect and reverence for the material. Beads have no art historical associations—the baggage beads carry has got to do with craft and with kitsch. I was interested in the latter and at first was using them in a tongue-in-cheek, ironic way. The question was, how to turn a banal scene—a kitchen, or a back yard—into a kind of shrine. Beads seemed to me to be the perfect fit: glittering, slightly sleazy, cheap and yet require prodigious amount of labor. The tension between the overblown zealous “wow” factor of a beaded room and the serious hairshirt kind of labor I was undertaking privately was very interesting to me, and galvanized my practice for over a decade.
Living and working in Africa, I’ve experienced the mystical aspect of beads, which are used in traditional ceremonies to speak to the ancestors, in funerals and religious ceremonies, and also in the day-to-day struggle for survival. As a result, my process has become more organic and it incorporates the struggle for survival, mistakes, chance. There is that quote from Frank Stella, wanting his paintings to look as good as the paint does in the can. Over the past several years, I’ve been thinking about the material and the process as being enough of a subject matter—no need to add much else—there is enough drama embedded there.