I woke early to comb the world


Essay commissioned by Proyectos Ultravioleta for the exhibition
Hellen Ascoli: Amanecí temprano para peinar el mundo
Guatemala City, July 2017

By the time I wake up, Hellen has been working outside for hours. We are in the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, one of the highest points of Guatemala, where Hellen is looking for sky. It is rainy and cold there, and the sky is gray, not blue. The clouds sit low and heavy over the fields, and they resist color. The horses are resting. Everything on the ground is damp and green, and when the fog rolls in, you lose the landscape except for what is immediately in front of you. Sometimes when you expect the sky to be blue, it turns gray. And that is all you see, that gray.    

Wrapped in a blue-gray weave that she has made from three panels woven to the width of her body, Hellen stands, arms extended or curled overhead. The white lines through the textile sometimes align with the lines of the mountain range behind her. Sometimes they describe the tiniest blue streak in the sky. In the photographs Karl takes, Hellen's legs and feet are the only visible part of her body. She stands barefoot on a rock, reaching up into the fog; she stands in the middle of a dirt road; she stands in a green pasture. We are meant to see her body and the weave as they transmit lines and energies to the sky, but I am drawn down, over and over, to the point of contact she makes with the earth.

At first, Hellen observes, the work was about becoming a kind of antenna, connecting earth to sky, and looking for a space in which a body can belong. When she turns so her belly faces the textile, it is an inherently more vulnerable position: when we expand our bodies so our bellies are unguarded, we signal trust. But like shelled creatures and insects, more often we turn our backs outward, curving around our bellies to self-protect. This weave, which becomes a kind of shell for Hellen, also becomes an exercise in protection and vulnerability, in the safe spaces we make for the body and how we find them.

In his book Variations on the Body, French philosopher Michel Serres describes knowledge that emanates from the body. His is a radical proposition, that "there is nothing in knowledge which has not been first in the entire body, whose gestural metamorphoses, mobile postures, very evolution imitate all that surrounds it."[1] Writing of mountain climbing, of physical training, of dance, Serres finds the roots of all human sciences and philosophies in the body itself, in its sensory experience, its gestures, and its geometries. Hellen quotes Serres: "Being born: exposing the fragile to the harsh, the warm to the icy, the soft to the hard and the tender to violence, this is what it means to know."

"I am an instrument in the shape
of a woman trying to translate pulsations
into images     for the relief of the body
and the reconstruction of the mind."
writes Adrienne Rich in her poem, "Planetarium."[2]

In her famous 1979 essay "Grids," art historian Rosalind Krauss describes the tension between art and nature, between science and myth in modern art, particularly in the way the grid appears and reappears in art of the 20th century. To make a weave, Hellen teaches me, requires a kind of mathematics of careful counting and repetition, and for the backstrap loom, that mathematics is based around the scale of the weaver's body. The grid of the weave is a bit like the grid of bricks in construction; it is laid, placed in a careful system that supports the structure and gives it its strength.

The grid, Krauss writes, is "antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature."[3] But when Hellen holds that textile over her body and stands between two mountains, the laid grid dissolves into fabric and body and, above all, landscape. It becomes both architecture and body-shell, both earth-form and cloud, both grid and mountain.


There are two new sound works in Amanecí temprano. Hellen has been studying sound, how humming emanates from within the head, how the nasal passages participate in the vibrations. She develops a melodious hum with her sound instructor, their voices blending and merging, then separating and meeting again.

Nah - Nuh, Nah - Nuh, Nah - Nuh, Naaaaaahhhhh.

The repeating pattern of the sound is the same as the pattern of the yellow and white textile draped over two chairs; that is, if you count the lines of the weave, they make a visual representation of the rhythm of the hum. We sit together, facing each other in the chairs, our knees grazing each other, the sound in our headphones spelling the lines of the weave.

When she draws a map of this exhibition, Hellen describes the experience of the humming piece in a list of words: "Humming - yellow - connection - integration - safe expansion - empathy - INTERIOR SHARED," she notes. To sit so closely facing another person is a rare kind of sharing, a way of thinking about physical connection through sound and proximity. We place the chairs close together, until the uneasy space between us evaporates. These chairs are built to the dimensions of Hellen's body: the seat meets at her knees, whether standing or sitting, and the back is the width of hers.

In the second installation, the sound of Hellen's PAO! slices through the space. She has invented the sound, not quite an ambulance siren, not a bullet puncturing the air, but nonetheless a sonic confrontation, a punch that repeats periodically, spasmodically. The metal architecture that fills the space is also haunted by puncture. When you enter the long, narrow space of the installation, it is measured to the parameters of Hellen's body; again, you enter her body's dimensions.

In the smaller, antechamber of the structure, you find a small, pierced book. The 1929 edition of Miguel Angel Asturias's Rayito de Estrella is, here, sewn shut, the threads piercing the holes made by insects sometime in the book's 90 years.

For this installation, Hellen has built a membranous structure. It is porous and can be entered, but also it blocks certain pathways, makes the view foggy and obscured. This is a space of disintegration, of sensing, of limited access, of being pushed and pulled, she writes. Bodies are vulnerable, can be pierced or punctured, the space suggests. This is not a religious observation, but a corporal one. But maybe we can understand the religious preoccupation with puncture wounds as a way of making sense of our own corporeality, our own fragility, the porousness of our own skins, and their susceptibility to being pierced. Maybe this is also what poetry allows us.

      "                   I am bombarded yet         I stand" Adrienne Rich offers.

In her book Bodies that Matter, Judith Butler takes the idea of "matter" in both senses - as it indicates something's materiality and, simultaneously, its significance.[4] A body matters in many ways, Hellen's work suggests. A body is also matter. Among other things, this means that a body takes up space.

After spending many days with Hellen in the Cuchumatanes, I read Butler differently. I am sensitive to the allusions of landscape in her writing, though I acknowledge that these are allusions that I am seeking, that we could find unintended landscape metaphors in many texts. Butler writes about the limits of a discourse that excludes particular bodies. That effect, of being outside--she uses the term to talk about exclusions, but we could think of it also as the distinction between being indoors (wrapped in a structure) and outdoors (surrounded by landscape)--produces a discursive limit that certain normative regimes cannot describe. Butler describes a future horizon, a point at which, "the opacity of what is not included in a given regime of truth acts as a disruptive site of linguistic impropriety and unrepresentability, illuminating the violent and contingent boundaries of that normative regime."[5] I can't help but imagine this future horizon as the distant line the mountains make when the fog clears. How we define our space is determined in part by the landscapes that surround us, by violent boundaries, too.

Hellen writes to me, "My perception is that between these two mountains there is a very deep and narrow hole. In this area that, I perceive as very deep, a place where I try to reside, is a suspended judgement."

Hellen stands on a rock, barefoot, covering her head with the weave of blue and gray, connecting sky to earth, body to stone, the lines of the weave to the horizon of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes.

"... the violence of exclusion is perpetually in the process of being overcome," Butler writes.

When I awake, Hellen has been out and about for hours, walking the dirt paths through the green sloping mountainside. In the final monologue of A Midsummer's Night Dream, the fairy Puck tells us that we have dreamt the events that transpired in the play: "If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumber'd here / While these visions did appear."[6] In that space between waking and slumbering, I look for Hellen through the fog that hangs low and heavy over the pasture, and sometimes it seems that I am moving in a dream.

And then, Puck invokes touch, "Give me your hands, if we be friends, / And Robin shall restore amends."[7] This last moment of making amends comes only through touch, after a somnolent summer day, dreaming of the forest. The body's rhythms, then, not only make space for the story that unfolds, but also have the power to erase its effects, to clap them away. And, perhaps that is the best place to pause this particular description, this proximity in words to Hellen's work on bodies and their knowledges. Perhaps this is the moment to acknowledge also the frailty of words in the face of such body knowledge.

My own list for this space, might be: puncture, penetrate, vibrate, listen, dream, touch, make amends. Or perhaps it is a list of the sites of the body: Skin, ear, knee, hand. Or some colors: yellow, white, blue, gray. We are back to gray. The sky in the Cuchumatanes was insistently gray, even though we asked it for blue.

When I wake up, Hellen has been awake for hours, combing the mountain ranges and looking for moments of sky, openings in the clouds, in which to place her body. To comb is to search, to arrange the threads of a weave, to make tension between them. She is a speck in the distant horizon when I search for her. She is the little star ray that connects sky to earth for one instant. She is wrapped, an antenna in the process of being overcome, insistently standing in the hollow between the mountain's lines. She walks to the edge of the horizon, as if in a dream, as if she has discovered the edge of the world.

Guatemala City, July 2017

Hellen Ascoli is an artist, weaver, and educator who investigates material culture to understand relationships and identity. Her studio practice stems from an affective and analytical engagement to materials, body, and space, which she uses to map and understand complex relationships, systems of power, and economics. After completing her MFA in Sculpture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, Ascoli has had exhibitions, both individual and collective, at Concepción 41, Sótano 1, Galería Sol del Río, and 9.99 Galería in Guatemala; and at Lawndale Art Center in Houston, TX. Her work has been included in the Paiz Biennial and her upcoming exhibitions include Videobrasil, São Paulo, and Acts of Aggression at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX. She currently teaches at Francisco Marroquín University and is the Director of Education at the Museo Ixchel of Indigenous Dress. She designed the mediation program for the 19th and 20th Paiz Biennials.


[1] Michel Serres, Variations on the Body (Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2011), 70.

[2] Adrienne Rich, "Planetarium," Collected Poems: 1950-2012 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), accessed July 12, 2017, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46568/.

[3] Rosalind Krauss, "Grids," October 9 (Summer 1979): 50.

[4] Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 32.

[5] Butler, 53.

[6] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer's Night Dream (1595), accessed July 17, 2017, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/index.html.

[7] Ibid.

Images below courtesy of Proyectos Ultravioleta.