Katarina Weslien’s “What did you smell while you were away?” at Speedwell Projects in Portland (April 16-July 10) brings together three long-term projects all related to the artist’s deep attraction to India and Tibet, in particular to the holy waters of the Ganges River.
The title twists the typical questions a traveler gets upon return – “What did you see?” “What did you do?” – and suggests the immersive approach Weslien takes to India, where she has explored the material and spiritual culture since 1976. A better question in her case might be, “Who did you become while you were away?”
When an artist has been active on the local art scene as long as Weslien has, you can have a tendency to take her for granted. She made a major impression on me in 1987 with her first solo exhibition, a multi-media installation called “Transformations and Other Everyday Events” at the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery at what is now the University of New England in Portland.
The foundation of the Swedish-born Weslien’s art is weaving, which she studied at Utah State University and Cranbrook Academy. It was a conceptual kind of weaving, interlacing parts to form a whole, that distinguished “Transformations” and that continues to underlie her art to this day.
The subtexts of the Speedwell show are textiles and water. The most ambitious of the three projects is a series of Jacquard weavings inspired by the Kumbh Mela bathing festival that attracts millions of Hindus to the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers to wash away their sins. A massive tent city is constructed to house the pilgrims and Weslien photographed tents and fragments of the cloth they were made from. She then sent digital files to a family-owned factory in Belgium where they were turned into the Jacquard tapestries that dominate the exhibition.
A second project is “Walking Kailash,” a collaborative piece inspired by the artist’s pilgrimage to the Lake of Compassion on Mt. Kailash. Upon return, Weslien invited 20 friends to undertake circular walks of compassion anywhere they liked, to gather water and send the samples to her. The fruits of these peregrinations are photographs of the microscopic life in the water, embroideries based on the photographs, and a book documenting the project.
The third chapter of Weslien’s novel Speedwell show is “The Reciprocity Project,” which consists of collages that combine water stains and bits of fabric. On a trip to temples in Varanasi, Weslien collected “gifts” that had been blessed by priests, deposited them in water to make a kind of tea, and stained watercolor paper with the tinted water. She then affixed bits of fabric like veils or masks atop the stains.
In this manner, Weslien transforms her pilgrimages into spiritual evocations and explorations of an exotic culture and a timeless landscape.
“The landscape is mythic. It’s not about expressing myself. It’s about trying to understand,” Weslien says. “I’m interested in how people make meaning. I’m curious about how we see the world. I love the idea of being displaced because I was 12 when I came to this country.”
“What did you smell while you are away” is not an exhibition that rewards casual viewing, but viewers who take the time to study Weslien’s investigations will be rewarded by an expansion of the understanding of what art can be.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.