In memoriam: installation commemorates victims of Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
A-Space Gallery at West Cove Studios
30 Elm St., West Haven, (203) 627-8030
Cate Bourke: Crewel Linen—Unfinished Business
Through Mar. 25, 2012.
Panel discussion: Sat., Mar. 24, 2—3 p.m. at the People's Center, 137 Howe St., New Haven.
Reception: Sat., Mar. 24, 4—6 p.m. at West Cove Studios in West Haven.
That is my first impression gleaned from entering the West Cove Studios gallery where artist Cate Bourke has installed Crewel Linen: Unfinished Business, a remembrance of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 25, 1911.
From the gallery's industrial ceiling, Bourke has suspended four rows of eight-foot banners—made of shirtwaist cloth—more than 30 deep each. Sewn near the bottom of each banner is a rectangle of heavier beige linen bearing the name of one of the victims, mostly but not all women. There is a banner for each of the 146 victims of the fire.
The fire is the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City history and one of the deadliest industrial accidents in U.S. history. Because managers had locked the doors to stairwells and exits—ostensibly to prevent unauthorized breaks and theft—workers were trapped in the sweatshop, which was located on floors 8—10 of the Asch Building near Washington Square Park. Dozens of workers died jumping from the windows to the street in vain attempts to save their lives.
The names are a roll call of the striving industrial immigrant working class of early 20th century New York, predominantly Jewish and Italian: Annie Colletti, Sarah Brodsky, Morris Bernstein, Josephine Cammarata. Most of the victims were between 16 and 23 years old.
The edges of each banner are frayed, untidy. Long, loose threads hang from many—the loose threads of lives unfinished. A visitor can walk between the rows of banners like a supervisor walking the aisles between work stations, inspecting them. Or imagine oneself in a wraith-like cemetery.
At one end of the gallery, in contrast to the orderliness of the rows of banners, lies a pile of thread and cloth trimmings. It was scraps like this that are alleged to have caught fire, sparking the blaze. The pile evokes the chaos of the fire. But even more, it suggests the notion that these workers—these people—were themselves discards of an oppressive industrial system, as disposable as fabric trimmings.
Crewel Linen—"crewel" is a form of embroidery and, obviously, a wordplay on "cruel"—is a memorial, filled with the meditative silence of the dead. The subtle breezes endemic to a drafty factory building cause many of the banners to sway softly.
History, yes. In the terms of contemporary argot, "ancient history."
And yet, of course, it's not. One need only read the reports of the horrific—if gleaming with high-tech sheen—exploitation of workers in the Apple supply chain to know that abuse of workers remains a contemporary phenomenon. Too often, a reader can catch a glimpse of a one-paragraph wire services story in the newspaper of dozens of workers killed in an industrial accident—usually an accident that was completely preventable if a decent concern for human life took precedence over naked lust for profits.
The other contemporary resonance echoes from the names of the victims—probably all first or second-generation immigrants eking out a living (if that) without control over the conditions of their toil. Today the names are more likely to be Spanish or Asian. But the dangers of living a marginalized existence on the edges of the economy—compounded by the repressive crackdown on undocumented workers—remain.
Crewel Linen will be on view through Mar. 25, 2012, the 101st anniversary of the fire. There will be a panel discussion on the installation on Sat., Mar. 24, from 2—3 p.m. at the People's Center at 37 Howe St. in New Haven. Moderated by Henry Lowendorf, chair of the New Haven Peace Commission, the panel will feature artist Cate Bourke, Megan Fountain of the community organization Unidad Latina en Accion and Jennifer Klein, professor of history at Yale University.
The panel will be followed by a reception at the gallery (30 Elm St. in West Haven) from 4—6 p.m.