“I am interested in every tangle of thread and rope and every possibility of transformation: I am interested in the path of a single thread. I am not interested in the practical use of my work,” proclaimed sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz in 1971. “I am interested in constructing an environment from my forms. I am interested in the tensions that arise between the various shapes which I place in space. I am interested in the feeling of being confronted by the woven object. I am interested in the motion and waving of the woven surfaces.” She was remarkably successful in pursuing her ideas as the exhibition Magdalena Abakanowicz– a tangle of thread and rope at Tate Modern makes clear.
It displays some of her earliest biomorphic drawings and experiments with textiles. Nature, but also the effects of the War and living under a communist regime, influenced her throughout her career. “I see fibre as the basic element of constructing the organic world on our planet..…It is from fibre that all living organisms are built, the tissue of plants, leaves and ourselves.… our nerves, our genetic code, the canals of our veins, our muscles. We are fibrous structures.”
This is brought to life in the exhibition by a magical, mysterious, textile forest of huge, strange, headless bodies, suspended and swaying gently in a darkened cavernous space. The surfaces of these peaty-coloured, slightly menacing forms that at times resemble hollowed-out tree trunks or floating uncanny capes emptied of human flesh, are carefully constructed. Strange barnacles encrust their surfaces, manes of dark twisted fibre cascade down them, interspersed with maniacal tangles of threads, and the faint smell of sisal hangs in the air. These are Magdalena Abakanowicz’s ‘Abakans’–forms named by a hostile critic,–a name she readily adopted for her challenging sculptures that took tapestry off the wall and into a new world of three-dimensional suspended structures, each intersecting in space with the next.
Magdalena Abakanowicz was no shrinking violet: “I like neither rules nor instructions, these enemies of imagination. I make use of the techniques of weaving by adapting it to my own ideas. My art has been a protest against what I have met in weaving.” And not only in weaving but in the political and social realities that surrounded her. Born in 1930 into a noble landowner family in Falenty; to her father, she was, disappointingly, a girl. He was a scion of a Polonized Tatar family which traced its origins to Abaqa Khan (a 13th-century Mongol chieftain) who had fled Russia to the newly independent Poland after the October Revolution. Her mother was descended from old Polish nobility. They lived in comfort on a wooded estate that would remain a constant influence.
With the advent of the Nazis, she witnessed a German soldier shoot and sever her mother’s arm. In 1944 with the advance of the Soviet army, the family fled to Warsaw with Abakanowicz attending art schools in Gydnia and Sopot. At the age of 20, by pretending to be the daughter of an impoverished clerk, she gained admission to the Academy of Plastic Arts. In the Painting School, where art had to be “national in form” and “socialist in content,” “Social Realism” was rigorously enforced, so Abakanowicz chose instead to experiment with textiles and weaving. In 1960, her first solo exhibition of paintings was held at the Ministry of Art and Culture’s Galeria Kordegarda in Warsaw but was closed by the authorities before it opened.
Abakanowicz developed large experimental works using the looms of established weaver Maria Laskiewicz and shocked traditionalists by working without a cartoon. Her work was shown at the first Lausanne Biennial of Tapestry in 1962 and she subsequently won a Gold medal at the São Paulo Biennial. She developed her own techniques ‘weaving’ sisal, horsehair, hemp, wool and flax, probing the surface with her fingers to introduce new elements. “Between myself and the material with which I create, no tool intervenes,” she said. I select it with my hands. I shape it with my hands. My hands transmit energy to it. In translating ideas into form, they always pass on to it something that eludes conceptualization. They reveal the unconscious.”
Her huge forms are hauled up on pulleys and suspended from the ceiling, as shown in the accompanying film Abakany made with director Jaraslow Brzozwski. The Abakans, empty of humanity, emphasise the importance of the spaces between. They are displayed to show the importance of shadow and each looks as if in a giant game of Grandmother’s footsteps, they might evolve into something new, by the time the viewer has turned round.
“The Abakans were a kind of bridge between me and the outside
Wanders world,” she said. “I could surround myself with them; I could create an atmosphere in which I somehow felt safe because they were my world.” She created a discipline, which she called ‘spaces to experience,’ that prefigured installation or immersive art.
Increasingly Abakanowicz used rope, often found on the banks of the River Vistula. “Rope to me is like a petrified organism, like a muscle devoid of activity,” she said. “Moving it, changing its position and touching it, I can learn its secrets and the multitudes of its meaning…It carries its own stories within itself, it con- tributes this to its surroundings.” She used it to great effect for example in Edinburgh in 1972, threading a snaking red sisal rope out of a gallery window to connect it to the cathedral across the street, a practice she continued at the Whitechapel in London and at the Arnolfini in Bristol.
Her honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art stated that “She traversed all categories in art,” and in the 1980s frustrated at being pigeonholed as a ‘fibre artist’, she experimented with other materials as well as burlap and sisal. In 1978 she began a new series of ambiguous forms, Embryology, made from bound textiles in the form of huge pebbles, or eggs, arranged in clusters.
“The contents, the interior of soft matter fascinated me,” she said. “By ‘soft’ I meant organic, alive. They were completing my physical need to create bellies, organs, and invented anatomy. Finally a soft landscape of countless pieces related to each other.” She installed 800 in the Polish Pavilion at the 1980 Venice Biennale: “When examining man, I am in fact examining myself. My forms are the skins I strip off myself, one by one, marking the milestones along my road.”
Her work is sometimes seen as feminist, but always as political. “With exhibitions around the world, I wanted to make people aware that my country has high culture contributing to world heritage, and at the same time can speak about the current reality with a personal voice of modern art,” she said. “I travelled probably more than any other artist. So important was the dialogue with the whole world.”
With a career spanning over 50 years, Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930–2017) changed what it meant to be a sculptor, gave textile validity as a medium of artistic expression, and led the way for other artists working with fibre. This is well documented in this impressive show. However, it would have been interesting to see more on her techniques, given their impact on the development of new forms of sculpture.
Text by Corinne Julius.