Visual Arts Review: “Hana Miletić: Soft Services” — The Power of Folds

By Helen Miller and Michael Strand

In her insightful commentaries and art, Hana Miletić demonstrates how labor and materiality reflect subtexts of power, ranging from the “soft” to the “hard.”

Hana Miletić: Soft Services, at the MIT List Center, Cambridge, through August 4

Installation view: Hana Miletić: Soft Services, 2024. Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Imagine being skilled at origami and folding a single piece of paper into a thousand different forms. The delicate tree fibers in the paper enable this inexhaustible and inspiring flexibility. Fibers are having their cultural moment, in part because they offer a handmade counterpoint to the speed of our digital lives. Weaving, knitting, felting, and crocheting are characterized by slowness — but, it’s worth noting, by suppleness and pliability as well. It is the value of these qualities of fibrous material that Hana Miletić illuminates in her show Soft Services.

Miletić, born in Croatia and based in Belgium, has turned her own frustration with the pace of contemporary art and life into a body of work constructed primarily out of handmade textiles. Miletić trained as a photographer and starts each new phase in her current artistic practice by taking snapshots of construction sites, in this case around the city of Cambridge. She then recreates selected details from the pictures in thread. One of her goals is to disrupt the immediacy of the photograph. The slowness of fiber, applied to representation, permits Miletić more careful observations than photography alone would allow.

But more than this, Miletić’s folded pieces are also subtle commentaries on labor, specifically feminized labor. The title “Soft Services” takes its cue from the vocabulary of facilities management, particularly its contrast between “hard” (typically male) and “soft” services. Hard services involve the creation of physical infrastructure by plumbers, electricians, metalworkers, and bricklayers. Soft services, in contrast, deal with janitorial work, landscaping, and routine building maintenance. Hard services typically fetch higher wages than soft, which have conventionally been seens as minor jobs — essential but unrecognized, invisible even, taking place after hours or only in the off-season.

Taking the form of sculpture and installation art, Miletić’s textiles are indexical portraits of soft labor that go beyond the usual visual chronicles of a day in the life of a janitor or a photographic record of temporary window coverings in a building undergoing renovation. Specifically, the artist probes the relationship between soft labor and the textiles she uses to evoke it. Institutional and domestic, public and private, past and present — all are interwoven. With a combined tactile and research-based approach, Soft Services investigates how power is manifested under-the-radar.

Installation view: Hana Miletić: Soft Services, 2024. Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

At the center of the room, Materials (2023), a long orange tube of crocheted material, has been suspended from the ceiling with fishing line. It has the dimensions of a human body or building column and awakens our kinesthetic sense of ourselves and the surrounding architecture. The distinct color also calls to mind traffic cones and safety netting, whose homogenous texture contrasts with the natural fibers and repurposed materials Miletić uses to create the textiles in the piece. The identity of these materials lies at the heart of Miletić’s eco-conscious project; part of each artwork’s title lists them with joyful specificity. For example, this particular net is composed of “[a]mber-orange raw cord, carrot-orange organic linen, metal wire, orange organic silk, [and] pale orange organic wool.” The artist finds, felts, and otherwise cooks up the wide range of fabric in her work.

Behind this suspended tube hangs a shorter, triangular tube, also titled Materials (2023) (all works in the Materials series have the same title; it’s the materials list and date that distinguish them). Attached to the wall at two corners, the triangle’s third corner juts out. The tube would be completely limp if it weren’t for the dense, opaque “mint-green organic wool” and “pale mint repurposed polyrattan” band partially filling and supporting the netting around it.

Yes, this striking pair was modeled after the safety netting we see wrapped around the trunks of trees to protect them from street renovations nearby. Both are folded out of single pieces of crocheted material. Miletić takes advantage of the crochet’s lack of rigidity to create a form of “soft” protection — even softer than the mass-produced polyethylene version we are accustomed to seeing out in the world. The tree that is being protected is only alluded to. Its shape is conjured through the deceptively basic act of folding; in this way, the work references its source material and context.

Rather than straightforwardly depict the tree or safety netting, Miletić suggests their movements and materiality in an approach reminiscent of various traditions of representational painting. The long history of Japanese painting, in particular, in which the stroke of a branch can elicit a whole sky, prefigures Miletić’s use of fiber and color to animate the space of the gallery. Her “marks” engage our imagination in shifting our attention — from planting a tree to the labor of maintaining it.

But there are limits. Note that, while Miletić uses these materials to construct delicate enclosures, they are not free-standing. If not for nails in the wall or wires hanging from the ceiling, the repairs she recreates would require their original objects or structures for support. Does this expose a weakness in textiles and soft services? Textiles cannot create new structures entirely by themselves, while materials that provide a “harder” service, like steel or brick, can, though they cannot maintain or renew themselves. This would seem to convey a dependence and collaboration on the part of soft power in its relation to hard, as contained in both services and materials.

Installation view: Hana Miletić: Soft Services, 2024. Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Two tapestries from Miletić’s Softwares series hang on one side of the gallery space. They were constructed on a Jacquard or automated loom, which the explanatory text tells us is an early forerunner of the modern computer. For Softwares (2018) and Softwares (2019), Miletić pulls at the textile as the loom does its work, a gesture which appears as uneven ripples in the cloth — imperfections. Miletić makes another reference to photography here by creating what resemble contact sheets out of repeated images of repairs in public space. The colors are a muted orange-and-purple, brown-and-gray twist on black-and-white negatives. Ironically, while these innovative pieces carry a message about the work of the hand, we rely on the wall text to explain this point to us. And if the intent of Softwares is to make a claim about the connection between different historical technologies, woven into textile, this is also less successful than the representations Miletić crafts elsewhere. Because she can fold the material she uses in the Materials series, she can fold us into, so to speak, the story of recent repairs and augmentation. Her sculptural work seems less prescriptive in the way it’s made and experienced, less illustrative, more alive, more human.

When we first enter the gallery, the most expansive piece, Materials (2023), hangs high on the wall, activating the space in myriad ways. We are reminded of Japanese scrolls and multi-sheet prints. Miletić has created a material index of the brown construction paper often used to block out the windows of buildings undergoing renovation (in this case, drawn from the List Center itself). Three sheets of woven material, consisting of “[a]lmond-beige cottolin… beige cottolin… organic linen, sepia cottolin… white organic cotton, [and] white repurposed polyrattan,” are suspended from the ceiling by cable. Fabric joiners of “azure-blue peace silk… cobalt-blue organic cotton, cobalt-blue repurposed polyester, navy blue mercerised cotton… sky-blue recycled polyester, [and] variegated blue cotton” mimic the appearance of painter’s tape holding together panels of paper. In the same way a scroll or hanging-screen can be used to temporarily divide a room, Miletić’s piece transforms a corner of the gallery into a surprisingly serene and peaceful place — despite the noise from the show in the gallery next door. She draws our attention to how little it takes to create a space of this kind, and also how connected soft work can be with the hard work of renovation.

Installation view: Hana Miletić: Soft Services, 2024. Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo: Dario Lasagni.

Notions of renewal and repair (“soft” and “hard” labor working together), in addition to maintenance, litter the space — quite literally through the presence of small bits of fabric scattered on the walls of the gallery at various heights. Materials (2022), a “fern” and “pear-green” little square appears at the height of your typical electrical outlet. Materials (2021-22), a “pale blue” and “rose-pink” silk and gauze smashed bow appears at shoulder height. All of the Materials work in the show hangs at the height at which the repair appeared when Miletić photographed it. While it’s interesting to see the range of color, transparency, and knot-tying, these smaller pieces lack some of the dynamism the artist pulls out of the larger, suspended pieces, which encourage viewing from multiple perspectives. Once again, the limits of photographic representation are underscored: just think of the difference between the flat posed selfie image of a person and how they appear in real life.

Installation view: Hana Miletić: Soft Services, 2024. Courtesy MIT List Visual Arts Center. Photo: Dario Lasagni

The sheets of cotton and linen suspended from the air, cordoning off a corner of the gallery space, bring to mind the temporary protest encampments found, until recently, on many university campuses in the area (including MIT). Pieces of ply board are fixed into a makeshift blockade, creating an enclosure with controlled points of access. Space is occupied against the wishes of its owners. Such constructions now appear to us as almost perfect demonstrations of the power contained in what Miletić calls “subjective gestures of care.”

This review is dedicated to Bobby Healy. During his 40 year tenure at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Healy served as a Maintainer, Mechanical Handyman, Maintenance Working Foreman, and Facilities Manager. His dry humor, friendly manner, curiosity, and generosity will be missed.

Helen Miller is an artist. She teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Harvard Summer School. Michael Strand is a professor in Sociology at Brandeis University.

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