If you go to the Fabric Workshop and Museum between now and Aug. 4, you can see what may be the world’s largest dish towel.
It is made of linen, with a waffle weave to increase absorbency. It is white, though distressed with tea to make it look old, and there are three narrow red stripes at either end. It measures 15 feet by 30 feet, about the same size as the Star Spangled Banner — the flag that hung over Fort McHenry in Baltimore during a key battle of the War of 1812 and that inspired our national anthem. It is displayed on a sloping platform, just as the Star Spangled Banner is at the Smithsonian.
For artist Sonya Clark, the outsize dishrag shows a way to tackle America’s biggest mess, our legacy of white supremacy and racial discrimination.
This large piece of woven cloth was inspired by, and is a 100-times larger replica of, an earlier dish towel that was pressed into service at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865. It served as a flag of truce to signal the Confederate Army’s willingness to discuss an end to the Civil War. A fragment of this cloth is also on display at the Smithsonian, Clark notes, but it has almost no place in our national memory.
The exhibition “Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know” celebrates this humble flag in several ways. The enormous version is the centerpiece, and next to it is a similar platform containing 100 newly woven replicas of the original.
Elsewhere, there are laser-cut school desks where visitors can make rubbings of the truce flag, and looms where visitors can try their hand at weaving. Clark expects inexperienced weavers will make mistakes and thus produce a fabric that reflects the difficulties and missteps of our history.
Many have speculated on what would have happened if the South had won the Civil War. Clark, with her big celebration of a humble cloth, is making a different speculation: What if the South had accepted its defeat? What if the war had really ended, rather than continuing to be fought, in many different guises, down to the present day?
What if, instead of looking to a warlike icon — the Confederate battle flag — as a permanent and omnipresent symbol of a defeated but defiant South, all the nation celebrated this quiet symbol of acceptance? It would declare that we fought a Civil War in which more than 600,000 died from both sides, but that it ended and that we have moved on as a nation.
Clark fills a wall of the exhibition with a huge though incomplete list of commercially available products — everything from shower curtains and baby diapers to bottle openers and nipple rings — that use the battle flag imagery. The rebel flag imagery itself shows up only once in the exhibition.
At a performance March 30 called “Reversals,” Clark used a battle-flag-decorated dish towel to clean the gallery floor of dust collected from Philadelphia historic buildings, revealing the passage from the Declaration of Independence that states as self-evident that “All men are created equal.”
A video of the performance is on display at the gallery, as are the bucket she used, the dress she wore while cleaning, and the symbol-laden cloth, grimy with American history.
For an exhibition that is so full of ideas, “Monumental Cloth” is strikingly short of words. Clark is more or less willing to lay out her artifacts, old, new, recreated, and store bought, and let visitors come to their own conclusions. She is hoping to make her points in a subtle way that looks to the almost featureless truce flag as a model.
The truce flag is a difficult object to dramatize because it is so plain. By greatly enlarging it, Clark invites us to examine its texture, created to soak up spills, but complex and beautiful in itself. It is also a celebration of domesticity, an assertion that the (usually female) task of housekeeping is often a stronger guarantor of civilization than the more masculine activity of shedding blood in pursuit of a lost cause.
In contrast to the truce flag, the Confederate battle flag is a strong graphic. It is essentially a big, colorful starry “X,” a symbol that draws the eye and focuses it at the center. It is also mostly red, the color of blood and of excitement.
I have written a lot about package design over the years, especially about those — such as the Tide laundry powder box and the Wrigley spearmint pack — whose emotional appeal and visual power made them icons of our culture. Graphically, the Confederate battle flag shares many of their traits. Significantly, both those classic packages have evolved over the years as the marketplace, the nation, and the product inside has evolved. The flag obviously has not.
In conversation, Clark acknowledged that the Confederate battle flag is far more striking than the truce flag, though she rejected that as a reason for its staying power. She noted that the Nazi SS flag is a strong graphic, but that there are good reasons for it to be rejected by mainstream culture, and she feels the same should be true of the Confederate flag.
“Monumental Cloth” raises a potentially incendiary subject, but it is a willfully, perhaps excessively, peaceful show, organized around a proposed icon that is visually dull. It hints that the kind of spectacle and visual drama often found in exhibitions that probe the nation’s character are dangerous.
In a good society, we would not be engaged in regional conflicts and race hostilities that have gone on for centuries. People would not need flags to symbolize their defiance and their hurt. As Americans, we wouldn’t be waving flags at each other at all.
We’d just grab a cloth and clean things up.
Monumental Cloth: The Flag We Should Know
Through Aug. 4 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St.
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Admission: Free ($5 donation requested).