Windy Chien: The Year of Knots
We learn the rope of life by untying its knots. –Jean Toomer
What is a knot? Both noun and verb, the word points towards both order (connecting or fastening, with string or rope) and chaos (a tangle of hair or string; a formless cluster of people). We create knots, of near-endless variety and shape, for many purposes. We knot our shoe laces, our ties, and even our marriage vows (tying the knot).
Knots are part of vernacular language, suggesting either anxiety or laughter—being tied in knots—or being dull-witted: a knothead. Finally, they measure nautical speed, in a complicated system based on latitude and time that once involved actual knots on a line, slipping through a sailor’s fingers.
In 2016, knots became a daily practice for Windy Chien. Already deeply absorbed in a practice of making by hand—Chien designs macramé lighting fixtures, large installations of rope and wood, and has also become an expert at spoon carving—she became impatient with the limited number of knots used in the traditional macramé practice she’d learned decades before from her mother. (Her father had taught her woodworking.) But between that early tutelage and The Year of Knots, Chien’s life has taken some interesting twists and turns.
A second-generation Chinese American: “The black sheep of the family,” she says with a laugh—Chien’s ardent passion for punk music and the extraordinary San Francisco music scene of the late '80s and ‘90s led to her owning and operating Aquarius Records, the city’s oldest independent record store. Later, when Apple began venturing into music, Chien sold the store and went to work there for several years, applying her near-encyclopedic knowledge of artists and albums to building iTunes and the App Store.
In 2012, after more than two decades of nurturing other people’s art as a tastemaker and curator, Chien wanted to start her own creative practice. She began with the idea of designing and making useful and beautiful things. Within a year, she was selling what she made, but also encountering her first artistic roadblock. Once she had figured out a product, she was considerably less interested in production. She knew then that the idea of continually reimagining something new was what really compelled her.
Still, Chien is quick to point out that The Year of Knots isn’t about inventing, but rather about learning how knots work—and about revealing their beauty to others. She wanted to bring out the aesthetic side of this functional practice through focusing on a single knot a day and helping others to really see it, separated from the context in which it might be used.
When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.—Thomas Jefferson
The idea of daily practice has entered contemporary art in a variety of ways, compellingly in the form of durational performance work by practitioners like Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh, who ‘performed’ several projects of a year’s duration, including punching a time clock every hour of the day for a year, or living outdoors in New York City for the same length of time. With artist Linda Montano, he performed Rope Piece, tied to each other with a two-meter piece of rope from July 4th 1983 to the same date in 1984.
Chien’s work with knots can also be understood in the context of practices like On Kawara’s project Today, in which the artist painted the date on a canvas for over 3,000 days before his death in 2014. Similarly, painter Peter Dreher has painted a picture of the same glass more than 5,000 times since 1974, in a near-daily practice titled Day by Day Good Day. Perhaps, though, Chien’s approach to The Year of Knots is closest to the daily painting practice of Duane Keiser, an early adopter of the Internet as a way to develop a community, having started a blog in 2004. Keiser, who is described by some to be the ‘father’ of the daily art practice movement and has continued to complete a painting nearly every day for many years, has stated that “Daily painting is woven into my life and has become a kind meditation for me; a way to practice being in the moment and appreciative of what I have.”
A line can go anywhere.—Ruth Asawa
In her search for a way to expand her knowledge, Chien purchased a copy of The Ashley Book of Knots. First published in 1944, this encyclopedic source contains more than 3900 entries. On January 4th, 2016, Chien learned her first four knots, realizing immediately that she wanted this to be a year-long project. Each day, she learned how to tie a knot, as well as its history and use. She began posting daily on Instagram (#yearofknots), and soon had many followers.
Drawing on principles of simplicity learned during her time at Apple and believing the elements of art should be used intentionally, Chien minimized variables such as color and scale in order for the knots to more clearly highlight the element she was most interested in: the line. She used the same materials daily: two sizes of twisted or three of braided white cotton rope, affixed to the wall with copper nails. Some knots involved binding with a finer material, and for these, she used some thin silk. A few required contrast to demonstrate how they were made; in these, a black or blue polypropylene rope intertwines with the white. And some needed to be tied around something. Copper pipe turned out to be the most elegant solution, leading to her acquisition of a new set of skills with cutting metal.
While learning knots history and function was interesting, the most compelling element common to every one of the 366 knots Chien made is the notion of the line. The eye follows the line. Where does the line enter the knot; where does it exit? What is the direction of pull; where does the tension reside? Is there one line, two, or several?
As Chien points out, her goal was to create pieces whose aesthetics would encourage a clarity of looking, as each knot has a beauty of its own. Sometimes, it’s the way in which the different strands of twisted or braided line come together in complicated patterns. Sometimes it’s the delicate repetition of the knot, either in a soft hanging tail or a continuous circle, each suggesting the possibility of infinity. Their arrangement on the wall is esthetic, rather than having anything to do with when they were completed; smaller, simpler knots are interspersed with more elaborate ones. Those that incorporate a second color are scattered throughout, like a kind of visual punctuation. All together, they are reminiscent of the world of foraminifera: microscopic single-celled creatures that line the ocean floor in a near-infinite variety of shapes.
The Year of Knots may have ended, but for Chien, her daily practice opened the door to many things, including “the blissful state of flow that had previously been so elusive to me." The flow state, first named by the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihály, allows her to achieve an extreme focus on what she is doing, working at the limits of her ability in a state of deep productivity on an activity whose reward is intrinsic.
She has also described it as being her art school, teaching her the building blocks of line, color, shape and texture. Most importantly, perhaps, it has taught her what she describes as a new language and form of communication, in which each knot is a new letter—one which she continues to learn, as she makes new combinations out of white cotton rope.
Essay by Maria Porges