On Spider Silk - Simon Peer
ON SPIDER SILK
Many years ago I decided to leave my job at the Fine Art Society in the heart of London, sell my small flat and go and live in Madagascar. I had penciled in a year for this escapade, so it is with a mixture of alarm and incredulity that I find thirty years have passed since I packed my bags and left. Much has happened in these intervening years, but how I find myself writing these words about spider silk needs some explanation.
In London my taste for textiles had never ventured beyond admiring the occasional Fortuny creation, but a visit to the Museum of Mankind on the eve of my departure was to set me on a path that brings me to this moment. It was an exhibition about Madagascar full of images and objects that fired my imagination, but there was one exhibit that outshone everything, a large brilliantly coloured and patterned woven textile that was like nothing else I had ever seen.
From this unwitting and innocent beginning I found myself attempting to revive the lost arts of making these extraordinary Malagasy silk brocades in the central highlands of Madagascar, and in turn with a certain logic and inevitability I am able to recount the following spidery story
I received the book from Germany. It gave me a tremor of satisfaction turning the pages of this small treasure. The binding had been added to a treatise published in 1710 by Francois-Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, entitled “Dissertation on the spider “ .
This was Bon’s most acclaimed work and it was what I had long searched for and had now found. I wanted it above all because I believe in the talismanic power of objects, the simple touch of a hand, the certainty that those eyes had looked on what I now held. As if something palpable was passing between us.
The origins of this small book emerged from the harsh ‘Siberian’ winter of 1709 and 1710, which had gripped the whole of France right into the southern region of the Cevenne. The worst for 500 years said some, for it decimated one source of livelihood for the Cevennois, the chestnut tree. In the aftermath of this disaster as the world slowly thawed, it was decided to find other means of making a living and giving sustenance. The planting of mulberry bushes to provide the leaves that feed the Chinese silkworm before it spins it’s silken cocoon is the business of sericulture. An industry that seemed to hold such promise was seized upon. People could talk of nothing else.
But the young Francois-Xavier Bon woke with another thought. Producing silk of the bombyx mori, required a vast effort and a considerable investment . It was in fact extravagantly expensive.
Had no one ever thought that there on the doorstep, if not in his own house, was the answer? The brilliantly creative ever industrious spider, making her silken web. Would it not be possible to gather up all this spider silk from the webs and egg sacs that she made and use them in the same way as the Chinese silk? So Bon began to experiment. His efforts were great and his achievements remarkable, but for reasons that quickly became apparent, it did not lead to a revolution in the production of silk. Instead it revealed an inquisitive mind at work, a man prepared to think differently and pursue his ideas against all the weight of received wisdom. So, the mulberries were planted and the Chinese silk industry took root in the Cevenne.
However Bon was not one to be written off. He persevered, and eventually produced a pair of stockings and a pair of gloves made from the silk of spiders. Within a short time his miraculous creations caught the covetous and roving eye of royalty. Word spread that Louis XIV himself had a waistcoat made from this silk .
The problem that Bon and others were to discover, was that whilst the sleepy caterpillars of the bombyx moth were quiet vegetarians happy to share their ceaseless chomping of mulberry leaves with a million others, the spider is a dangerous, lonesome and incorrigible carnivore. Put one thousand together and you will end with one enormous contented cannibal.
All of this may seem a long way from Antananarivo where I now sit and write in the shadow of the last Queen’s granite palace, but the connections slip easily back through time joining me by a few steps, a few generations, to Monsieur Bon.
For 65 years Madagascar was a French colony and in those first early years in the 1890’s another Jesuit priest, Fr Camboué, had spotted the potential of the Golden Orb weaver spider that lives here. Drawing on his knowledge of Bon and one or two later intrepid eccentrics who had struggled against the odds in Paraguay and South Carolina, he also began to investigate. His tinkering was brought to the attention of the colonial administration forever searching for ways to promote their newly founded colony. A tester bed was made, it’s canopy hung with the woven golden silk of the orb weaver spider. It was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 causing a minor sensation, and then vanished.
Of course none of this was known to me when I started working with Malagasy weavers in the early 1990’s. There was though a persistent rumour, a bit of folk law, a myth passed down, that at some time in the past people had made a cloth of gold from the silk of spiders. It took some years before I discovered it was not an apocryphal tale, and some years to discover the full story. The wonderful book by Bon was the first of the writings I have acquired about the recondite history of experimenting with spider silk.
So I cannot say our efforts are unique, though the scale and complexity of our endeavour, and the conceptual roots most certainly are. During the last three hundred years a few have tried but advanced in vain beyond the endless trials. It is a Sisyphean challenge to transform the ephemeral, by whatever alchemy, into the permanent. To create an extraordinary textile made from the poetic, nightmarish silk of spiders is to enter another foreign realm. It took us eight years and several million spiders collected, ‘silked’ and released, to create two golden textiles. One is a panel of brocaded silk inspired by the traditions and hieroglyphic patterns of Malagasy weaving, and the other a cape, woven and embroidered, a hymn to all things spidery from Arachne to Louise Bourgeois.
I have stopped many times before and thought of this work and how it might be perceived. Not just the alchemy of how it was done, which inevitably sets minds whirring, but how our imaginations respond. A minestrone of jostling thoughts and fabulous airy ideas spill out when confronted by these creations that really should not exist. Amongst all the jumble of sensations I am reminded of the way our bias against the scuttling creature in it’s most menacing guise is balanced by the gossamer webs of summer.
By using a thread produced by the spider to make her web, gossamer light, that would in the normal course of things be transported in the wind. By taking hold of it and taking it on a walk, as Paul Klee might have said, I sometimes think we have entered the world of Borges, a world of magical realism where boundaries melt away, dream and reality fuse.
I am looking again at the fine dark binding lying on my desk, and I am certain Francois-Xavier Bon would have approved and admired our creations. That his printed words should have inspired us three hundred years after his unorthodox and quixotic experiments, is both a testament to his vision and confirmation that the unimaginable is never out of reach, never impossible.